Robert Gates speaks at CLA commencement on the rewards of public service
By Phyllis Shier and Gail Siegel, College of Liberal Arts
Robert M. Gates, then secretary of defense, delivered a commencement address on May 7 that emphasized hope in times of economic hardship.
Speaking to more than 1,000 WSU liberal arts and communication graduates at Pullman's Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum, he hailed the ability of America to adapt and overcome adversity. He told WSU graduates that the U.S. will remain an "indispensable nation," having rebounded from "bouts of declinism" in the past.
Public servants: The backbone of America
Gates attributed the nation's sustainability to Americans' willingness to step up and serve their country and called on newly minted graduates to consider careers in public service.
"It's precisely during these trying times that America needs its best and brightest young people from all walks of life to step forward to bring their talents and fresh perspectives to bear on the challenges facing this country," he said.
Gates drew applause from the crowd when he referenced the CIA and Navy SEAL operatives who had tracked and brought down Osama bin Laden earlier that week. He told graduates they didn't have to be part of these elite organizations to serve their country.
"Whatever the job," he said, "working in the public sector at some level offers a chance to serve your fellow citizens as well as learn the inner workings of our government and build skills that will stand you in good stead in facing other challenges in your career and in your life."
Acknowledging that today's political discourse is at times "rancorous and even tawdry," Gates encouraged graduates not to be disheartened or shy away from public service because of the current climate.
"After dealing with governments all over the world, I came to believe Americans have the most dedicated, capable, and honest public servants anywhere," he said.
Gates observed this, he said, when he was with the CIA during the Cold War years, working with other public servants from various agencies and from ranks ranging from administrative assistants to statesmen.
Shining examples of service
After his address, Gates proudly administered the oath of office to 19 graduates of WSU's ROTC program commissioned as officers and praised WSU's efforts in helping returning veterans realize their higher education goals.
Gates's directive was further underscored when CLA highlight students Chimaobin "Chima" Nwachukwu (B.A. '11, political science) and Trevor Park (B.F.A. '11) were acknowledged during the ceremony.
Both student leaders made the most of their time at WSU, developing the skills and acquiring the experience necessary to take up Gates's call to action. Through their dedicated efforts, they are already making the kind of impact Gates spoke of.
Outstanding Senior Chima Nwachukwu set the bar high for academic and athletic success. A WSU football safety, he spent his last WSU semester in Washington, D.C., interning for Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
Nwachukwu also has been active in other areas of WSU life, serving as president of Pi Sigma Alpha, the national honor society for political science; president of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee; and cochair of the PAC-10 Student Athlete Advisory Committee.
Extremely civic minded, Nwachukwu helped coordinate the "Cougs Helping Haiti" fundraiser and was instrumental in reviving the WSU Reading Buddies Program, where WSU student athletes help Pullman elementary students build reading skills.
Nwachukwu was named three times to the PAC-10 Conference All-Academic First Team and two times to the ESPN Academic All-America Second Team by the Sports Information Directors of America.
"Chima is a natural leader," said Nicholas Lovrich, regents professor of political science. "He embodies the ideal image of a student athlete. He was able to take full advantage of his experiences on WSU's campus and excel at the highest level."
Nwachukwu has been accepted to the Teach for America program and will serve the next two years teaching history and government to high school juniors at a charter school in Chicago.
Research over time has shown that Teach for America corps members, who work in the highest-need classrooms in the country, are more effective than traditionally certified teachers in improving student learning in math and are equally effective in reading/language arts, according to the program website.
Chima plans to attend law school and perhaps pursue a career as a federal prosecutor after that.
Trevor Park, Outstanding Senior for the Department of Fine Arts, is committed to using art as a way to reach others in the community and the world.
As an undergraduate, Park created a free cell phone audio tour of public art on WSU's Pullman campus called the Campus Art Tour (CATour).
By calling 509-653-5048 and following the prompts, campus visitors can listen to artists and other campus notables such as Glenn Johnson describe campus artwork and history. CATour maps are available at the WSU Visitor Center, Lighty Student Services, Museum of Art, Compton Union Building, and Lewis Alumni Centre.
In addition to his studies, studio work, and developing the CATour, Park served as president of the Art Student Union and the WSU Photography Club and as student cochair of the Visual, Performing, and Literary Arts Committee. He was also an active participant in the Broken Ground Art Union, a student group with a philanthropic mission, and in CLA alumni and recruitment events, where he represented his department and discipline.
"Trevor Park is an outstanding young man," said Chris Watts, interim chair of fine arts. "He is an excellent student who is positive, thoughtful, a terrific volunteer, and is clearly a compassionate human being."
A committed advocate for the arts, Park was invited to the 2010 Cultural Congress to present on his cofounded Grassroots Afterschool Arts Program, created to encourage youth in the Pullman community to develop their art.
Park's talents go beyond visual media and community outreach. He has also won acclaim for his cooking abilities, taking the "Best Burger" award in the Lewiston (Idaho) Burger Challenge for his Thai teriyaki BBQ burger.
Looking to the future, Park would love to work for a museum and may even decide to pursue a degree in architecture.
Coming home: Gates retires from public service
Gates, who served four and a half years as defense secretary under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, retired June 30 after more than four decades in the public sector.
He plans to move back to Washington state with his wife Becky, a WSU history graduate (B.A. '65) and member of the CLA Advisory Council. Their son Brad is also a Coug, having received his degree from WSU in movement studies (B.S. '03).
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CLA's Outstanding Seniors
Chima Nwachukwu and Trevor Park are just two examples of WSU's best and brightest graduates who are already fulfilling Gates's call to public service.
Every May, the College of Liberal Arts recognizes one student from each department who has excelled not only academically, but also in service to his or her department and the greater WSU community.