Introduction: Miles Middleton (’21), Student Government president

Our next guest speaker has been celebrated as a new voice in politics whose fresh approach and bold ideas have garnered national attention. After a successful tenure as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a promising 2020 presidential campaign, he was recently named United States Secretary of Transportation by President Joseph Biden. Pete Buttigieg is not only the youngest presidential cabinet member, he is also the first openly gay person to serve as a cabinet secretary. He first gained national attention in 2019 when his long-shot presidential bid led to a virtual tie with Bernie Sanders in the Iowa caucuses. Secretary Buttigieg’s supporters have praised his ground-level approach to problem solving, his willingness to seek input from a wide range of voices, and his forward-thinking message of generational change. A Harvard graduate and former Rhodes scholar, Secretary Buttigieg will largely be responsible for advancing President Biden’s ambitious infrastructure plan that is currently being introduced by the administration. He’s expected to draw on his experiences as the mayor of South Bend, where he was praised for his work to improve neighborhoods and citywide living conditions. In addition to shaping infrastructure and climate change policy, Secretary Buttigieg has said that he will address racial and economic inequality during his tenure overseeing the department of transportation. At age 39, Secretary Buttigieg has shown that barriers can be broken. Join me in welcoming Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who joins us today in a prerecorded message.

Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Secretary of Transportation

Thank you, Miles, for your introduction, and thank you, President Hatch, for inviting me to speak today. It’s great to be reunited with a one-time colleague of my father and someone who knows my hometown of South Bend so well. To the Trustees, the faculty, the staff of Wake Forest, to the family and friends of the graduates, and most of all, to the class of 2021, congratulations. Graduating college is a momentous occasion for the life of any young person, but to graduate in this moment — to emerge from your university experience this year of all years — represents something unique and uniquely meaningful.

In preparing for these remarks, I was delighted to learn that the great American poet Maya Angelou was also a faculty member at Wake Forest. In words that seem very timely now, she once remarked that you may not control all the events that happened to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Be certain, she said, that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity. Her words, of course, mirror the motto of the institution, where she taught Pro Humanitate — for humanity. The students who graduate now are arriving at a moment that calls uniquely for reflection on that motto. The past year has offered no shortage of blunt reminders that we do not always control the events that happened to us. I’m sure that no student here began your academic career expecting to spend your final year at Wake in virtual classrooms or sitting six feet apart from each other in Adirondack chairs. You’ve missed gathering for meals at The Pit with classmates, or you may have been forced to coordinate a course schedule from the other side of the planet. It’s safe to say that the world you’re about to enter is profoundly changed from how it looked just four years ago.

Many of the changes you have experienced have been terribly constraining, and yet in so many ways, you have decided not to be reduced by them. In the past year, Wake students have led social justice teach-in and organized international conferences on inequality. You’ve raised funds for refugees and tutored public school students struggling with remote learning. You’ve put on virtual concerts and performed socially distance productions of Shakespeare. And along the way, you’ve won debate championships, earned prestigious scholarships and hosted the first Demon Deacon football games since the start of the pandemic.

That perseverance has served you well in your time at Wake Forest. And it’s going to be even more needed to come in this season that is ahead in your lives and in the life of the United States. The past year has exposed deep fractures in the foundations of American life. We see a pandemic far from over after claiming the lives of 582,000 Americans and counting with communities of color suffering the brunt of the public health and economic consequences. We see a worldwide reckoning over racial justice that calls attention to centuries old patterns of violence and abuse. We’re seeing wildfires, hurricanes and other climate disasters that mount as a gathering threat that will only get worse, if we don’t act. We even see threats to our democracy itself, here in America, of all places. Confronting these challenges is going to be the defining task of your lifetimes and mine. But if these challenges are a source of pain and pressure, they’re also a source of propulsion. You are assured, amid all of the disruptions to your lives, that you will see no shortage of wonderful ways to work for humanity. Rarely does history have signed so many forms of urgent work to a single generation. And yet here you are. Your final year at Wake may have been disrupted by events you couldn’t control, but in the gravity of those events lie sources of purpose and urgency that will make your choices now about how you use the skills and passion and ideals you’ve cultivated here all the more consequential.

As we emerge from this pandemic, as you begin your lives as graduates, your talent, your service will be needed. Whether that service comes literally in the sense of a professional calling to public or military service, or whether it’s in the service you may give to your country or community or society in the midst of private or academic or other work, the potential for your usefulness to humanity is not in question. All that is in question is exactly how you will rise to this occasion. And from all I know of what you have done with your time at Wake Forest, you’re off to a very good start. So congratulations, once more on this remarkable achievement, and I can’t wait to see the wonderful things that you will do for humanity.