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Kelly McNamara Corley 2018 Winter Graduation speech

December 20, 2018

Kelly McNamara Corley speaks at the morning ceremony for George Mason University's 2018 Winter Graduation. Photo by Lathan Goumas/Strategic Communications

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, President Cabrera, Provost Wu, Rector Davis, Members of the Board of Visitors, Faculty and Staff.

With so many well-educated and inspiring leaders up here, you might wonder why they chose me to deliver this commencement address. I wondered the same thing! But I think the fact that GMU would pick one of its own past graduates to speak on a day that celebrates its new graduates says a lot about the university and about the special community that we are all a part of. More on that in a moment.

Speaking of the new graduates…Congratulations! Today is your day! And right beside you, just as they have been from the start, are your parents and loved ones. It’s their day, too.  Congratulations to all of you!

Before I go on, I want to share a word of caution with parents of the Law School graduates. I am an attorney, and I want to warn you that today, when you tell your Law School graduate that you love him or her, don’t be surprised if they ask for evidence to support your claim.  That was part of their education and training. And besides, you’ve already provided them with plenty of evidence. If they need any further proof, I suggest a hug!

When President Cabrera asked me to deliver this address, I jumped at the opportunity and didn’t hesitate to say yes. Then the panic set in. So, I dealt with my fear like any grown adult would: I procrastinated. 

For the next few weeks, I sat and waited patiently for inspiration to just fall into my lap, as if the answers I was looking for existed somewhere in the universe and I just needed to be in the right place at the right time to hear them. I Googled best commencement addresses – that made it worse – I read, I watched and somehow, nothing seemed quite right. What in the world could I say that could inspire these accomplished soon-to-be George Mason graduates?

Then, one night a few months ago, I pulled out a book that I was assigned to read for my book club. The book was “Roosevelt’s Centurions: FDR and the Commanders He Led to Victory in World War II.”

Although I’ve always been fascinated and inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt, I didn’t expect to find my inspiration for this very commencement address – or for my own personal life for that matter – hidden deep in the pages of my monthly book club assignment.

The title of the book suggests that it’s about winning a war. But it is also about peace, and it includes FDR’s last speech, written on April 11, 1945 – a speech he would never deliver – as he died the following day.

In this speech, he wrote, “Today science has brought all different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them from one another.” For all of you science majors out there, I’m sure you noticed that FDR credited science, specifically, with the emergence of the global civilization that has become the reality of the 21st century. Had he lived another day, however, he would have also told America, “Today, we are faced with the preeminent fact that if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships – the ability of all peoples of all kinds to live together and work together in the same world at peace.” 

If you turn on the TV or read the paper today, it often seems we are struggling with this concept.

I think this idea – the science of human relationships – is of particular importance to college graduates today. While FDR credits science for the world’s increasing globalization, he notes that scientific advancements alone will not lead to the survival of humanity. If we are to truly advance as a society, we must cultivate the science of human relationships. We must foster understanding, collaboration, problem solving and working together respectfully in order to reach our full potential.

When I look back on my time at Mason, I may not remember the details of each class lecture, or the specifics of every case that I studied. But I do remember the environment that was created here and how it cultivated relationships. 

That environment was life-changing for me. You see, I was the first in my family to receive a college degree, I didn’t finish law school at the top of my class, and I wasn’t on law review.  You could say I was a pretty average student, but I worked hard. I went to school at night and worked full time to help pay for my law degree. Law school was admittedly very difficult, but I had a lot of family, friends, colleagues and professors who were cheering for me and those relationships supported me through it all.

And so, it was here at George Mason that I found my voice. I learned how to analyze facts and develop my views, to disagree civilly with those whose opinions differed from my own, and I learned the importance of an environment that fosters intellectual diversity and free expression.

I suspect that many of you could tell a similar story. Whether you studied the humanities, science, social sciences, policy and government, conflict analysis and resolution, or law, I’m sure you had challenges along the way. But you worked hard…you had the support of family, friends, colleagues and professors…and through your hard work and with their support, you made it!

As the years go by, some of the things you learned in books or heard in lectures might get a little fuzzy. (Some of the things you did last night while celebrating might already be a little fuzzy!) But I can tell you from experience that what WILL stick with you is the ability to live and work together with people whose opinions, experiences and beliefs differ from your own.  

That’s what great universities like George Mason do: they cultivate strong relationships. And so you will remember the people you met along the way and the lessons you learned about empathy, curiosity, initiative, giving back and more. These will be the foundations of your future relationships. These will be the foundations of your future success.

As I reflect on the real value of my degree from George Mason and the relationship I’ve had with my university for the past 30 years, it’s that I was afforded the gift of understanding the science of human relationships. The success of our civilization relies on the cultivation of this understanding. I experienced this myself through the relationships I built with my classmates – my best friend in law school, Rick, who battled AIDS while earning his degree; single mother of two, Lori, who seamlessly managed raising two girls while keeping up with her classwork; Jeff, who was chief of staff for a conservative member of Congress, or Sam, who sat in the front row of class and excelled in law school despite the fact that she had an extra challenge to contend with as she was blind. 

While we came from different backgrounds and experiences, we were comfortable challenging one another, but also supported one another, as we pursued our common goal. I don’t think I really appreciated at the time what my bond with my classmates would mean over the course of my life.

As a graduate of George Mason, you are well equipped to help promote this understanding…to practice kindness…to cultivate curiosity…to stand firm in your beliefs while also respecting the beliefs of others…to understand not just what you’re against, but more important, what you stand for.

This university is a very special and unique place given its diversity and entrepreneurial spirit.  Over the years, you will come to know the full value of your time here just as I have.

So, with all of that, you are now graduating from George Mason and transitioning on to the next phase of your life. I encourage you to continue to learn, grow, develop and stay connected to the university as a means to that end. Never forget the relationships you developed here and the special environment that cultivated those strong relationships and fostered your ability to live and work peacefully with others.  


Topics: Graduation