May 25, 2009

At Convocation, Plouffe Urges Graduates to Strike Balance Between Work and Family

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After four memory-filled years, members of the class of 2009 — as well as their friends and family — gathered on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Schoellkopf Field to mark the conclusion of their days high above Cayuga’s waters.

“Our final days at Cornell are much like the first ones: confusing, overwhelming, and filled with uncertainty of what’s to come,” said C.J. Slicklen ’09, convocation chair and opening speaker. “We take comfort knowing that just as in orientation, we as a class are having the same feelings.”

“For a large part of our class, the next chapter may not be what we had envisioned,” Slicklen said. “But in the end, we’ll be remembered as the class that demonstrated strong perseverance through very difficult economic times. We’d be the group that had to work harder to get what we wanted.”

Senior Class President Caroline Newton ’09 spoke about the incredible diversity at Cornell as well as its ability to bring people together.

“No matter what, we are all members of the class of 2009,” she said.

Michael McDermott ’09 and Rebecca Robbins ’09, Class of 2009 alumni co-presidents, announced the $36,655 Stephen H. Weiss Memorial Scholarship raised by the Senior Class Campaign. The class of 2009 had a record-setting 54.52-percent participation rate in the senior campaign, with the Hotel School leading at 65 percent. McDermott and Robbins presented a check for $85,000 to President David Skorton as a gift from the senior class.

This year’s convocation speaker was David Plouffe, President Barack Obama’s campaign manager who, according to Obama, organized the “best political campaign in the history of the United States of America.”

“The class of 2009 sought a convocation speaker who had made a profound impact on our society, and in that category David Plouffe has few rivals,” Skorton said.

“You will be called [upon],” Plouffe said. “I saw this power in the last election, when you and your generation elected our president.”

As a “state college dropout,” Plouffe said he is not a “likely speaker” for the convocation of an Ivy League school. After attending the University of Delaware for three years, Plouffe left without finishing his political science degree to work on the 1990 re-election campaign of Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

“You are graduating from an Ivy League institution in the United States of America; it is truly like hitting the power ball,” he said. “I urge you to remember how fortunate you are, and in big ways and small give some of your talent and bounty to the rest of humanity.”

Plouffe said young people no longer have to wait 20 to 30 years to make a difference, but they can “lead right now.” The barriers of entrepreneurship and leadership are no longer age, race, or education-based; a hunger, commitment, and inspiration can be rewarded right away, he said.

“The last century was regarded as an American century by many,” Plouffe said. “There’s no guarantee that the 21st century will be too, but I’m confident that it can be.”

Although he has an extraordinarily successful career, he said the “real score card is not the number of electoral votes I scored, but my relationships with my friends and family.”

Plouffe stressed the importance of striking the right balance between work and time with family and friends. When Plouffe managed the Harkin presidential campaign at the age of 24, he went a month without speaking to his parents. Over the last two years, he often only had two or three hours of free time per week, he said.

“Even Bernie Madoff would say that math isn’t right,” Plouffe said. “But I knew exactly who I wanted to spend [that time] with. I just had to figure out when and how.”

“I was a phantom, doing important and increasingly remote things that were interesting to read about, but [simultaneously] began to make me somewhat of a caricature. Over the last two years, as I lived out the dream of every professional in my field, I could only do so by becoming somewhat of a ghost of a father and a husband,” Plouffe said.

Plouffe was presented the 2009 Cornell Medallion, a medal of honor for meaningful service to society.

“I enjoyed Plouffe’s speech,” Genevieve Petit Saint ’09 said. “What he said about family and friends really resonated with me.”

As the entire audience joined the Cornell Chorus and Glee Club in singing the Cornell Alma Mater one last time as students, the 2009 Senior Convocation came to an end.

“Four years pass by very quickly,” Saint said. “I feel that Cornell prepared me well for the future. The things I learned that I can’t see the practical use now will definitely become useful in the future.”

“I really enjoyed my time at Cornell,” Saurabh Mahajan ’09 said. “I now have a huge network of friends from different areas of the world and different industries.”