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December 19, 2009

Board of Supervisors Chair to ULM graduates: Education opens Doors

Elsie Burkhalter, chair of the University of Louisiana System Board of Supervisors, told new graduates of the University of Louisiana at Monroe on Saturday that she hoped each would remember that education opens doors.

Burkhalter delivered the commencement address at ULM’s Fall Commencement Exercises on Saturday, Dec. 19, in Fant-Ewing Coliseum. ULM President James E. Cofer conferred 454 degrees to 456 students, several who graduated with honors.

The top five honor graduates all earned 4.00 grade point averages. They were: Max Antony of Anacoco, a criminal justice major; Abby Comeaux of West Monroe, a kinesiology major; Jeffrey Kendrick of Jena, a biology major; Lauren Smith of Pineville, a criminal justice and English double major; and Thomas Tugwell of Monroe, an insurance major.

“The work that you have undertaken at this university for the past two, four, six and maybe even 10 years has not been in vain,” Burkhalter told those assembled. “Today, you join an elite group – only 20 percent of Louisiana citizens hold a bachelor’s degree or higher and only 27 percent nationally.”

Burkhalter said that in Louisiana, less than seven percent hold a graduate or professional degree.

“For some of you, this is just one step on your education journey … for others, this is the gateway to a new career,” said Burkhalter as she highlighted the accomplishments of several individual members of the Fall Class of 2009.

Burkhalter said that although she was happy to denote the work of a few individuals, each and every graduate has a unique story.

“Whether you’ve held down three jobs while going to school, completed all your coursework online, or traveled hundreds or thousands of miles across state and national boundaries to attend ULM, you are all to be commended,” she said.

The ULS Chair and former classroom teacher said she always told her students there are three stages of life: Education, Work life and Retirement. She said since a person’s work life is the longest phase, his or her education is the most important because it helps a person achieve a fulfilling and enjoyable career.

But education does not stop when graduates receive their degrees at commencement, said Burkhalter.

“You must become a lifelong learner – always seeking ways to add to your knowledge base,” she said. “And, you must be an advocate for education.”

Burkhalter encouraged graduates to support their alma mater through words, volunteerism and charitable giving, “just as your university has supported you.”

“Your education has given you the tools you need to be successful. It is now up to you to use those tools for the betterment of yourself and others,” she said. “You now have the potential to make a house into a home because education opens all kinds of doors.”

Burkhalter concluded by leaving the graduates with advice by Dr. Kent Keith that was promoted by Mother Teresa. Part of that advice was that the biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.

“Think big anyway,” said Burkhalter. “People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway … Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.”

Burkhalter, a lifelong resident of St. Tammany Parish, is president of St. Tammany Federation of Teachers and School Employees. As president, she helped the federation grow into one of the most influential education organizations in the parish and one of the largest local chapters of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. The St. Tammany federation is the only AFT local in Louisiana to have "wall-to-wall" representation, bargaining for all eight units of school employees in the district.

New Orleans Magazine recently named Burkhalter as one of “50 People to Watch” and City Business Magazine also featured Burkhalter in both 2006 and 2007.

Burkhalter, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention for the past six years, was named a 2008 super delegate. She was among 22 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in July 1992 honored for her contributions to the community as part of the America the Beautiful salute. Burkhalter and the other delegates represented a cross-section of outstanding Americans.

In addition to her duties as an AFT local president, Burkhalter also serves as a vice president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and is a member of the AFT Teachers program and policy council. The American Federation of Teachers represents the economic, social and professional interests of classroom teachers and is an affiliated international union of the AFL-CIO.

Burkhalter earned a bachelor’s degree from Southern University in Baton Rouge and a Masters of Education from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. She formerly taught in the St. Tammany Parish School System.

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