To commemorate Fayetteville State University’s undergraduate Class of 2023, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin traveled from Washington to Fayetteville to deliver a commencement speech on Saturday urging graduates to serve others beyond their college years.
With a 41-year career in the Army, including a stint at Fort Bragg, Austin, a retired general, served his country through the military. Austin called on the Class of 2023 to serve as well in whatever capacity they choose.
“Chances are, at some point in your life, you might question whether or not you're on the right path. But in those moments, I’d ask that you think about serving others,” Austin said. “Because service nourishes the soul. Because to serve is to live.”
Austin voiced his message to 1,061 undergraduates who received their degrees Saturday. FSU Chancellor Darrell Allison said after Austin’s speech that the graduates should be proud that Austin came to Fayetteville to honor them.
“Secretary Austin chose to be here,” Allison said.
Austin said the meaning and importance of service first became clear to him when as a teenager, he and his sister were among the first Black students to integrate a previously all-white local public high school in Georgia.
“I am still grateful to the people of good will, including the teachers and the school leaders and the public officials who made sure that my sister and I got a good public education. I still remember their quiet resolve in their civic spirit,” Austin said. “They taught me that service means standing firm on the American principle that all people are created equal. Service means demanding equality of opportunity for all of our children. Service means setting an example.”
Austin said this equality must be continually strived for in a democracy.
“I know that many of you see the distance between where America is and where America should be and what America can be. America's real promise is our democracy, and our democracy needs you,” Austin said.
“You have obligations to meet. You’ve got mountains to climb,” he continued.
Austin noted the importance of graduating from a historically Black university such as Fayetteville State, an honor that he said calls for giving back to the university.
“We need for you to give something back in whatever we choose. We need for you to become doctors and nurses. We need you to become lawyers who will always fight for change.
“We need you to become entrepreneurs who will make our economy work for all Americans. We need you to become teachers who pass on the mighty gift of education. And yes, we need some of you to stand up and salute and to defend the United States by joining the greatest fighting force in the history of the world,” Austin said.
Service for Austin meant enlisting in the Army and now serving as head of the Department of Defense. But for others, service can come in many forms, he said.
“You’ll do it your way, and you will contribute to something bigger than yourself,” Austin said.
Ben Sessoms covers Fayetteville and education for CityView. He can be reached at email@example.com.