CIA leader, activist tell CSUS grads to help and connect with others

TURLOCK — The nation's spy boss and a cable TV commentator delivered graduation speeches in two very different styles Friday. But their central message essentially was the same: public service is the key to the nation's future.

"This is no time to stand back and complain; this is the time to stand up and be counted," CIA Director Leon Panetta told graduating students at California State University, Stanislaus, periodically urging all Americans to be "citizen soldiers."

His buttoned-down delivery at the university's 50th commencement exercises was contrasted by the charismatic-preacher style of Marc Lamont Hill, an activist and associate professor in New York. But Hill also encouraged students to go forth and conquer by getting involved.

"You must leverage your gifts and talents in service of your country," Hill said.

No mention was made of a coming speaking engagement that has drawn much more interest, if not a national flap. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's June 25 visit to a 50th anniversary fund-raiser will cost a sold-out crowd $500 each, and the university foundation by contract can't reveal what it's paying her.

But Hill, who is getting $28,000, mentioned Palin in the context of minority and female public servants emerging at a time when a black man leads the United States.

"The idea of so much diversity is nothing short of stunning," Hill said.

About half of the university's 2,345 students receiving bachelor's and master's degrees attended Friday's commencement. The rest are expected at a second ceremony this morning at 8, when Hill will speak again. Panetta, who appeared without pay, was booked only for Friday.

He didn't mention it, but this was Panetta's second appearance at the Turlock campus. He helped dedicate a hall here in December 1998, a little less than two years after leaving the White House as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff.

Panetta, who spoke last year at the University of Maryland's commencement, is not expected to address any others this year. He said he has a fondness for the CSU system, having established the Panetta Institute for Public Policy with his wife at CSU, Monterey Bay.

He implored students to find time away from cell phones, iPods, Blackberries and other electronic gadgets, and to connect with others face-to-face.

"Yes, this is the information age," Panetta said, "but we cannot allow it to become the isolation age."

Hill expanded on the idea, encouraging people to shut out distractions and listen intently to each other, making time to understand the weary and downtrodden.

"We can never move forward unless we appreciate the struggle," said Hill, billed as "one of the leading hip-hop generation intellectuals in the country."

Graduate Omar De La Cruz said he's helped with the school's past few ceremonies and was most touched by those who addressed his own commencement Friday. He was inspired "to keep fighting the good fight," he said after shaking hands with Hill, who mingled with students and their families after the ceremony.

"It was very moving," said Cathy Lund, an accounting graduate.

The school's youngest graduate, 19-year-old Kamalpreet Gill, said the ceremony was "above and beyond what I expected."

She graduated from Manteca High School at 16 and jammed more studies into her schedule than most to achieve a biology degree. She hopes to enter medical school in the fall, she said. "If I can inspire others to go to school, go for it," Gill said.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.