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Service, importance of a degree to highlight Mabus’ commencement speech

Courtesy Pam Scott
Former U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus is the guest speaker for this year’s commencement.

The University of Arizona will graduate its 154th class at its May 11 commencement. The keynote speaker who will send the thousands of graduates into the world will be Ray Mabus, former governor of Mississippi, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and President Barack Obama’s secretary of the Navy. 

“Our graduates complete their degrees ready to make transformational impact in our world, and Ray Mabus is an ideal person to give them an opportunity to reflect on what that potential means,” said UA President Dr. Robert Robbins.  “He has an impeccable record of service and leadership, and I know he will inspire the Class of 2018 to do great things.” 

After growing up the son of a local hardware store owner in a Mississippi town of 1,000 people, Mabus graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1969, a time before commencement speakers were the norm for college graduations. 

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Before attending college, Mabus had a life that was not characteristic of a child of rural Mississippi. According to Mabus, his parents encouraged him to lead a life in which he saw no limitations. 

“My parents had this insatiable curiosity about the world, and they revered education,” Mabus said.

Before he graduated college, Mabus traveled the Trans-Siberian Railway and witnessed an uprising against the Shah in Iran. This travel with his parents opened up the world for him. 

Mabus’ college experience, filled with professors who really cared about his success, left him optimistic about his future as he sat — some 49 years ago — in the same shoes as UA graduates this May. 

“I was optimistic, energetic and pretty eager to see what was going to come next after I graduated,” Mabus said. “I did not have a plan. I was just eager to see what was going to happen. I didn’t see any limitations.”

Mabus’s path landed him in 25 years of public service, first as the auditor for the State of Mississippi, where Mabus earned a reputation battling corruption. Then, with the help of his reputation, he was in the governor’s mansion a few years later. 

As governor, Mabus focused on education and job creation, passing legislation to give teachers the largest pay raise in the country. 

Mabus’s commitment to public service was solidified by the advice his father gave him as a child.

“The one hero I ever had in my life has been my dad,” Mabus said. “My father had a strong notion that you needed to serve and give back to the community, state, nation in some way.” 

Mabus took this to heart by staying honest in his years of public service and answering both President Bill Clinton’s and President Obama’s call to service as ambassador to Saudi Arabia and secretary of the navy, respectively. 

According to Mabus, there are many ways to serve your community beyond joining the military or becoming a politician. He hopes UA’s graduates walk away from his speech taking his father’s advice to heart and give back to their communities throughout their lives.

“The whole theme of my speech is doing something in your life that is bigger than yourself,” Mabus said. 

Mabus’s speech will have two other major themes as well: the importance of a college education and how success cannot always be measured in the short term. 

In this ever-changing, complex world, a college education is critical, according to Mabus. 

When students walk away with a degree from the UA, it is not the skills or facts students learn that matter most. Rather, it’s how students approach problems, accept or challenge new ideas and are flexible and adaptable to this changing world, Mabus said. 

Alongside this, Mabus cautioned, even as UA graduates walk away with a degree from an amazing university, students must continue to be lifelong learners. 

For Mabus, the most rewarding experiences of his life were when he was given the opportunity to continue to learn, and not always those where he saw immediate success. 

“The things that have given me the most satisfaction are the long-term things,” Mabus said.

According to Mabus, if you are lucky, you will be able to see the impact of your actions immediately. But for him, his biggest accomplishments, like pushing the Navy to reduce its fossil fuel emissions and funding education in Mississippi, are focused on long-term goals. 

Even today, Mabus’s company, The Mabus Group, helps advise other companies, like Google, on sustainability and resiliency in the modern, technological world.

Mabus remains just as optimistic and eager about what the future will bring as he was when he graduated college. 

According to Mabus, UA graduates are the future leaders of this country. No one knows what the world will look like in 20 years. UA graduates are in the same position Mabus faced so many years ago, but Mabus is confident in their ability to lead us into this unknown future. 

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“Having known many of these young people, whether my daughters or sailors and Marines around the world, if you meet the people who are 18 to 27 today, it is hard not to be optimistic about the future,” Mabus said. 

The UA is an iconic university in Mabus’s mind, and he is honored and excited to speak to this year’s graduates and to explore Tucson after his speech. 

“I was incredibly honored and thrilled to be asked to be the commencement speaker,” Mabus said.

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