Spring in South Dakota may be one of my favorite seasons. While South Dakotans understand the unpredictability of our spring weather, the month of May always brings back great memories. It makes me think back to watching my daughters Brittany and Larissa compete at the Howard Wood Relays and state track meets – events that continue to be on my "can't miss list" each year – celebrating my wife, Kimberley, and daughters every Mother's Day, and attending high school and college graduations, a symbol of change and growth.
There’s no doubt this past year has been tough, especially for students, teachers, and administrators who faced unique challenges. My parents were both educators. My mother was our school librarian, and my father was a teacher, coach, athletic director, and drove the school bus. Growing up, I saw firsthand the long hours and dedication they gave to their students. Because of this, I have an immense appreciation for our educators. I am extra appreciative in a year where, despite the adversities faced, South Dakota's teachers and educators rose to the occasion and did everything they could to ensure students continued to get the quality education they deserve. It certainly wasn't easy, but our schools not only managed these challenges, they exceeded expectations. I couldn't be more proud.
I know our students have also felt the challenges of the past year and a half. It could not have been easy to see traditions slip by uncelebrated while schools took necessary health precautions. I'm glad to see that the most cherished tradition of all – graduation – is happening this year across our state.
Whenever I speak to young South Dakotans, whether at graduations, sporting events, or in the U.S. Capitol, I often encourage them to live a life of purpose and be difference-makers. Growing up in the small town of Murdo, I could have never expected that I would one day represent South Dakota in the U.S. Senate. But I was blessed to have doors open in my life and am grateful to have had parents and mentors who encouraged me to push them open to see what was on the other side. I'll give the same advice to the class of 2021: If an opportunity comes along, don't be afraid to go for it. You never know where it might lead you.
The second thing I always tell young South Dakotans is to pursue excellence. I don't mean to tell them that they have to be the best player on their basketball team, get straight As in their classes, or get into their dream college. Of course, it's wonderful to achieve excellence, but what I encourage is that they pursue excellence – pursue excellence by trying that sport or talent that is difficult, pursue excellence by taking that course that might challenge them, pursue excellence by being kind to all the people in their lives – in person and online. Do your best every day. Don’t do a job half way. Don't just go through the motions. Commit to whatever you are doing.
When thinking back to this time last year, graduations in many towns looked different. Virtual learning had temporarily replaced in-classroom learning, and adjustments were made to the typical graduation formats. What a difference a year can make. With the rollout of the vaccine and increased knowledge of COVID-19, ceremonies throughout the state will look much closer to normal. Graduates have proven their ability to overcome the adversity of the last year and will be able to celebrate their accomplishments with family and friends safely. I'm hopeful for the future of the graduates of 2021. I know they will do great things.