2017 Georgia Southern University Commencement Speech

May 12, 2017

Thank you, President Herbert. It’s a privilege to join you – Deans, Faculty, and most importantly Class of 2017!

Thank you for inviting me to be back on campus for this special occasion. It’s an honor to stand on this stage again.

When I first arrived at Georgia Southern for football workouts in the summer of 1984, not only was there no air conditioning in the dorms – but our campus was about a quarter the size of what this university has become today.            

It’s amazing what can happen in 33 years.

My time at Georgia Southern was during an era when three National Championships were won – in this place that Erk built.

That was the beginning of Georgia Southern’s ascent to a national stage, which fueled momentum that has only continued to grow to this day.           

You are graduating from a first class-university with a degree that will be respected anywhere you choose to go.

As I look around – and if you do the same thing, I think you might agree – it’s hard not to be in awe.

Each of you has your own story. Your birth place. Your upbringing. The people who helped to make you who you are today. Your goals in life. The things that motivate you to pursue your purpose.

Some of you grew up like I did – without much. With a single mom or dad. Some of you relied on student loans to make it here, just as I did.

We all have our own story. And that story has helped to define each of us. But never forget – it’s not where you start in life that matters most. It is where you end up and the things that you are able to do along life’s journey.

Each of you – regardless of where you’re from or how you got here – today, each of you are united by one common achievement: Congratulations Class of 2017!

We are here to celebrate your Commencement. The day that marks your graduation from Georgia Southern. While this day signifies the end of this journey, it represents the beginning of the rest of your lives.

In the time we have together, as brief as it will be – I thought I’d share a few stories with you and offer some practical advice about three things that have proved to be particularly important to me throughout my own journey in life.

Maybe you already share my strong belief in these ideals – they are certainly not secrets. But I am hopeful that they will remain close to your heart.

The first – and maybe most important thing I’ve learned in my life – is that a strong work ethic and perseverance can take you anywhere.

Growing up, my dream was to play college football. I was a defensive back. But even then, college offers were tough to come by.

One morning in May, just before the end of my senior year – I picked up the phone and it was Erk Russell. Bluntly, he said – in the way that only Coach Russel could say – “Casey, I have one question: Are you coming to play for the Eagles?”

I was stunned. And, of course, I said yes.

When I started practice later that Summer, it was more difficult than I could have ever imagined.

The reason it was so difficult is because I was coming to play for a football legend. A man who would eventually take Georgia Southern from not having a football team to winning back to back national championships.

Erk Russel knew how to inspire people to work as hard as they could. He always found a way to get you to do what you didn’t think you were capable of doing – and that pushed us to persevere through adversity and reach for greatness.

Since I was elected Lt. Governor – one of the questions I’ve often been asked is if I grew up believing that one day I’d serve in this office – or in some kind of public service.

I can tell you it didn’t happen that way for me. And, in reality, it probably doesn’t happen that way for anyone.

At the end of my freshman year, I tore my Achilles heel and it became evident to me that I’d no longer have a future playing football on Saturdays.

You can come back from a torn Achilles heel. But when you get sidelined, it forces you to reassess everything. When I really thought about where my future was headed, I realized it didn't matter that I fell short of being a starting Safety. It wasn't a setback.

Truly, it may have been the best thing that ever happened to me because it helped me find my path to starting a business, then a family, and eventually getting to serve the people of Georgia.

No career that you pursue will ever be assured. And while no one can predict the future, what will always matter most is how you use your individual talents to persevere through any challenge you face and to make the most of your potential.

At times, you might doubt your path. But never doubt yourself, never put limits on your future, and never hold back.

Your reward for perseverance will be the benefit of hard work. The results from both your successes and failures. It is the experience you gain along the way that separates you from others.

That brings me to the second principle I want to share with you.

No matter what you do, no matter how crazy your goals sound, no matter how many times you change your mind – it will always be better to try and fail than never to try at all.

Very rarely will you find silver bullets that lead to significant accomplishments in life. Don't let that be an excuse. Because it's an opportunity. An opportunity for ideas. For innovation. For you to look at a problem and find a new solution that changes your life and maybe the entire world.

I often tell folks that politics is a full contact sport. You will never get hit harder, more personally, or as relentlessly than if you choose to run for public office.

At least on this field we have referees, but in the world of politics – there is no such thing.  

I think that Theodore Roosevelt explained it best – why it will always be worth serving others and stretching for something better – when he said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly;

Who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming…

Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

You are going to get knocked down but that doesn’t define who you are. What matters is that you are in the arena. You get knocked down but you get back up. And you keep charging as far as you can.  

Class of 2017: Each of you will be able to define yourself and how you pursue success. You will have to shape your own path. But along the way, I encourage you to value opportunity over complacency. To let good things happen to you. And to persevere and challenge yourself to reach new heights.

I will leave you with one last thought.

In my lifetime one thing has remained constant, and more than likely, it will stay universally true during yours. As you get older, much of what you think about the world will change. And innovation and technology will continue to transform life as we know it. And it should change. It should change because we can’t simply aspire to hold on to what we have or to reclaim the past. But instead, we have to fight to push forward and strive for a better future.

That future is in your hands.

We are lucky to live in the greatest era of innovation and prosperity the world has ever known. And it is up to you – it is up to you – to push those boundaries forward.

Along the way, you will find out you know much more than you think. So have faith and confidence in yourself.

But also ask questions. Keep learning about why things are the way they are. And never stop looking for opportunities that make life better: for yourself, for your family, for your community – and for the world.

Georgia needs more engineers. We need more teachers. We need more doctors and nurses. We need more entrepreneurs, builders, and computer scientists.

Across every industry that exists – and in those that have yet to emerge – we will create millions of new jobs in the years ahead. It is in this prosperity – your prosperity – that we will create a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Before I step off this stage – I will leave you with one final illustration that I think demonstrates this point.

I love competition. One of my dreams in life was to race cars – at places like road Atlanta – where you have curvy tracks, a top speed of maybe 135 mph in modified sports cars, and every driver is fighting to get a second ahead.

Racing cars is less about top end speed and more about knowing how to drive. Lap times are measured in seconds. To get three seconds ahead in a race makes a world of difference. But to get ahead by three seconds, you have to constantly do little things to push your boundaries further. Part of it is in the car, reducing its weight, driving on the best gripping tires… But ultimately, it’s about carrying as much speed around the track as you can, limiting your breaking so you can stay on the accelerator, while always looking forward and never becoming distracted with obstacles that do not matter. Eventually, after you gain experience – you and the car become one – and you will be able to push the boundaries further than you ever thought possible.

In life, you will find that if you pick your lane, and you drive your line, and you do it better than anyone else, you will add incredible value and you will win the race that is set out before you.

Just remember: nothing is out of your reach as long as you work hard, persevere, and never stop looking ahead.

I believe in our state’s future because I believe in you.

Congratulations class of 2017. Good luck on your journey.

Thank you.

God bless you and God Bless the Great State of Georgia.