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Austin Calls on South Carolina State Grads to Lead, Serve

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III today called on South Carolina State University's Class of 2024 to give back to their communities and to the nation.

Austin compelled the graduates to use their unique talents to chart their own paths of service, underscoring the vital role young leaders will play in shaping the future for all Americans.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III shakes hands with a soldier in a lobby-type space with other troops in the background.
Secretary and Soldier
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III greets newly commissioned Army 2nd Lt. Corey Meggett during a visit with ROTC cadets at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C., May 9, 2024.
Photo By: Chad J. McNeeley, DOD
VIRIN: 240509-D-TT977-1348

"Class of 2024, we need your service to the nation," he said, "So find ways to make change, to contribute, and to be a part of something bigger than yourself." 

That service, Austin said, can take on a variety of forms — whether in uniform or as a civilian. 

"You'll find your own path," he said. "But in times like these, civic engagement is not optional." 

Since taking office, Austin has sustained a campaign to draw the nation's top talent toward public service. 

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III smiles while wearing a black graduation robe and standing in front of a microphone at a lectern.
Commencement Smile
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III delivers the commencement address at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C., May 10, 2024.
Photo By: Chad J. McNeeley, DOD
VIRIN: 240510-D-TT977-1151

Austin's visit to South Carolina State University, a historically Black university, further reflects his commitment to ensure that the nation's public workforce reflects the nation it serves. 

In his address to the school's graduates, Austin drew from his personal experience of growing up in the segregated south with teachers, family and mentors who encouraged him. He used this example to illustrate the necessity of drawing on the full talents of all Americans.  

"You never know what we lose when we leave someone out," he said. "We don't have one American to spare. We don't have one citizen to squander. And that means that we need to keep working together to knock down barriers, to level the playing field, and to let everybody compete to win." 

Austin credited teachers and mentors who inspired encouraged him as he charted his path forward, first to West Point and to eventually becoming the first Black secretary of defense.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III smiles while standing outside with a smiling ROTC cadet who holds up a phone for a selfie.
Cadet Selfie
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III takes a selfie with South Carolina State University ROTC cadet Casey Fore during a visit to the university in Orangeburg, S.C., May 9, 2024.
Photo By: Chad J. McNeeley, DOD
VIRIN: 240509-D-TT977-1433

Education, he said, is what will give the next generation "the power to make change, even when it's hard, and to help America live up to its full promise." 

Graduates from historically Black colleges and universities have long led the way in breaking through barriers.  

The nation's 107 HBCUs have helped produce 40% of America's Black engineers, 50% percent of Black lawyers, 70% of Black doctors and dentists and 80% of Black judges.

And throughout South Carolina State's 128-year history, graduates have left a long legacy of public service.  

The school's Army ROTC program has also produced more than 2,000 military officers since being established. 

Austin spoke with a group of newly commissioned officers and cadets from South Carolina State's ROTC on the eve of his commencement address.  

"This is a great program," he said. "And it has produced some tremendous leaders, many of whom I served with." 

He said the newly minted officers should have no doubt about whether they have what it takes to lead soldiers and carry the torch in defense of the nation. 

You are the future of our military. ... It won't get easier as the days go by. It will only get more challenging. Because of that, we need leaders who are skilled leaders, who are courageous leaders, who are dedicated and professional. You get that from places like this."
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III

Austin offered similar encouragement to the broader graduating class during his commencement address. 

"You've already proven that you're going to perform," he said. "Class of 2024, you were tested and you overcame. And you made it here today." 

That perseverance, he said, will be critical as the graduates navigate difficult challenges and shape the future of the nation.   

"Ladies and gentlemen, we don't get to choose our times," Austin said. "But we do get to shape our times. And in a democracy, that is especially relevant and a special responsibility for every citizen and for every member of this graduating class." 


While in South Carolina, Austin will further emphasize the value of service during a visit to the Future Soldier Preparatory Course at Fort Jackson.

The course is designed to help potential Army recruits overcome academic and fitness barriers to enlistment. More than 20,000 future soldiers have graduated from the course, adding to Army efforts to fill its ranks with high quality soldiers without sacrificing standards.  

Austin will also visit with troops stationed at Fort Jackson and underscore his commitment to take care of those who have chosen to serve.

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