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Photo of Cora Marrett

Dr. Cora Marrett
Deputy Director
National Science Foundation

A Community of Change Agents
Commencement Remarks
Graduate School of Education and Human Development
George Washington University
Washington, D.C.

May 17, 2014

Amidst a Community of Change Agents

I am honored to join members of the faculty and administration, family members and other guests--and especially the graduates--on this festive occasion.

At the same time, I am humbled and awed--as I stand with a community of agents for change.

I know that change is the watchword for the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, captured in the vision for the school: "Our students emerge from our programs enriched in theory and practice and become agents of change in education and human services."

I am certain that the emphasis on change appears in more than a mission statement. I doubt that anyone has left this School unchanged by the new knowledge acquired in classes, by experiences broadened through research, by exposure to people and problems never before encountered.

This dedication to change, sometimes only implied, other times made explicit, is to be celebrated. It is an attribute, a commitment sorely needed in our times.

Let me move across the landscape to depict just how significant you can be as agents of change in the world we know.

Opening the Doors of Opportunity

Educational attainment, or years of schooling, has long been a quest and a mark of standing in the United States.

And overall, the results are impressive: the population is spending more years in formal educational programs now than in the past.

One result: the percentage of people graduating from high school has continued to increase since 1983.

What a positive picture!

But it coexists with a portrait that shows educational attainment linked closely to background characteristics--income levels and geography, for example.

Perhaps not surprisingly, earnings increase the longer one remains in school. Dramatic are the differences in earnings between those with some college education or an Associate's degree and those with a Bachelor's degree--the spread is around $20,000 a year or more.

Few probably would begrudge the higher earnings of those who pursue higher education, for the pattern seems consistent with the value placed in society on achievement through merit.

But income not only results from educational attainment; it can shape that attainment. The connection is particularly evident in the link between the income of a household or family and the later educational achievement of persons from that household.

The income level of one's family affects educational opportunity and attainment.

Ever sharper contrasts in opportunity and attainment are appearing in the U.S., as differences in income grow.

Aware of the trends showing an ever widening gap in income levels, Dean Feuer has spoken passionately about "the ravaging effects of growing economic inequality on educational opportunity and life chances..."

But the Dean and others probably are comforted knowing that the Graduate School of Education and Human Development is producing educators, researchers, and leaders of all stripes who understand the role of education in our society, changes affecting educational opportunity, and paths towards fostering change or innovation within the sphere of education.

Developing All Talent

The growing economic inequality in the country undoubtedly reduces the talent on which the nation can draw.

As calls mount for greater levels of innovation in the nation, as other countries invest more and more heavily in the development of their educational and technological systems, the United States risks losing its standing internationally.

Potential innovators can be found among several segments of our population. One of these segments: persons with disabilities.

In the current era, science and technology often are regarded as key drivers for innovation. Yet, these are fields with relatively few persons with disabilities. Across these fields, persons with physical disabilities--visual, hearing, speech impairments--are more likely to hold advanced degrees than are persons described as having learning or cognitive disabilities.

I perused the course offerings in the Graduate School and took note of the attention given to the autism syndrome and similar developments.

My conclusion: the agents of change being produced by the Graduate School will bring to the larger world perspectives on learning and capacities that will widen the doors of opportunity. Broadened will be the population on which the nation can draw for the innovations and creativity essential for progress.

Change through the Collectivity

Maya Angelou once mused: "The need for change bulldozed a road down the center of my mind."

In all likelihood, you graduates similarly were awakened, as through your classes, research projects and other learning settings you discovered needs for and routes toward change.

Perhaps no one person will singlehandedly change the make-up of the science and engineering workforce or close the growing gaps in opportunity.

But consider how powerful can be the actions of the collectivity.

Relevant indeed is the quote used to inspire participation in the Student Speaker program for this year's celebration. "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." -- Robert F. Kennedy

In closing, let me again thank each graduate for staying the course and continuing on what promises to be a journey towards change.

And to family members and other supporters: you have been critical to the steps undertaken thus far and will remain so as that journey continues.

Remember the admonition from Robert Kennedy: what one can accomplish alone can he enlarged immeasurably in concert with others.

Finally, the Graduate School of Education and Human Development deserves recognition for preparing agents who are not only interested in the changes that can and should he wrought within the realm of education and human development. The School now sends out agents who have the preparation and skills to tackle those changes and the commitment to do so through concerted, collaborative efforts.