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United States Merchant Marine Academy Commencement Address

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
United States Merchant Marine Academy Commencement Address
Kings Point, New York
June 17, 2017

Thank you, Superintendent Helis.

Midshipmen, faculty, families, friends, alumni and guests.

I am so pleased to be here today, and to be with our very special guest: Senator Roger Wicker, and his lovely wife, Gayle.  Senator Wicker is one of the most distinguished supporters of the Merchant Marine Academy.  Thank you, Senator, for your strong support through the years.  Welcome to you and Gayle.

Let me also recognize academy alumnus and former Navy Seal, Adam LaRue, as well as the many alumni who are here today! And thank you, Chaplain Durham, for the invocation and benediction, and the representatives of the military for administering the oaths.  And of course, Commencement would not be the same without the Regimental Band.

What a special day this is!  There are so many reasons for choosing the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy for your education.  But I know that most of you applied out of a strong desire to serve our country.  As U.S. Merchant Marine Academy graduates, you are about to enter the ranks of an ancient and noble profession. Today, you embark upon a career of exploration and leadership and   join the ranks of defenders of our country. 

Fully 27 percent of you will go on active duty after graduation, and we salute you for choosing to serve our nation’s military.  Just last month our country witnessed the largest military activation of MARAD’s Ready Reserve Force since the start of the Gulf War in 2003. These ships participated in the Air Force’s successful ballistic missile intercept.  They supported three separate Army missions, with former Kings Point graduates and Midshipmen serving on, commanding and crewing both military and commercial cargo ships.

This Academy continues to provide our nation with new generations of highly-trained officers to operate the merchant fleet and sealift vessels that are critical to our country’s defense and economic prosperity.   You are the skilled mariners that our nation will turn to time and again.

For those of you who will go to sea, your career will take you around the world, and introduce you to many new people and cultures in an increasingly globalized world.  It will also take you away from home for long periods of time.  Alone at sea with your shipmates, you will be leaders of a small, self-contained world.  You will be called upon to successfully resolve every nautical and technical challenge you encounter.  And you will be called upon to successfully navigate issues regarding interpersonal relationships as well.   That calls for a strong moral center, values, and character.

As you know, the merchant marine has special meaning for me.   I previously served as Deputy Maritime Administrator and Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission.  So I am a strong supporter of the U.S. merchant marine, and the U.S. maritime industry.  In addition, my father began his career as a merchant mariner and became one of the youngest sea captains of his time at the age of 29.  So this profession has deep and lasting roots in my career and in my heart.  

As the daughter of a merchant mariner, I fully appreciate the challenges and rewards of the seafaring life.  One of the clearest beacons you will find in carrying out your duties is the motto of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, which is “ACTA NON VERBA,” or deeds not words. 

Deeds will define your character.  And character will determine your career and your legacy.

Equally so, you will be expected to exercise leadership and judgement in carrying out your duties.  One of the most important aspects of leadership is to possess a solid foundation of core beliefs, or principles.  Often, a leader is not the smartest person in the room.  A leader is the person who possesses a fundamental set of beliefs and principles and sets a personal example for others.  Without a strong moral compass, it is too easy to be swayed by a clever argument, be led astray, or just follow the crowd.  A good leader is someone who knows what is right, and has the courage to do the right thing and lead others along the way.

When you are young, you may not understand this.  At the end of a long life, your reputation and the love, affection and respect you command from family, friends, and peers, are the most important treasures in life that you can attain.  

Today marks an important date in your lives, and for this school, as we celebrate your graduation.  At Kings Point, and in life, character matters.  As graduates of this school, we hope you will always be principled leaders who will have the courage to do what is right and inspire others to do the same.

There are many examples of principled leaders all around you.  Look around for the inspiring leaders in your family, and among your teachers and mentors, and learn from them. Leadership is not easy; it takes hard work and practice.  The encouraging news is none of us are born with leadership abilities.  But, through practice, we can become better leaders. 

For me, my father was the principled leader who inspired me early in life.  In his life, he faced many challenges but he was always optimistic, forward looking and steady in his core values.  Let me share just one story.

My father, Dr. James S.C. Chao, was born in a small farming village outside  Shanghai, China.  His father was a respected school teacher, so his parents always emphasized the importance of education. 

My father won scholarships that enabled him to attain his education.  In 1949 amidst the Chinese Civil War, my father boarded a ship to finish his last requirement for graduation – a seagoing apprenticeship.  Sound familiar?   His father came unexpectedly all the way from the village to send his only child off on what they both thought was to be a short voyage. But shortly after leaving Shanghai, there was a change in Government, and the port was closed.  Young mariner James Chao never saw his father again.  This separation has always been a source of sadness for my father and our family.  Yet this setback did not deter my father from pursuing his dreams, because his family had provided him with a strong foundation and clear principles.

As a young man, my father had a seemingly impossible dream—to visit Kings Point! The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy was-- and is-- known worldwide for its fine maritime education, and my father had hoped to study here.  But he never had the opportunity. So I invited him to be with us today, as my Father’s Day gift to him.  His story is proof that you never know where life will lead you, and that it is never too late to realize your dreams, even if only in part.  

As you embark on your exciting new adventure in life, may you always carry in your heart the motto of this institution: deeds, not words and act upon it.  You may not always have smooth sailing.  But the way forward will always be clear, like a beacon shinning from shore to guide you safely home.

May God bless you, and may God bless America!

Updated: Wednesday, June 28, 2017
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