Remarks by Senator Barack Obama at the Rockford Register Star Young American Awards

May 07, 2005

Thank you, and congratulations to all of this year's Young Americans.

Now that you've each received your award, I have one question for all of you:

What are you going to do with it?

I know that after you wear it out of here, your parents will proudly hang it up somewhere in the house where everyone can see it. And at some point you'll go off to college and, against our best wishes, probably find a way to use it to open certain beverages.

But my question is - what are you going to do with it? What are you going to make of this honor and this recognition? What will it mean in your lives?

The committee who gave you this award, your parents, all of us - we hope that it means you will go on to achieve great things, find immeasureable success, and discover the job of your dreams.

But we also hold another hope.

You're all sitting here because in each of you, someone saw a spark.

It's a spark that goes deeper than tests and grades, varsity letters and service awards. It's the spark that keeps each of you asking the questions, what if, why, and why not? The one that keeps you always searching for answers to those questions. The one that makes you say, "I don't have to be content with the present, because I have a role in changing the future."

What each of you has is the desire to learn not just for the next test or even the next diploma, but to learn for the sake of learning. To constantly look around your world and seek new ways to improve it. To embrace change as the inevitable engine of progress.

At the dawn of the 21st century, when the world is changing faster than we could've ever imagined, this spark, this skill - lifelong learning - is the most important thing you can take with you when you graduate here.

Why, you're wondering. What's he talking about?

Well, I'm talking about McDonald's.

Some of you may know that McDonald's headquarters is located over in Oak Brook, Illinois.

But what you may not know about is three very innovative McDonald's restaurants that have opened around the state.

At these restaurants, you pull up to a drive-through window to give your order. Nothing new there. But while you're pondering which processed food to order, your order's being processed by a voice that's sitting hundreds of miles away at a call center in Colorado or even Canada. There, they take a digital picture of your car, match it up with your order, and send it back to the people preparing your food. This makes the orders quicker, more accurate, and more profitable for McDonald's.

And just like that, driving back to yell at the person who forgot your fries could mean a 14 hour car ride.

So why am I telling this story? What does this mean for all of you?

It means that we haven't even begun to understand or feel the full impact of the technological revolution that happened in the last decade. It means walls between countries have been torn down and the global community has become more connected through the internet, cell phones, video phones, and other advances in communication.

And it leaves all of you with this challenge:

If the miracle of technology means that McDonald's can send its drive-thru jobs across the country, just think of where other companies can send theirs. And so while the first Young American Award winners in 1956 competed for jobs with kids in Illinois and Wisconsin and Iowa, you'll be competing with kids from India, China, and all over the world who are being educated more and longer than ever before.

So what do we do? What can you do?

We can't stop this, but we can be prepared for it. And as Young American award winners, you've already taken the first step.

See, in this new world, knowledge really is power. A new idea can lead not just to a new product or a new job, but entire new industries and a new way of thinking about the world.

And so you need to be the Idea Generation.

The generation who's always thinking on the cutting edge, who's wondering how to create and keep the next wave of American jobs and American innovations, who's figuring out how to out-compete the Idea Generations of Indias and Chinas of the world.

They're already sending drive-thru jobs across the country - what will you guys do?

To figure this out, you'll need to graduate first. Then you'll need a college diploma - and we need to make sure that everyone in America is afforded the chance to get one of those.

Last year, 220,000 young people gave up on their dream to go to college for the simple reason that they could not afford the price of tuition, which is now rising at the rate of almost 10% a year. If we have any hope of competing and winning in today's economy, we cannot let our kids' college dreams be dashed because of a hefty price tag. In Washington, I've been trying to do something about this by introducing the HOPE Act, which would make college more affordable for 430,000 Americans by increasing Pell Grant awards. But we must do more to make sure that young Americans here and everywhere have a chance at a college diploma.

But even beyond those diplomas, you'll need something else to succeed in the years ahead. You'll need to keep that spark that's got this far. The one that will keep you learning the new rules, solving the new mysteries, and discovering the new answers of this brand new century.

It is this fundamental character of the American spirit - the desire to move forward, look around the next corner, and reach for the unreachable - that put the first man on the moon, led to a cure for polio, and launched the technological revolution of the nineties.

And if you Young Americans keep that spirit alive, I think we'll be just fine.

Congratulations to all of you on your achievements, and may God Bless you. Thank you.