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Loyola University Chicago


Debra W. Stewart, PhD

Keynote address: Graduate School-IPS

Good afternoon—and—congratulations to all graduates.

I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be here today at Loyola University to join in paying tribute to you, the 190 PhD and 640 master’s students—distinguished scholars, researchers, and professionals—who will receive your degrees today.

This past week I read the comments of a blogger who described graduate school as an exercise in discipline, endurance, hard work, and patience. Your presence here is proof that you have generous portions of all of these qualities. Each of you knows the rewards of those virtues: the passion and the excitement of intellectual work, the power of mastery, and the quiet satisfaction of a job well done.

Today we are here to celebrate all of the above—and to celebrate you for earning a seat in this auditorium.

But you may also be asking a question today about the price of the journey that led to this seat: Was it worth it? Worth is difficult to judge. Sometimes we just end up balancing the outcome against the sum of the investments—as when Alfred Hitchcock tells us: “A good film is when ‘the price of the dinner, the theater admission, and the babysitter were worth it.’ ” Other times value derives from achieving a larger purpose than reaching an individual cost-benefit equilibrium.

So what, then, is this larger purpose? The New York Times columnist David Brooks has argued that the central force driving “globalization” is really a profound skills revolution. In order for a nation and the world to thrive, its people must excel at absorbing, processing, and combining information. We are now in a cognitive age where the public good depends on people who are very good at solving big, complex, tough problems.

And there is no better preparation for solving such problems than graduate school.  The record shows that this capacity to solve such problems generates gains that are both private, to the individual, and public, to society as a whole.  I would add that you have made a particularly good decision in choosing to attend a graduate school in the United States. You are products of the world’s most effective institutions for developing individual talent.

Let me first begin with the private returns—if for no other reason than to put the parents and spouses in the audience at ease. The simplest way to talk about this gain is through statistics:

These monetary benefits of a degree in terms of lifetime earnings hold, not just in the aggregate, but also within every field of study.

These measurable returns on a graduate degree are supported by a recent study of more than 5,000 graduate degree holders across all fields, from a variety of institutions. 92% tell us that they would encourage others to attend graduate school. And amazingly, when asked if the cost was worth the benefit—even in this time of great concern over college debt—only 14% indicated the benefit did not outweigh the cost.

So if one goes by numbers alone, there is likely to be a substantial personal benefit to you in terms of private gain.

However, the really important story for the country and the world is that graduate education also contributes in hugely important ways to the public good. The collective benefits of your decision to invest in your graduate degree are far larger than these personal gains. From the “public good” viewpoint, the social capital of our country and world is greater today as you leave this auditorium to make your contributions in the communities of Chicago, the United States and the world.

No statement speaks more strongly to the public good than one found in this great University’s mission statement. As Chicago’s Jesuit Catholic University, Loyola is guided by a simple promise: to prepare people to lead extraordinary lives.

Somehow I don’t think the reference to “extraordinary lives” refers to the annual average earnings of Loyola graduates. Rather it refers to the contribution of individuals to the public good of the communities in which they live and work.

It refers to, for example:

Karen Myer, MA in Family and Consumer Sciences (1985), a featured reporter for ABC-7 News in Chicago on people with disabilities as well as President of Karen L. Meyer and Associates. Ms. Myer is the former Vice Chair of a presidential committee on Employment for People with Disabilities.

Artemus Gaye, PhD in Theology (2011). Dr. Gaye is founder and president of an organization dedicated to the recovery of historical memories of people of African descent. He serves as an international consultant to several US public health agencies that have partnered with several African governments to address the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

Ashley Velchek. Master’s in Public Policy (2012), who is the Legislative Coordinator for Cook County Government, working in the Office of the President.  Her current projects involve anti-violence initiatives and improving efficiencies within human resources and procurement. Ms. Velchek recently coordinated a policy conference on "Justice through Efficiency" held at Loyola University Chicago.

As George Kennan, the distinguished American diplomat of the ’40s and ’50s, once wrote: “There is nothing in man’s plight that his vision, if he could cultivate it, could not alleviate. The challenge is to see what could be done, and then to have the heart and resolution (and I would add expertise) to attempt it.” Today you will join these individuals and 12,830 other Loyola University graduate degree holders who are accepting this challenge. Like them, you will go on to live the Loyola Graduate School mission: to “work toward building community, promoting social justice, addressing the complex problem confronting society and promoting global awareness.”

To thrive as a country and a global community, we must continue to develop innovative and committed leaders in research, in the professions, in teaching and in the corporate world.  But we also need philosophers, social scientists, and humanists who can synthesize existing knowledge to tell us where we are now—morally, socially, and culturally—and how we got there. These individuals can provide us with the mental tools for navigating the complexities of a challenged world.

In closing, I congratulate you on the accomplishment that brings you here today and for the major contributions you will make to your local, state, national, and even global communities with and through your graduate degree.  The education you received is essential to success in the “skills” economy that David Brooks describes. It is essential for you as an individual to reap personal gain and job progression. But these skills are equally important to understand, in the Loyola spirit, what needs to be done and to have the heart and resolution to do it to advance the public good. 

Best wishes to you all.


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