Receiving a Princeton education makes one privileged, even if that person was not privileged before, Christopher Lu ’88, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Labor and former White House Cabinet Secretary, told the Class of 2014 in his Baccalaureate address on Sunday, titled “The Inheritance of a Princeton Education.” After one has received this inheritance, Lu said, one should give back to society.
“Your education is your inheritance,” Lu said. “Unlike a gift, there are strings attached to an inheritance. There are responsibilities implied. An inheritance is something you grow and pass on to the next generation.”
One way to use this inheritance is to spend part of one’s life in public service, Lu said. He noted that, despite cynicism regarding government work, people like the researchers at the National Institutes of Health who figured out how to contain hospital-acquired infections and the NASA team that figured out how to build and land the Curiosity rover on Mars are examples of public servants who made a difference.
Graduates can also perform public service during and after successful careers in the private sector, Lu added, noting that Bill Gates, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller put their fortunes to valuable uses.
Lu noted that public service does not have to take the form of such large-scale efforts, Lu said.
“You can work for a high-tech start-up and spend your weekends volunteering at your church or local food bank,” Lu said. “To make a difference, all it takes is a few hours each week.”
Public service is a mindset, Lu added.
“ ‘If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who cannot read, that matters to me, even if it is not my child,’ ” he said, quoting President Barack Obama.
When grappling with the problem of how to balance being successful and doing well, Lu said he looked back on the example of his parents. Lu’s father was an orphan who came to the United States because of a college scholarship and spoke little English.
“For [my father] and my mother, saving money for an Ivy League education was their life’s mission,” Lu said. “The best investments often do not produce quick returns. When my father passed away, just a few years after I had graduated from Princeton, he had seen only a tiny glimpse of how I would use this inheritance he had provided me. Yet he understood that my education would pay dividends for years to come, in ways that continue to surprise me.”
Many students in the Class of 2014 have similar stories of sacrifice, Lu said.
Farrah Bui ’14, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who fled their country during the Vietnam War, represents how education can act as an equalizer, Lu said. Jenesis Fonseca-Ledezma ’14, the daughter of Mexican immigrants and the first in her family to attend college, told Lu of how her family’s support has inspired her to give back, he added.
“By looking beyond yourself, by understanding how we are all connected as one people, by fighting for greater opportunity for all and by continuing the legacy of progress that defines our nation, you choose the better history of this proud university and its graduates,” Lu said.
Former chairman of the Federal Reserve and former economics professor Ben Bernanke, former basketball player and former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley ’65 and Queen Noor of Jordan, formerly Lisa Halaby ’73, are examples of Princetonians who have heeded the unofficial motto’s call to be “in the nation’s service — and in the service of all nations,” Lu explained.
Lu’s speech was also punctuated by moments of levity. Lu joked that defensive lineman Caraun Reid ’14 held him down so a nurse could give him a meningitis shot.
Lu also addressed his stature in the history of Princeton’s Baccalaureate speakers.
“When most of you heard I was going to be your speaker, you were probably a little disappointed,” Lu said. “But it could be worse. Two years ago, the graduation ceremony at the University of Vermont, and I kid you not, culminated with a song performed by SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Lu concluded his speech by saying that graduates should now begin to realize the value of their “inheritance.”
“Class of 2014, we’re expecting great things from all of you,” Lu said. “Congratulations and good luck.”