Vice President Joe Biden told more than 3,000 college graduates that they are at a watershed moment with a chance to shape history that few generations ever encounter.
He urged them during a commencement address Sunday to imagine a better world, and then get involved and help make improvements.
"There is a much greater risk in accepting a situation we know we cannot sustain than in steeling our spine and embracing the challenge of change," Biden said to students from Syracuse University and the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
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"It is totally within your power to shape history. ... This has been the journey of America since its inception," said Biden, a 1968 graduate of Syracuse's law school, speaking to more than 19,000 people in the Carrier Dome.
Biden recalled how he, too, faced anxiety and uncertainty when graduating from college in the mid-1960s. The country was conflicted over the Vietnam War, the public's faith in its elected officials was waning, race riots were tearing apart America and two of its most promising leaders — Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy — were assassinated.
"All over this great country, a sense of hopelessness and helplessness began to take hold," Biden said.
"But as I walked across that stage, I never doubted for one instant that we could change that history, that we could rewrite the outcome we were careening toward, and we did," he said.
"It's 2009. Now it's your turn. You are graduating into a world of anxiety and uncertainty ... ," said Biden, pointing to a troubled economy, two wars and a planet in environmental peril.
"These are the challenges you face. But these are the moments you can embrace. Throughout the span of history, only a handful of us ever get a chance to actually shape the course of history," said the vice president, who received several standing ovations.
Biden noted that change already is coming, singling out the election of the nation's first African-American president. Barack Obama's election has renewed his optimism, the vice president said. He told graduates their generation already has shown its commitment by increasing volunteerism in social, civic and community groups.
"For those who tell you you are doing too much, be smart enough to ignore them. For those who say what we dream can't be done, be naive enough to give it a shot. For those who say now is not the time, say 'if not now, when?'" Biden said.
Biden has returned to Syracuse frequently during his career, giving the keynote address for Syracuse's law school in 1994, 2002 and 2006. Biden also delivered the keynote speech at the law school's centennial celebration in 1995.
He received Syracuse's Chancellor Medal in 1980 and in 2005 was awarded the school's Arents Medal, its highest alumni recognition.
Biden also is scheduled to deliver commencement remarks at Wake Forest University on May 18 and at the U.S. Air Force Academy on May 27.
After his speech, Biden met with a group of students from Bellevue Elementary School in Syracuse.
Biden's first wife, Neilia, taught there in the late 1960s when it was called Bellevue Heights School, while the couple lived in Syracuse during his law school days.
Students wrote Biden inviting him to their school.
"It's awesome," said Joanne Harlow, principal at Bellevue. "To see the excitement on the kids' faces when I told them they were going to meet the vice president ... they were beside themselves."