Durbin Delivers Commencement Address At Augustana College

[MOLINE, IL] – U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) delivered the commencement address to Augustana College’s Class of 2022 during a ceremony Sunday at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline. Durbin reflected on the resilience and hard work of this year’s graduates and commended Augustana’s commitment to preparing the next generation of peacemakers and problem solvers.

“You don’t need a lesson in resilience.  You are a lesson in resilience—every one of you.   You are part of the best-educated and most diverse generation ever.  You are idealistic, creative, and determined.  You don’t give up,” Durbin said.  “With the knowledge, the skills, and the sense of purpose and community you take with you from your time at Augustana, you can be the problem solvers and peacemakers our world needs.  You can help us grow toward what we can and must be.”

Durbin’s full remarks as prepared for delivery appear below:

Thank you, Professor Dehnel for those kind words. And thank you, President Bahls, for your many years of inspired leadership.  You and Jane have put your heart and soul into Augustana, and it shows.  We are all grateful. And Laura Keenan, Lincoln Scholar—that was amazing.

It is a privilege to share this day with you all.  I want to acknowledge the Augustana College faculty and staff; and the friends and family members of this year’s graduates—especially you, Moms and Dads. Most of all, I want to congratulate the incredible, accomplished Augustana College Class of 2022!  Let’s hear it for the graduates!

Martin Luther tell us:  “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.” 

Muriel Humphrey told her husband: “A speech doesn’t have to be eternal to be immortal.”  He ignored her.

But far be it from me to quibble with two such brilliant leaders.

So, Vikings, you’ll be relieved to know that I have just a few thoughts to share with you on this special day—and then it’s time for you all to walk the stage and enjoy the parties you’ve worked so long and hard for.

It’s customary for commencement speakers to tell graduates:  Don’t get discouraged when life throws you a curveball.  Adapt! Persevere!

I think we can dispense with that bit of advice.

Class of 2022, you were babies on 9/11… you lived through this century’s Great Recession as grade schoolers… and you earned your degrees in the middle of a global pandemic. 

You don’t need a lesson in resilience.  You are a lesson in resilience—every one of you.   You are part of the best-educated and most diverse generation ever.  You are idealistic, creative, and determined.  You don’t give up.  And thank goodness for that, because you’re going to need every bit of that grit you’ve acquired when you leave here.  Because, to be honest with you—the world’s in a bit of a state these days.

The planet is overheated.  The economy isn’t working very well for a lot of people.  And democracy is under fire. On the bright side, that means there’s important work awaiting you.  A chance for change.

As seniors, each of you received an “Augie Choice” grant that allowed you to explore your career options by volunteering, or accepting an unpaid internship. Now you face another Augie Choice:  How will you make your own, best mark on the world?  How will use your education and Augustana values to shape a future that is better—more peaceful … more sustainable … and more just? 

It helps, I believe, to remember the three S’s.

The first S is serendipity.  Set goals, of course.  But keep your eyes and your hearts open to new possibilities and unexpected opportunities.  What may at first appear to be a detour can sometimes be the new direction that changes your life.

Twenty-two years ago, a young man from Normal, Illinois, sat where you are now—with his new Augustana business degree. He immediately went to graduate school to earn an MBA—and hated it. So he went back to school and earned a teaching degree instead.  He taught elementary school in the Florida Keys … and then moved to The Gambia, in West Africa, where he taught children and adults.

In that job, he became friends with a fruit-and-vegetable seller, whom he mentored in math and book-keeping. Then he came home … earned a master’s in public administration, and took a job with the Treasury Department in Washington.

One day, his old fruit-peddler friend called him to check on him.  The fruit peddler mentioned that his old elementary school friend was now the number-two diplomat at the Gambian embassy in Washington. So this former teacher and Augustana graduate called on the embassy official to say hello. 

The diplomat happened to mention an organization—founded by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright—that was working to support human rights and democracy in The Gambia and other developing nations.

The Augustana graduate was intrigued.  So he called the group and asked if they were hiring.  They said yes—and sent him back to The Gambia! He spent the next several years working to help build and strengthen democracies in Africa and around the world.

The reason I know all of this is because, for the last 15 years, that former teacher and disciple of democracy—Chris Homan, Augustana Class of 1990—has been my top foreign policy advisor in the U.S. Senate. He has traveled with me to more than 25 nations around the globe, including conflict zones and some of the poorest nations on Earth. His relentless work has helped to free political prisoners in Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and other autocratic nations. He helped me pass a bill in the Senate that has brought clean water to more than 60 million people and basic sanitation to more than 40 million people in desperately poor nations—saving countless lives.

By the way, the man who first made me aware of the global water crisis grew up as the son of Lutheran missionary in China.  He was my best friend in politics and one of the greatest Senators our state has ever produced, Senator Paul Simon.

So, that’s the first S.  Believe in serendipity and be brave enough to take chances. 

Be of service.  That’s the second S.

Nelly Cheboi grew up in a poor rural village in Kenya.  A full scholarship to study computer science at Augustana changed her life.  Now she wants to make life better for others. After she graduated in 2016, Nelly did what many brilliant twenty-something software engineers do—she co-founded a tech start-up.  Only her goal wasn’t to develop a new app and make a fortune.

Nelly co-founded a non-profit organization—based in Chicago—called TechLit Africa.  It redistributes recycled laptops and other technology to create computer labs in rural schools in her native Kenya.  The goal is to teach children the skills necessary to lift their families, and their communities, out of poverty. 

TechLit Africa is already helping 4,000 students in 10 schools—with plans to reach 40,000 students in 100 schools. Last month, Forbes magazine featured Nelly Cheboi in its annual “30 under 30” list of social-impact makers.

Lane Evans was another of my closest friends in politics.  We were elected to the House of Representatives together. Lane grew up two blocks from the Augustana campus on what was then 37th Street,  His block is now renamed Lane Evans Drive.

Lane’s whole life was about service.  When he was 17, he joined the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.  Afterwards, he used his G.I. Bill benefits to earn his degree from Augustana. He was a proud Democrat who had a genius for finding common ground with people who held different views—a skill we desperately need more of these days.

He was the driving force behind a federal law that recognized the existence of “Agent Orange Syndrome,” a devastating disorder that many Vietnam veterans developed after being exposed during their service to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange. For years, the government had denied there was any such connection.  Lane’s persistence helped spur research into causes and cures—and helped veterans suffering from Agent Orange exposure to receive medical care and compensation from the VA.

In 2007, after more than two decades in Congress, Lane retired because of Parkinson’s disease. He said at the time that his “window of opportunity [was] closing” because of his own illness.

Your window of opportunity is just opening.  May you all find your own way to serve.  To make a living, and make a difference.

The third S is sacrifice.

I was so impressed when I learned that Augustana re-opened for in-person learning in the fall of your junior year.  While most other colleges continued teaching remotely for another year, you managed to come back to campus, and do it safely.

I asked someone in the Administration:  How did you do that? He said: “We used good, old-fashioned Lutheran guilt.  We told students, ‘If we have to stay closed, 20 percent of the staff aren’t going to be paid.”

So you came back.  You lived and studied in pods of six students or even smaller.  And 98 percent of you received vaccinations. Some may call it guilt.  But I think you had an additional motive, too.  You understand that we are all connected.  Our actions affect others.  Sometimes, we are called on to sacrifice a bit of our comfort for the good of others.

Augustana was born in sacrifice.

When Augustana College and Theological Seminary first opened its doors in September 1860, it counted 21 young men in its first class.  The register describes them as “10 Swedes, 10 Norwegians and one American.”

Seven months later, the Civil War ripped the nation apart. By the end of their freshman year, half of that first class had left Augustana to serve in the Union Army. 

Among them was the 24-year-old son of Augustana’s founder and first president, Reverend Lars Paul Esbjörn. In September 1861, at the Battle of Lexington in Missouri, that son, Paul Esbjorn gave his life to save the Union and end slavery.

Four-hundred and thirty-four Augustana students and recent graduates served in uniform during World War I. Among them were the entire Augustana band, who enlisted as a unit to join the Illinois National Guard, and were sent to France. Nine of those 434 brave Vikings never came home.

A generation later, 1,200 Augustana students and graduates fought to save the world from fascism in World War II. Thirty-five of them died in the war. And the sacrifices were not limited to those who served in uniform.

Augustana opened its campus to host a new aviation program to train Army Air Corps pilots for war duty. Enrollment in the college dropped by half. New courses were added to train the remaining students – mostly women—in Red Cross First Aid … wartime economics … and other subjects to support the war effort at home.

Recalling those years 50 years later, one member of the Class of 1944 wrote: “I still cannot see a train pull away from the station nor hear its whistle keen without remembering farewells.”

Another member of that same class remembered filing out of the chapel in Old Main with her classmates … trudging over to the Rock Island arsenal, singing hymns as they walked … and seeing off another group of students headed off to war. We went to wish them Godspeed,” she wrote.  “Would some return to eventually join us as alumni?  Some did—but on that day, we could only hope.”

Today, the peace and the values for which those young men and millions of other Americans fought in two World Wars is under attack. 

We see that most clearly in Russia’s horrific and unprovoked war on Ukraine. Russia’s unconscionable aggression against its small, democratic neighbor has united the global Family of Democracies. Even Sweden—non-aligned for 200 years—is now seeking to join NATO.  So is Finland.

Ukraine is the front line today in the battle between democracy and autocracy, between human freedom and tyranny. America will stand with the people of Ukraine and their remarkable President Zelenskyy until this war is won.  Because their cause is our cause. And we must defend our freedom here at home. 

This is my last point.  As Ronald Reagan told us:  “Freedom is never more than one generation from extinction.”

Democracy is precious.  It is also fragile.  It must be defended in every generation—not only in Mariupol, but closer to home, too.  In Moline.  And Springfield.  And Washington, D.C.  And every small town and big city in our nation.

Throughout our history, in times of rapid change and uncertainly about the future, we have seen false prophets emerge and try to divide us rather than unite us. They ask us to trade democracy for autocracy and promise easy solutions to complicated problems. 

Martin Luther told us that “[A] religion that gives nothing … costs nothing … and suffers nothing…is worth nothing.” 

The same is true of government.

Democracy requires your active involvement.  It requires service—and yes, sometimes sacrifice.  It requires that we listen to each other.  Democracy asks us to seek common ground, rather than hurl insults at each other from what we perceive as the high moral ground.

Democracy is work.  But it is worth it.  And it is in your hands,

“We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished.”

That is what Martin Luther said of the church he founded, and it is true of our democracy and our world, as well.

Fortunately, Vikings, Class of 2022, the world has you.  With the knowledge, the skills and the sense of purpose and community you take with you from your time at Augustana, you can be the problem-solvers and peacemakers our world needs.  You can help us grow toward what we can and must be. 

We’re counting on you.

Congratulations again, graduates! You’ve made it.  And we are all proud of you.