Jon Bon Jovi at Rutgers University—Camden (2015)
Good morning, Mayor Redd, President Barchi, Chancellor Haddon, Governors, trustees, alumni, family, friends, and especially — a very good morning to the 2015 graduating class of Rutgers University—Camden.
Thank you for inviting me here today on one of the most special days of your life — so far — and thank you very much for this honor.
Although you have allowed me to wear this cap and gown, you have done me no favors having me speak after one of our country’s heroes for justice, Bryan Stevenson — thank you, Bryan, for all that you do.
I feel like they may have gotten the opening act and the headliner mixed up. I’ve been wrestling over what information I could offer that you haven’t already heard. Something that can be a reminder of where you came from and a sign to comfort you on the road ahead.
At first I shared too little, then I shared far too much. As I edited my thoughts, I realized I’m sure lucky there was no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram when I was your age. I’m keeping those chapters up here. Sorry!
But I was reminded of a few things I’d like to share.
14 years ago, I gave a commencement speech at another New Jersey school. Through the magic of Google search, I was able to have a “back to the future moment,” looking back on my words to see if any of what I said to the class of 2001 stands up today.
Those words started out innocently enough talking about new beginnings — from kindergarten to high school to college.
You can’t remember what you had for breakfast yesterday — but I’m sure you can remember the multitude of emotions that were running through you during those formative years. From sheer joy to anticipation to absolute fear. And then in a snap of a finger it’s all just memories in a scrapbook.
Our future starts in our past — but it doesn’t end there.
In that speech I said to treat the workplace like school, and keep learning. Be humble, remain humble and remind yourself that no job is beneath you if you use it as a lesson.
Maybe you’ve mapped your life out. A corner office at a Fortune 500 company or a life in philanthropy, politics or even entertainment. Great! I say, “Go for it.” But if you haven’t — that’s ok too. Don’t be embarrassed by indecision.
Life is a long, bumpy road, but that makes for an exciting ride. Choose a direction and if the road turns — turn! If there is a fork in the road – take it! It’s ok to map out your future — but do it in pencil.
Continuing with the new beginning and planning in pencil theme — 2003 led me to a new chapter in my life and my fork in the road that brings me here today.
In 2003 I became co-owner of an arena football team in Philadelphia — talk about bumpy roads, lessons learned, humility and then divine intervention.
Ok, see if you can follow this:
Rockstar loves football, hears about an opportunity to own an arena team, laughs with his bandmates about calling plays in the owners box. Then calls are made on his behalf to pursue the team. Band sobers up and backs out, singer doesn’t! He finds a partner, they start an expansion team, the Philadelphia Soul. In its first 5 years, it’s the league’s most popular team, they win a championship for Philly.
We approach this team differently. We use lessons learned in our “other lives” to put together a winning team on the field, but also to have impact off the field. We make it an affordable, accessible, family affair and proudly announce that we intend to become the most philanthropic team in town.
Before the Soul played a down, we found four needy charities and gave away more money than we brought in. We were having fun playing football and Robin Hood!
Then one bitter cold night in 2006 while I was staying in Philly, I looked out my window and saw a man sleeping outside—huddled up hoping to make it through the night. I decided we should focus our philanthropic efforts on homelessness! This issue could affect anyone — young, old; black, white; republican or democrat. I didn’t need a scientist to find the cure; I needed someone to help me help those in need.
I asked a close friend to find me someone who was both passionate and compassionate, an authority on the homeless issue. He found Sister Mary Scullion and that’s how the rockstar who had the new beginnings, the bumpy ride, and the pencil came to write the words, “the power of we.”
You. Me. That’s the power of we. “We” can be that change we want to see. I met Sister Mary and her already well-established team at project home, we joined forces, and nearly a decade later, we continue to address the needs of those in need through the power of we.
We may have lost money, but we won on and off the field. Remember when life brings challenges — it also brings opportunity!
From rockstar, to team owner to foundation chairman. They’re all just mile markers along the way.
That’s the power of we. No one is an island. No one can do it alone. Not government alone, not the private sector alone. It takes great partners like Mayor Redd, and Chief Thompson. It takes great partnerships like heart of Camden, the St. Joseph Carpenter Society, and Hopeworks ‘n Camden. It takes everyone from nuns to rockstars.
And it takes you! But you know that, because you’ve seen it. You’ve done it. For me the issue of hunger and homelessness feels right. For you — it may be something else. Find that something you can be passionate about and start the ripple. Be that change! That’s what you do, that’s what you have done.
When called upon, your class harnessed change and made it work for justice.
You could have easily used technology to relax and play video games. But your class used it to map this community to make sure services got to people who need them.
You could have used your knowledge to manipulate others with less, but you used it to come together and reopen Cooper Park. You could have used your time for you. But instead, over the course of one school year, you, the students of Rutgers-Camden did almost 35 years’ worth of community service.
That, too, is the power of we.
Embracing “we” doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to lead. This world needs its young people to lead and to lead by example. To walk the walk, and do the work. Confound expectations. Inspire others! Don’t let anyone define who you are and what you can be. It’s not always going to be easy. Life is not a reality show. That’s the reality.
Look — you, me — we are New Jersey. Here it’s all about we: in this state, we can’t even pump gas by ourselves.
And here in this state, we’ve got the parkway, we’ve got the turnpike. we’ve got mile markers. Here, people say, “What exit are you from?”
Your diploma is a mile marker. It’s a measurement of how far you’ve come, but it doesn’t say a thing about how far you can go.
Your diploma is an anointment / a calling / a charge, to use the talents you’ve nurtured and the knowledge you’ve gained here — to make a contribution.
Class is over, learning isn’t. Your diploma is a key — to open doors of possibility not only for yourselves, but for others.
So if you want the amazing feeling of pride you’re feeling to last far beyond today — let’s make today and every day that follows about more than your own accomplishment. Make it about the power of we! Because, if you do, you’ll have a lot more than “things worth having”— you’ll have “a life worth living.”
And you can write that one down in pen.
Thank you and congratulations, Class of 2015!