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For Inspiration, Class of 2011 Should Look to Slovakia

06/01/2011 05:35 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2011

It's graduation season across America. From the biggest cities to the smallest towns, high school and college students are donning their mortarboards and receiving their hard-earned diplomas.

And, as usual, no one's asked me to pontificate at his or her graduation. (What a shame!) But I'm not that easy to dissuade:

Graduates of the Class of 2011: Congratulations! You're about to enter a workforce that's still in recovery and a nation that is, once again, slowly getting up on its feet. The challenges are huge. But the opportunities even greater. Let me explain why that's much more than a platitude.

Last week, I had the honor of visiting Bratislava, Slovakia. The Slovak people have tremendous pride in their country. It is a quiet, yet fiercely strong pride; a pride on display most aggressively during hockey games, but even more so in the smiles and inquisitive nature of the people you meet. They are revolutionaries who created their country just 18 years ago through determination and nationwide non-violent strikes, resulting in what the Slovaks call their "Gentle Revolution." They seem to know that each of them is a piece of history.

I was fascinated to meet the now not-so-young Slovaks who, in their youth, had helped make their country what it is today. Take Marian Volent, who today works in the U.S. Embassy as a Commercial Specialist for the U.S. Department of Commerce. In 1989, he was a college student who became a part of the movement that eliminated socialism from Slovakia.

In 1989, I was also a senior in college. But I was here in the U.S., more focused on getting through my last year of studies than changing the world. But Marian and his friends did what was unthinkable. By striking throughout the country, they toppled the Communist regime and created a nation.

At any moment, Marian assumed he would be killed or kidnapped. He assumed his family would be abducted. Once, during his obligatory military service, he and his friends decided to strike peacefully by not speaking or wearing their uniforms. They sat quietly with their hands folded while the commandant yelled and screamed in their faces. Marian and his friends had no idea what would come next. Was it prison? Death? Instead, the commandant wound up so flustered and angry he fled the room. "And that's when we got really scared," recalled Marian. "We assumed he'd left to get the Military Police to take us away. Instead, he simply never came back. No one did." It was the beginning of the end of the Communist military -- and the beginning of Slovakia.

Today, that determination and pride is still evident throughout Slovakia. The nation still faces great challenges, energy security being chief among them. But I have no doubt that they will meet this challenge head on, like they have met all others. Just like young Marian and his friends faced the great challenges to their own freedom, happiness and success.

As you graduate here in the U.S., you each can be a part of your own revolution: an energy revolution. Already in your lifetimes, we're driving electric vehicles, we're powering our buildings with energy from the wind and sun, and we're creating programs and opportunities for all of us to use less energy -- while doing more. This clean energy revolution will create jobs and strengthen the American economy.

The road ahead may seem difficult. But don't forget the you're on the front lines of something big. We're counting on you!

Brian Keane is the President of SmartPower, a non-profit marketing organization funded by private foundations to help build the clean energy marketplace by helping the American public become smarter about their energy use.