President Lott; members of the faculty, staff, and administration; distinguished guests; family, friends, and, most important, the graduating class of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College :
This afternoon, we celebrate commencement in a stadium that is still under repair … near streets lined with temporary housing … in a region where so many lives have been shattered – and there has never been a more hopeful day to graduate in Mississippi.
I am proud to stand before some of the most determined students at any college or university in America.
Over this past nine months, you have shown a resilience more powerful than any storm. You continued your studies in classrooms with crumbling walls. You lost homes, and slept in tents near campus to finish courses. You cleared debris during the day, and then went to class at night – working past exhaustion to catch up.
By your determination to reach this day, you have sent a message to the world: Mississippi is coming back – and it will be better than ever before. I come with a message of my own: This Nation honors your dedication … we are inspired by your optimism … and we will help the great state of Mississippi rebuild.
I am honored to be the first sitting President to address a community college commencement. I wanted some tips from the best speaker I know … so I went to the First Lady. I asked her what I should talk about – she said, "you should talk about 15 minutes." I have learned that Laura's advice is worth taking … and she sends her best to all of you.
Today I want to share a few thoughts on the history you have seen this year – and the history you will make once you leave this fine college.
For some of you, graduation day has been a long time in the making. Many of you have large responsibilities beyond school, such as jobs and families to care for – and none of those roles are part-time.
Others here are taking a first step toward further education at one of Mississippi's fine public universities. And on this special afternoon, some of you are fulfilling the dreams of generations by becoming the first person in your family to graduate from college.
This college is also part of a strong military community – and some of you earned your degree while serving your Nation in uniform. I am proud to be your Commander in Chief.
There are also military family members in the graduating class – including the Levens family of Long Beach . Margaret Levens and her son, Matt, are getting their degrees – and they are both carrying pictures of a loved one who they remember today. Earlier this year, Donnie Levens – Margaret's son and Matt's brother – was killed in a helicopter crash while his Marine unit was fighting terrorists near the Horn of Africa. Margaret says Donnie's courage inspired her to complete her studies.
She said: "I've never been a quitter. Donnie was never a quitter either. He had a job to do and he did it well. I am graduating for him today."
America honors the service of Donnie Levens – and we honor the strength and sacrifice of our military families.
This day of accomplishment would not be possible without the faculty, staff, and administration of this college. They re-opened this school just 17 days after the worst natural disaster in American history struck your campus and your state.
All who work at this college have dedicated themselves to this school's stated mission of making "a positive difference in people's lives every day ." You have fulfilled that mission, and so much more. Your students will always remember your unselfish service in an hour of need – and America is grateful to you all.
This is my tenth visit to Mississippi since Hurricane Katrina hit. I have seen firsthand the devastation in Gulfport and Gautier ... Poplarville, Pascagoula, and Pass Christian ... Bay Saint Louis and Biloxi. This was the first city in your state I visited after the storm.
I remember walking through a neighborhood where every house had been destroyed. I remember sitting on a doorstep that was surrounded by boards. I remember looking into the eyes of people who were stunned, and saddened, and longing for all they had lost. I remember something else, too – a quiet, unyielding determination to clear the wreckage, and build anew.
People who saw their own houses flattened rose to the aid of neighbors. One group of men tied themselves together with a rope, dove into a flooded street, and pulled 20 others to safety. Churches and congregations gave to the limit of their resources, and then found a way to give more. Thousands lost their homes, their cars, and their businesses – but not their faith in the future.
Across this state, a powerful spirit has emerged: a Mississippi spirit that sees hope in adversity, and possibility in pain – and summons a strength that wind and water can never take away.
The Mississippi spirit is embodied by your great Governor, Haley Barbour, along with his wife Marsha. Haley spoke for the state when he said: "Our people aren't leaving. They're hitching up their britches and rebuilding Mississippi."
The Mississippi spirit is carried to Washington by your superb senators, Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, and by your outstanding Congressional delegation. And the Mississippi spirit is sustained daily by your mayors, county officials, and local leaders. Many of those leaders are here today. I appreciate your service – and you can count on a steady partner in my Administration.
Over the past nine months, we have seen what the Mississippi spirit can achieve: The population of coastal Mississippi has returned almost all the way to full strength. Every school district that closed after the hurricane has reopened. More than 90 percent of the debris has been cleared. Highways and bridges are being repaired.
Homeowners are rebuilding with help from the state and federal government. There are more jobs available in Mississippi today than before the storm – and the resurgence of this great state has only begun.
The renewal of the Gulf Coast is one of the largest rebuilding efforts the world has ever seen – and all of you will play a leading role. Your experience at this college has prepared you to shape the future of your state. I ask you to rise to the challenge of a generation: Apply your skill and your knowledge, your compassion and your character, and write a hopeful new chapter in the history of the Gulf Coast.
A hopeful future for the Gulf Coast will require your skill and your knowledge. The destruction left by Katrina reaches beyond anything we could have imagined. Rebuilding will create an immediate need for workers with a wide range of skills.
This college responded rapidly after the storm by offering courses in carpentry, plumbing, electrical, dry-wall, and other skills in high demand. Federal funds allowed students to complete these courses for free – and many moved straight into good jobs with Mississippi companies.
When it comes to rebuilding this state, there is no question of "if" – it is a matter of "when." Mississippi will rebuild – and you will be the ones to rebuild it. Ultimately, rebuilding this region will require more than the reconstruction of buildings and bridges that were destroyed.
A renewal of the Gulf Coast will also require creativity, innovation, and enterprise in every aspect of society. The growth and vitality of the Gulf Coast will come from people who open new stores, design new urban plans, create new jobs, teach children, and care for the sick.
The key to unlocking these opportunities is knowledge – and millions who want to gain new knowledge come to community colleges like yours.
In the Gulf Coast and beyond, community colleges are centers of hope, and gateways to social mobility. At any stage in life, you can come to a community college, learn something new, and put yourself on a course to realize your dreams. The Class of 2006 is filled with people determined to use their knowledge to revitalize the Gulf Coast.
Today I met Tracy Malosh, who is graduating with a degree in nursing. Tracy was born nearby at Keesler Air Force Base, and she has lived in this part of the country her whole life. Tracy married her high school sweetheart Charles 13 years ago, and they have three children who are watching their mom graduate today.
After Tracy's son Trevor was born with a heart condition, she decided to come to this college to become a pediatric nurse. When Hurricane Katrina hit, Tracy's family lost everything they owned – but she kept coming to class. Now they are looking for a new home in the area, and Tracy is planning to work in pediatrics at a local hospital.
Here is what she said: "I can't even begin to describe to you how good it feels to finish this. I always knew I would go to school, but I never knew I would face the difficulties that I did – and I conquered this."
Tracy's story shows a clear lesson: It is never too late to get a fresh start in life. And people all over the Gulf Coast are following her lead.
Out of the devastation of Katrina will come great opportunities to get a fresh start. And for many in this great state, the road to a brighter future will run through community college.
A hopeful future for the Gulf Coast will also require your compassion and your character. Our whole Nation has been moved by the outpouring of kindness and decency shown by the people of this state. Neighbors have joined forces to care for the weak and vulnerable. Strangers have come together to help each other cope. Now you must work to sustain the compassion inspired by this storm long after the damage has been cleared away.
I urge you to take the same determination you brought to rebuilding schools, and use it to ensure that every school provides a good education. Use the same bravery it takes to rescue people from water to rescue communities from poverty.
My hope is that one day Americans will look back at the rebuilding of Mississippi, and say that your work added not only to the prosperity of our country, but also to our character as a Nation.
Earlier today, I met one of your classmates who represents the character necessary for the Gulf Coast to succeed. Kendrick Kennedy grew up here in Biloxi, and he is a proud graduate of Biloxi High.
At age 30, an illness caused Kendrick to go blind – and eventually he lost his job. So he decided to come to this college. He recorded each of his lectures on tape, and scanned his books into a computer program provided by the school that reads them aloud.
When the hurricane hit, Kendrick opened his home to family members in need, and returned to school as soon as possible. Today, this good man is graduating at the top of his class, and he hopes to attend law school one day.
Here is what Kendrick said: "I'd be dawgoned if I was going to let Hurricane Katrina stop me. I thought, 'You started school when you were blind – and you can overcome this hurricane.'"
Kendrick is right – and we honor his inspiring example. The same optimism is present in many graduates today, and in so many others across the Gulf Coast. And that optimism is justified.
There will be a day when communities across Mississippi sparkle with new homes, and businesses bustle with customers, and this college is filled with more students than ever before.
I plan to return one day to the Biloxi neighborhood I visited on my first trip, and to see beautiful houses with children playing in the yard.
Across this entire region devastated by the storm, new vitality will emerge from the rubble – and cities from Mobile to Biloxi to New Orleans will be whole again. It will take time for that vision to be realized, and it will demand the skill and knowledge, compassion and character of all of you. Yet you can leave this college with confidence in your future – and with certainty you will not work alone.
In these trying months, we have been aided by a Power that lightens our struggles, and reveals our hidden strength, and conquers all suffering and loss. We can never know God's plan, but we can trust in His wisdom and grace. And we can be certain that with His help, the great state of Mississippi will rise again.