May 17, 2010

Class of 2010 pumped up for life

Emory’s 165th Commencement began as a bright and breezy affair on May 10. The morning sparkled with the kind of crystalline light that magnifies colors and spirits.

The 3,969 graduates took their places with measured decorum, backed by the stately sound of bagpipes. Then the platform party began its march to the podium. Tasseled heads swiveled as murmurs of “Arnie!” whisked through the crowd. All eyes focused on the iconic face of Commencement speaker, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Each class seems to forge a distinct identity for itself,” President Jim Wagner told the graduates. “To me, you are a class of ‘bigness.’ You seem to understand the value of belonging to something bigger than yourself. You have a deep sense of how education enables you to commit to the public good, as well as the private one that allows you to tack a diploma on your wall.”

The Class of 2010, Wagner said, forged trust and understanding amid tumultuous events, from news of a mass shooting on the Virginia Tech campus, to the H1N1 flu epidemic and the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

“It was on your watch,” Wagner told the graduates, that Emory was one of only three universities to receive the Presidential Award for General Community Service — the highest federal honor a university can receive for its commitment to volunteering and civil engagement.

Schwarzenegger, who is famous for dreaming big, pumped up the graduates with humor and heartfelt advice.

“I was going to give a graduation speech in Arizona this weekend, but with my accent I was afraid they would deport me,” he joked, referring to the controversial new immigration law in that state.

The Austrian native told the graduates how as a teenager he wanted to become a bodybuilding champion, but he was discouraged by naysayers. He worked hard, and became the youngest Mr. Universe ever at the age of 20. Then he came to America with empty pockets, but “full of dreams and full of desire,” he said.

He wanted to be an actor — a leading man, no less — but once again, he was told that would be impossible, with his unusual looks and thick German accent. “I started working very hard, just like I did with bodybuilding,” he said. And slowly, “all of those liabilities they talked about started turning into assets. Can you imagine ‘I’ll be back,’ without my accent?” he asked.

Schwarzenegger’s signature line from “The Terminator” resonated with the graduates, although the movie came out years before they were born.

He told the students to remember these key principles as they set off into the world: “Work like hell. Trust yourself. Break some rules. Don’t be afraid to fail.  Ignore the naysayers. And stay hungry.”

Schwarzenegger described how in the midst of his growing career, he was asked to train a group of Special Olympians in weight lifting.  One boy was afraid to bench press a weight, but by the end of the day, he did it.  “He jumped up and gave a high five to everyone in the room,” Schwarzenegger recalls. “When I saw that kid go from terror to self-confidence, that was the big winner for me. I was reaching out to someone who needed help.”

He acknowledged Emory for serving more than 20 years as the Georgia host for the Special Olympics, a program started by his mother-in-law, Eunice Shriver, that is now in 167 countries.

“She is a shining example of the chain reaction that begins simply by one person taking that single step forward,” he said.

As California governor, Schwarzenegger said he is proud of thinking big and making changes, including workers’ compensation reform and helping to wake up the federal government to the dangers of climate change.

“Use your power and potential to make this nation, and this world, a better place,” Schwarzenegger said. “It worked for this immigrant who came over here to this country with $20 in his pocket. And I guarantee it will work for you, too.”

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