At U-Md. Graduation, Panetta Urges Service, Leadership

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009

CIA Director Leon Panetta told University of Maryland graduates last night that problems facing the country, from high unemployment to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, are not just abstractions for the Class of 2009.

"You have a personal stake in whether we meet those challenges," he told the more than 7,000 graduates.

Panetta emphasized the importance of public service and leadership but didn't talk about recent controversies over the interrogation of terrorist suspects, which have dominated the news lately. He told graduates: "You have the greatest opportunity of any generation in my lifetime to make clear that crisis is not the legacy that you are going to pass on to the future."

As the ceremony began, jubilant students snapped photos of one another, called parents on cellphones and tipped their heads to show off messages taped on their mortarboards ("Stu," "Proud to be a Terp" and "Need a Job!"). One graduate stood on his chair, arms spread eagle, grinning at his family in the stands above. Another blew bubbles that drifted through the Comcast Center.

Other area graduates also celebrated yesterday. In Baltimore, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told the 1,100 arts and sciences and engineering graduates from Johns Hopkins University that global warming is the "greatest challenge of our day."

The U-Md. graduates were quiet as they listened to student speaker Reginald Dwayne Betts tell his story. When he was 16, he stood in front of a judge and was sentenced to nine years in prison for carjacking.

"No one in the room at that time would have predicted that I make it here," Betts said, prompting applause. One classmate stood and honked an air horn. "A college graduate, with the honor of speaking to our classmates."

But he wrote his way out of that life: He became a poet.

"While in prison, I chose to believe more in the world of knowledge and literature than in the world of violence and insanity that surrounded me," he said.

Panetta told graduates that they all "hope this country will be okay, but that doesn't mean a . . . thing unless you're willing to fight for it."

"The fact is that your millennial generation is already changing our nation and the world for the better," he said. "You are giving this good and decent country an era of civic involvement and purpose. Go forward, knowing that you are greater than the challenges of your time."

He got a standing ovation when he closed with, "Class of 2009, the torch is yours. Good luck, Godspeed and go Terps!"

The Baltimore Sun contributed to this report.

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