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The nation’s top education official told graduates of the University of Richmond to make community service a hallmark of their lives.

Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, spoke to 734 graduates of the School of Arts & Sciences, Jepson School of Leadership Studies and Robins School of Business. He said that at Richmond, students have a commitment to engaging with the city and rest of the world.

“I’m impressed that just about all of you have participated in some form of community service or community-based learning,” he said. “Keep it at the center of your ongoing learning experiences.”

Richmond students refer to themselves as “practical idealists” – a term that could be seen as a paradox. “I fundamentally disagree. I believe it’s only when we put our ideals into practice that they can transform lives,” he said.

As an example, Duncan recalled how his mother opened a free, after-school tutoring program in the South Side of Chicago to help elementary students who could not read. Many of those children have gone on to become scientists, surgeons, actors and educational leaders.

“I learned that in the right environment, all children can learn and succeed. … And that experience is the reason why I’ve tried to dedicate my life to reforming America’s schools.”

Prior to joining the Obama administration, Duncan spent seven years as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, overseeing notable improvements in the system’s schools.

Despite historically significant challenges in the world today, Duncan said he is optimistic about the future because of the smart graduates from around the nation who will use their educations to solve problems facing the United States and world. “Your knowledge will help you change the world. I urge you to go out and do just that.”

Student speaker Thomas Borwick of London urged his fellow graduates to think globally as they leave campus. “We have the whole world to venture into,” he said.

Twenty-seven of the graduates were international students, representing 23 countries.