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‘You can find opportunities to lead from right here.’ My advice to the Beaufort County Community College class of 2022.

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Beaufort County Community College held their first in-person commencement ceremony since 2019 last week. Over 1,000 people assembled in the Washington High School auditorium to support the 200-plus graduates of the college.

It was my distinct honor to be invited to address the crowd.

Beaufort County Community College serves Beaufort, Hyde, Tyrrell, and Washington counties. These counties are rural, defined in part by their proximity to the Pamlico-Tar River and the Atlantic coastline, and rich with history. Bath, the first town established in North Carolina, sits within the boundaries of Beaufort County. Stories of the famed pirate Blackbeard can be found on roadside signs and on restaurant menus.

Beyond the history of the region, the BCCC service area is also a region that has worked hard to leverage their resources to create opportunities. Check out our Anchored in Washington video we published last week to learn more about the “lane of entrepreneurship” that is driving growth in Washington.

BCCC president David Loope asked me to speak to the possibilities that a changing world has provided for residents of rural communities. I focused on access to work opportunities on a global scale, the ability to create impact that goes beyond the borders of their town and county, and the chance to decide for themselves the path that best suits their unique talents.

2022 Beaufort County Community College graduates. Courtesy of Beaufort County Community College

To the degree that I have lessons for the graduates, I shared that it is the complexity of life that provides us with the challenges and opportunities that will define our lives:

As I’ve learned all too well, you don’t know what challenges — or opportunities – life will present to you. We live in an age of unprecedented change, but just remember, with all of the complexities come tremendous opportunities to have an impact here, to work for global companies here, to solve international problems here in Beaufort County and provide an example to the entire world.

The global pandemic — and the upheaval that followed — have created a remarkable opportunity for you all. All of the changes we have experienced have sparked a desire in people around the globe to seek a fresh start. Remote work opportunities have sprung up at companies big and small. It has never been easier to start a company or a nonprofit in a small town and scale your work beyond our borders. People are moving to towns just like Washington in pursuit of a different lifestyle, and they will need houses, coffee, furniture, local food, and a place to gather. In other words, people all over the world need the talent you possess. 

And I tried to offer a counterbalance to the steady drumbeat of negative news we all hear too frequently:

Contrary to the headlines and what is on cable news, I am not sure a better time has ever existed in human history. Average life expectancies have risen for decades, we’ve cured or contained many diseases, the poverty rate globally has dropped significantly, more people have access to knowledge than ever before.

The challenges persist — and it is on all of us to do something about them. Too many people remain stuck in a cycle of poverty. Too many people by virtue of where they are born and where they live face poorer health outcomes and shorter life expectancies than people just a few miles away. Our schools and colleges often have too few resources.

But you have the ability to make a difference on all of those challenges here at home. You can embrace the familiar and build a community. You can find opportunities in our complex, rapidly changing world to lead from right here. 

Below you will find the full video of my remarks and the written text.

Nation Hahn delivers the 2022 Beaufort County Community College Commencement Address. Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC

Remarks as written for delivery for the May 12, 2022 commencement for Beaufort County Community College.

Good evening. Thank you, President Loope, for your leadership and the warm introduction. 

We are here to celebrate the 2022 graduates of Beaufort County Community College. 

This night is about you.

All of your hard work and all of the challenges and all of your experiences added up to this moment. The nights you stayed up late, the days you woke up early, the constant “fitting in” class work between jobs and family and life. Not to mention a global pandemic. So let us begin with congratulations!

President Loope was kind enough to tell you something about what I’ve accomplished so far in my work and in public service, but it doesn’t tell you a whole lot about my own rural upbringing, my family, my challenges, or any of the many things that have made my life rich and full.

My biography also doesn’t mention that I’ve had the good fortune to spend time in Washington and Beaufort County. I served on the board of the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation — and during my tenure I discovered a love for Bill’s Hot Dogs.

It was great to return this afternoon after a few years away and walk through downtown Washington. I saw new businesses and a remarkable vibrancy that should make you proud. 

I am grateful for the chance to be here. 

Tonight I am going to share three pieces of advice I have learned during my own journey. These lessons have been helpful for me, so I hope they can provide value for you.

First, I want to talk about the opportunity in front of you.

All of us would like for our time here on Earth to matter. We would like to make a difference. 

Our ability to make a difference can take many forms — such as mentoring children through a church or YMCA, starting a community garden, or driving aging family members and neighbors to medical appointments. It can mean running for office and passing laws, starting a company that provides good paying jobs to people in your community, or leading an institution like this college.

My family grew up in Lenoir, a midsized factory town in western North Carolina. It has around double the population of Beaufort, and it sits about an hour from three larger cities.

Growing up, every message I received from television, magazines, and — eventually — the internet made it seem as if impact only happened in New York or D.C. or even Raleigh. The messages absorbed time and time again told me I needed to leave home.

It would have been nice to hear something radically different along the way: We can make a difference anywhere, and in a variety of ways. 

Your individual ability to create an impact is a gift. Our collective ability to create an impact comes in all shapes and sizes, and you don’t have to wait to be in a position of power or influence to make a difference. In fact, impact might even come quicker for people like those of you in this room if you decided to root yourselves where you’re from and where people know who you are. 

At EdNC, we’ve seen it time and time again through our travels across the state.

We’ve seen it in the form of folks like Stephen Hill and Trent Mooring in Kinston who moved back to their hometown — or stayed there in the first place — and gave dozens of people jobs and hundreds of people a place to gather at their brewery and hotel. 

We’ve met Henry Crews in Henderson who, at an age when most people are retiring, launched an organization to spark economic growth and use agriculture to spark social change.

We’ve seen the impact of Teach for America teachers like my colleagues Seth and Erin and Donnell in Edgecombe County, who might not be “from around here” but who have fallen in love with Eastern N.C., stayed, and launched innovative approaches that have changed the lives of thousands of students.

They have shown us all the impact you can have in rural North Carolina at any age.

A second lesson comes from urban North Carolina. I’ve mostly lived in the Triangle since 2004 — and I can tell you that for all of our assets, we crave many of the things that you have right here: a beautiful waterfront; the ability to spend time outside hunting, hiking, or fishing; deep, meaningful history.

Beyond that, you also have the connection we are all seeking as human beings — intimacy and familiarity.

In Raleigh and Durham, many of our churches and membership organizations create small groups to help us get to know a select number of folks and build bonds with them.

We create recreational leagues based on location or age or identity. 

My friends go to the same coffee shops and restaurants in hopes of becoming regulars.

It is that connection that we all missed so deeply in the throes of the pandemic.

These attempts to create community within a community are not unique to urban areas. Even in rural spaces we have to work to find community, but in rural areas there is the advantage of proximity and engagement. You just get to see folks more regularly. In our crowded, growing cities, I’ve found we have to be so much more intentional — we have to go the extra mile to find what you have right here.

And, ultimately, as a good friend of mine often says — you have the opportunity to be in relationship with one another and to live out what rural author and champion Wendell Berry once dubbed “membership.” 

Membership, in essence, is what happens when we recognize our place among the people, animals, and land that make up our community. And, once we recognize one another and our place in the world, membership comes when we also decide we have a responsibility to one another.

Some people spend their entire lives seeking membership, connection, and impact. Staying in rural North Carolina doesn’t mean you are guaranteed those things — you still have to work for them — but choosing to live here (or somewhere a lot like here) might just help you find the things many of us spend our time seeking.

And, finally, allow me to state the obvious: We live in a rapidly changing world.

I recently visited Bennett College, one of North Carolina’s 10 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Bennett president Suzanne Walsh introduced our group to the term “VUCA moments.”

VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. 

In short, VUCA stands for moments — and periods of time — that can both shape our lives and are largely out of our individual control the moment they happen.

We cannot stop a global pandemic by ourselves. We cannot combat inflation on our own. We cannot necessarily bring all of the jobs back when a plant closes. So, you may ask, what then?

The answer lies within you.

I’ve suffered a number of tragedies in my life. Most recently, my mother, who remained in her rural community her entire life, died from an accidental overdose. With tragedy comes lessons I’d rather learn another way, but lessons nonetheless. And the biggest thing I’ve learned during all of the difficult periods of my life is that we must learn to control what we can control.

And part of controlling what we can control means meeting uncertain moments with a sense of purpose.

During my travels across the state, I’ve met any number of people who met the moment and made a difference.

In Tarboro, I met Inez and Stephen Ribustello, who started a successful restaurant and brewery there after losing their jobs and too many people they cared about during 9/11.

I’ve met innovators in Kannapolis, a mill town that endured the largest one-day layoff in the history of the state. These folks, including Mayor Darrell Hinnant, rolled up their sleeves, turned their vacant mill town into a downtown, and worked to stand up the North Carolina Research Campus in hopes of sparking innovations. Their town is bustling now.

I’ve met community health workers in Surry County who were on the frontlines of providing farmworkers with health care during the pandemic. They literally brought internet to the fields to provide those workers with health care online so they didn’t have to leave work to make sure they were well. They worked day in and day out to make sure everyone in their community could handle the complexities of COVID.

And, tonight, I have the chance to meet all of you. Graduates, the family members who supported you, the faculty and staff who worked alongside you, and your neighbors and friends who are so proud of all of you.

As I’ve learned all too well, you don’t know what challenges or opportunities life will present to you. We live in an age of unprecedented change, but just remember, with all of the complexities come tremendous opportunities to have an impact here, to work for global companies here, to solve international problems here in Beaufort County and provide an example to the entire world.

The global pandemic — and the upheaval that followed — have created a remarkable opportunity for you all. All of the changes we have experienced have sparked a desire in people around the globe to seek a fresh start. Remote work opportunities have sprung up at companies big and small. It has never been easier to start a company or a nonprofit in a small town and scale your work beyond our borders. People are moving to towns just like Washington in pursuit of a different lifestyle, and they will need houses, coffee, furniture, local food, and a place to gather. In other words, people all over the world need the talent you possess.

Contrary to the headlines and what is on cable news, I am not sure a better time has ever existed in human history. Average life expectancies have risen for decades, we’ve cured or contained many diseases, the poverty rate globally has dropped significantly, more people have access to knowledge than ever before.

The challenges persist — and it is on all of us to do something about them. Too many people remain stuck in a cycle of poverty. Too many people by virtue of where they are born and where they live face poorer health outcomes and shorter life expectancies than people just a few miles away. Our schools and colleges often have too few resources.

But you have the ability to make a difference on all of those challenges here at home. You can embrace the familiar and build a community. You can find opportunities in our complex, rapidly changing world to lead from right here. 

And in this town, in membership and relationship with the people you’ve known your whole life, you can also find joy and love and purpose — even in the hard moments — if you retain the curiosity and quest for learning that led you to this college and this night.

Author Anne Lamott writes often about our journey through life, and when discussing the hardships we face as we age, she wrote, “How can we know all this, yet somehow experience joy? Because that’s how we’re designed — for awareness and curiosity. We are hardwired with curiosity inside us, because life knew that this would keep us going even in bad sailing… Life feeds anyone who is open to taste its food, wonder, and glee — it’s immediacy.”

The question before you is: What are you going to do with what poet Mary Oliver called our “one, precious life” that you have been granted? What are you going to do to leave your family, community, and world a little better? 

It is a question we all face.

Wherever you find yourself next, and wherever you go, you can choose to take the skills and experiences and connections that you have gained during your time at Beaufort County Community College to make a difference. But, most of all, you can use those skills and experiences to embrace a rich and full life in this complex world.

We all have exactly one shot.

Let’s make the most of it.

BCCC President David Loope awards a degree. Courtesy of Beaufort County Community College
Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the director of growth for EducationNC.