Good evening, Wildcats.
President [Ann Weaver] Hart, esteemed deans, faculty and staff, friends and family, and most of all, graduates of the Class of 2016.
It is an honor to be with you as you mark such a special milestone in your lives.
I know that you worked hard to get to this day wrestling with exams, papers, endless reading and countless labs. But you have finally made thanks to people who supported you, a lot of coffee and likely more than a few Highland burritos.
Now that you’ve been told that I’m the surgeon general, you know something that most people don’t—which is that, despite this uniform that I am wearing, I am not, in fact, an airline pilot.
Don’t laugh, this happens often.
This is, in fact, the uniform of the U.S. Public Health Service commissioned Corps, one of America’s seven uniformed services and the one dedicated to protecting the public health of our nation.
For many of you graduating today, I realize this is your first time meeting me, but I actually feel that I already know you since I’ve been there at formative moments in your life.
Like the time you were standing under the bleachers in high school and someone offered you a cigarette.
You politely declined because you knew that smoking causes cancer, and I was right there on the side of the cigarette box backing you up.
Or remember that time a few years ago when you followed your friends into a bar—accidentally, of course?
You were offered shots but said, “No thanks. I’m not yet 21” [LAUGHTER] “and I know consumption of alcoholic beverages may cause health problems.” [LAUGHTER] Well, I was there, too, on the side of the bottle—feeling so darn proud of you. [LAUGHTER]
So, it seems fitting that since I was there for those moments, I should be here for this one.
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On a personal note, I will say that serving as surgeon general has been an incredible privilege each and every day.
It has given me the opportunity to speak with and learn from people around all across the country about their hopes and their concerns when it comes to health.
It has provided me the opportunity to help address some of the greatest health challenges our nation faces—from chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and addiction to infections like Ebola and the Zika virus.
But this was not an opportunity I ever expected to have.
My parents came to America nearly 40 years ago from humble beginnings in search of a better life for their children.
They raised my sister and me to believe that America was a place where your ideas and willingness to work hard mattered more than the color of your skin or the sound of your accent.
And despite all our imperfections as a nation, I stand before you fully aware that in no other country in the world could the grandson of a poor farmer from India be asked by the President to look out for the health of the entire nation.
That is the power and promise of America.
And I am deeply grateful for it and I am especially thankful to my parents and sister who are, in fact, here today.
Today, you are graduating from an incredible university that has a long legacy of training exemplary graduates and leaders.
And you are part of an incredible class.
Your class includes a young woman who moved from halfway around the world at the age of 17 and became the first in her family to attend college. Your class includes a student who is getting his bachelors degree at the age of 18. Your class includes a young man who turned a health scare during freshman year into a passion for using medical optics to improve the lives of others. And your class includes many other students who have pushed the boundaries of science and the arts in service of society.
Yours is a class that has also mobilized efforts on campus to ensure that diversity and inclusion are not just slogans but values that are reflected in every aspect of university life. And I thank you for that.
As I learned about the extraordinary individuals who are graduating today, I couldn’t help but think how lucky we are as a nation to have such talent and integrity in our next generation of leaders.
You have a lot to be proud of.
Now, as I was thinking about you on the way to Arizona, my mind was filled with things that I wish for you in the years ahead: Good health, a fulfilling career, a happy family and so much more.
But there is one thing I hope for you more than anything else: My hope is that you live a connected life.
Now you might think to yourself: Hold on a minute, it’s 2016 and I feel the world is pretty connected. I’ve got thousands of followers on Instagram and Snapchat, I’m available by text 24/7 and the GPS locator on my cell phone is turned on—how much more connected could I get?
But I’m talking about a different type of connection—the kind that makes you rich in life currency, not in monetary terms.
I’m talking about the connection you have with friends you trust deeply and with whom you can be 100% yourself.
I’m talking about the connection you build with people who are entirely different from you because you are able to look past labels and see them for who they really are.
I’m talking about the kind of connection that inspires you to feel kinship to people around the country and around the world because you recognize that, deep down inside, we all have the same fundamental hopes and dreams and we are better off when we are helping each other.
To live a connected life is to cultivate this kind of connection. It is to recognize that such connections don’t just enrich our lives but they serve as a building block for strong communities and a resilient nation.
The great challenge that faces America is that the bonds that hold together our diverse nation are being tested.
As we grow in diversity in race, religion and viewpoints, the breadth and depth of our connections must also expand and become more inclusive—but that is not always happening.
In fact, the very media and technology that were meant to connect us too often feed into our divisions and keep us in silos that are increasingly narrow.
And people are feeling isolated.
Too many of us live in big cities, but find few people who really know us.
We have stronger internet connections but weaker personal connections.
We have more followers on social media, but they just don’t seem to fill the void.
Now, I learned early on in medicine that isolation was the most common challenge my patients faced.
It has real consequences.
Isolation and weakening social connections are associated with increased risk of heart disease, declining brain function and shorter life spans.
They can also lead to anxiety and fear.
Isolation and silos also weaken our communities. Without strong communities, we cannot pull together during times of hardship. Our diversity turns from a source of strength to a source of conflict.
But when we have strong connections to each other, everything is possible.
We can come together to put a man on the moon, rebuild a city after an earthquake and find solutions to intractable conflicts.
We can ensure that every child in America has a world class education, we can lift millions of people from the indignity of poverty and we can ensure that our nation moves ever closer to our ideals of equality and opportunity for all.
That is why rebuilding strong communities and a resilient America is an essential and urgent task of our generation. But it begins with each of us living a connected life.
And there are three ingredients we must cultivate to live a connected life.
The first is empathy.
Empathy is choosing to see ourselves in another despite our differences.
It’s recognizing that the same humanity—the same desire for meaning, fulfillment and security—exists in each of us, even if it’s expressed uniquely.
Empathy is what creates our desire to build connection and to solve or even prevent conflicts from family disagreements to global crises.
When I entered the world of medicine, I was taught in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that people living with addiction had a character flaw.
But then I began to listen more closely to the stories of my patients.
One young woman I cared for told me that her road to addiction began with a simple prescription for morphine given to her after a routine surgery. Her story could have been anyone’s story. I realized it could have been mine.
A few months ago, I met a young man I’ll call Jason whose mother was a public school educator. His mother told me that her son was kind and responsible and hardworking—the kind of child any parent would want. She did everything to bring him up right and made sure that he had good role models.
One day, when she went to visit Jason in college, she saw a disheveled man going through the dumpster outside her son’s apartment.
She took him to be a homeless person. As she got closer, she was shocked to realize that it was her son. Jason had developed a substance use disorder that began with pain pills and later led to heroin and cocaine.
His mother chose in that moment not to give up on him, so he decided not to give up on himself either. Together, they found the help of professionals who chose to devote their careers to helping strangers who are living with addiction.
Today, Jason is in recovery, he has secured a job, he has rebuilt his relationships—thanks to his mother’s love, his own fierce determination and the empathy of those who chose to help him on his journey.
Empathy has the power to bring together people who would otherwise never meet. It has the power to teach us and to reach us in moments of isolation when we think nobody understands.
Today, the world needs us to widen our circle of empathy to include more people.
The second ingredient that helps us live a connected life is optimism. Optimism is our ability to see the good in others—and in ourselves—especially during dark times.
When I was younger, my family suddenly and unexpectedly lost all of our life savings to a man we had trusted as a friend. The financial loss was difficult, especially because my sister and I were both in college. But the breach of trust was even more painful.
I learned a lot from watching how my parents handled that extended time of hardship. One option we had was to retreat in anger—to recognize that it was unlikely we would rebuild our savings and swear we would never trust people again.
But my parents chose a different path. They chose to believe that most people are still fundamentally good and that their light outshines their darkness.
Trusting others in the face of betrayal was not easy, but it was necessary and it was ultimately healing. We were blessed to find friends and strangers who stepped forward to help us in unexpected ways. We built new friendships and it felt good to trust people again.
But my parents also chose to believe that our capacity to respond to adversity was greater than we could even imagine, especially when we stuck together.
So over the next few years, we would have regular family meetings around the dining table where we talked about how we would handle everything from tuition payments to weekly grocery expenses.
We worked hard to get back on our feet. And there were plenty of difficult moments when we didn’t know how we would make things work.
But my parents taught me that optimism is the hand that keeps the door of possibility open, and that is what saw us through.
Now, I know being optimistic isn’t always easy. There is real hardship in the world. And we live in a time where being cynical is alluring at times, even cool. Being cynical also seems safe. It doesn’t risk disappointment when your expectations are not met.
But I would caution you that cynicism in the long term erodes our capacity for happiness. It dims our eyes to the beauty and blessings of the world around us. It makes us fearful to take risks.
Optimists, on the other hand, don’t let long odds discourage them. Some would say they Bear Down.
They take a chance on love. They dare to imagine a better world and they build the technology, institutions and social movements to make it so.
Optimists keep faith that they will find good people in the world even when they are disappointed from time to time. They build bridges with people different from themselves because they understand that our shared humanity outweighs any differences we may have.
Optimism is what allows us to choose the path of connection over isolation.
The third ingredient you will need to live a connected life is courage. Empathy feeds our desire for connection. Optimism helps us believe that connection is possible. But courage is what enables us to act and make our connections to people real.
When the Twin Towers fell on 9/11—on that fateful morning 15 years ago—thousands of Manhattan residents fled south looking for an escape from the growing inferno behind them.
But instead of relief, they were greeted by the unforgiving waters of the Hudson which offered no path to safety. The panicked crowd continued to grow until the U.S. Coast Guard made a key decision: They issued a radio call to every civilian ship in the area asking them to join in an unprecedented citizen rescue mission.
The response was overwhelming. Within minutes, the Hudson was covered with scores of boats streaking toward the southern tip of Manhattan. They pierced through the dense cloud of dust and debris and brought soot-covered people on board, offered them water and ferried them to safety.
In nine hours, nearly 500,000 people were rescued. The 9/11 Boat Lift became the largest boat rescue in the history of the world.
Now, the 9/11 Boat Lift was powered by ordinary people. They were never trained in emergency response. They would never have described themselves as heroes. And they had every reason to flee for safety themselves.
But their courage is what allowed them to act.
Vincent Ardolino, the captain of the Amberjack, said his wife thought that he was a maniac for wanting to take his boat toward Manhattan that morning after the call. But he knew that he had to go.
“Never go through life saying you should have,” he said later reflecting on that decision. “If you want to do something, you do it.”
Empathy, optimism and courage.
These are the qualities I wish for you that are the foundation for a connected life.
As you set off to begin the rest of your lives, as you think about the people in your circle of love—the family that is with you, the friends and teachers who supported you, the children you may one day have—ask yourself, “What can I do to create the world they deserve, a world that is prosperous, safe and full of possibility?”
We can start by strengthening our connections to each other by rebuilding our sense of community.
We can begin by living a connected life.
These next few years, they’re going to will be a whirlwind for you.
My elementary school physical education teacher, Mr. Peterson, told me on my last day of sixth grade that each day to come would go by faster and faster. And he was right. The world is moving at a dizzying pace. And it only seems to be getting faster.
That is why I also wish for you moments of pause where you can stop, rest and reflect.
This might be a few minutes to write in your journal, to meditate or to simply breathe and observe.
The world won’t automatically give us those moments to pause – we have to create them. But it is those moments of calm when we gather ourselves and set forth with a clear mind and renewed heart.
And if we ever forget the power of pausing, we need only take our hand and put our hand on our chest and remember the lesson of our heart.
The heart operates in two phases: Systole, where it pumps blood to the vital organs, and diastole, where it relaxes. Most people think that systole is where all the action is and the more time in systole the better. But diastole—the relaxation phase—is where the coronary blood vessels fill and supply life sustaining oxygen to the heart muscle itself.
Pausing, it turns out, is what sustains the heart.
I’d like you to take 10 seconds with me and close your eyes. Think about the people whose kindness and love helped make today a reality. I’ll keep track of the time.
Class of 2016, the people you thought of are your anchors. They stand with you and the world stands before you brimming with possibility. I hope you always run toward that which you love. I wish you many moments of diastole. May you have lives full of joy, full of connection and full of happiness.
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