Thank you, President Jerome, members of the Board of Trustees, and distinguished faculty. And congratulations to the graduates of the Monroe College Class of 2015—and your proud parents, families, and friends.
When I look out at you in your caps and gowns, I see myself at your age. I see young people who have worked hard to overcome adversity—whether economic or emotional, physical or environmental. You pushed past the obstacles, the uncertainty, and doubt, and you will leave here today with undergraduate and graduate degrees. How remarkable is that! Take a moment and revel in your accomplishments.
It is an honor to address you today, and to have walked in your shoes.
Like many of you, I am a first-generation American. My parents emigrated from Spain during the Spanish Civil War. More than anything, they wanted their children to have the opportunity to fulfill their destinies. They themselves had no more than a third-grade education.
Like you, I faced my share of obstacles. I entered school unable to speak English. It was isolating to sit in a strange classroom, in a strange city, unable to communicate with my classmates or teachers. But my father wasn’t about to let me feel sorry for myself.
He was adamant that a great education was much more than just an option: it was a necessity. He supported me, encouraged me, and pushed me, and made it clear that I could achieve whatever I set my mind to. He also encouraged me to be forceful with my opinions and clear in my purpose.
Perhaps, most importantly, by keeping alive the memory of the fight for a democratic Spain, my father instilled in me a lifelong yearning to find purpose and to embody it—and use it. “Give back” was his motto.
As an adult, when I discovered the Marge Piercy poem, “To be of use,” I recognized myself in the characters she so vividly described, people who, quote, “jump into work head first, without dallying in the shallows, and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.”
I truly believe we all want to be of use, to—as Piercy writes—“submerge in the task.”
With diligent, hard work, I submerged fully and committed myself to a life as a public servant. Like so many of you, I worked fulltime—as a public school teacher—and went to graduate school at night and on weekends. I earned three Master’s degrees that way.
I eventually became a staff developer, principal, superintendent, and deputy chancellor. And at age 70, I came out of retirement when Mayor de Blasio asked me to become the New York City Schools Chancellor.
As Chancellor, and throughout my nearly 50-year career in education, I have worked to ensure that all students have the tools they need to succeed. I share the Mayor’s vision of one school system rising together—because all children, no matter where they live or what their parents do for a living, deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams.
I know that most of you graduated from our public schools, and that many of you have worked fulltime and raised families while completing your studies. I understand the challenges you have faced, balancing the competing demands of work, school, and children. Some of you have done this alone, without support from spouses or partners. I would like to take a moment to applaud you.
You have proven that you can confront hard work and that you’re committed to your own success. You do what it takes, you multi-task, and you see results. Today, you’re entering careers in criminal justice, hospitality, the culinary arts, information technology and, yes, education.
For those of you going into education, I want to thank Monroe College for encouraging you to work in high-needs elementary schools in your own communities. This is public service at its finest.
Just as I believe in the power of education to change lives, I believe in the beauty and integrity of work. Being the best that you can be elevates all work and ensures that you will be of use.
Mayor de Blasio and I want our children and educators to aim high—and have made it our mission to prepare students not just for college but for the most in-demand jobs in the information economy. We’ve put a real emphasis on computer science and tech-oriented career and technical education.
At schools across the City, students are immersing themselves in such areas as architectural drafting; software engineering, including coding, robotics, web development, and physical computing; and graphic arts, including animation, film, and media.
I know Monroe shares our core values of marrying strong academic programs with real-life skills.
I am very excited for each of you. You have listened to your inner wisdom and stayed the course, and made it to this day. Any number of situations and life events could have derailed your dreams. But you remained true to your vision.
And now I would like to share a few thoughts gleaned over my life that may be helpful to you as you begin your professional journeys.
First, cherish who you are, your rich heritage and language, and the values that have enabled you to get where you are today. You may be too young to realize this, but the obstacles you have overcome and the triumphs you have achieved make you stronger and smarter and more valuable in the 21st-century economy. Employers are seeking people like you who can relate to and inspire others, who are good communicators, technically literate, who think outside the box, and who can make decisions and solve problems. Remembering where we came from is critical to paving a brighter future for all of us.
Second, I know that two-thirds of today’s graduates are women so I would like to speak to you about the importance of female role models. Mine is Eleanor Roosevelt, a strong, decisive, principled woman who stood by her convictions, even during times of adversity. I admire her for working her entire life and for changing the role of the First Lady by becoming an outspoken advocate for women’s and children’s rights. She was also deeply involved in Civil Rights activism, taking on controversial issues at a time when women were expected to remain in the background.
I believe that our multiple roles—as mothers, wives, and abuelas—enable us to bring a special, inclusive lens to our work.
Eleanor’s example certainly inspired me. I don’t completely understand it, but people constantly stop to take selfies with me. I now have to get dressed up to go to the supermarket. It’s all pretty silly to me, but my grandson thinks I’m a rock star.
My third piece of advice, when in doubt, put aside fear of failure. I have made many mistakes, and I’m proud to have made them, learned from them, and moved forward. By the way, I share this advice with my staff, especially young people who beat themselves up every time they get something wrong, as if they always have to be perfect. I remind my colleagues that education is a career—how important it is to see beyond the transactions of a “job”—and to build upon each success and mistake to best serve our students and families. A true life of public service.
So take chances. Go forth boldly, and leave fear behind. You will build resilience, a trait that will serve you well throughout your life and career.
In closing, I hope you take great pride in what you have accomplished and welcome every opportunity you have to be of use. In your personal life and your professional life, make a point of embracing the beauty of good works, and remember that you are a model for others. Your families and neighbors are watching your journey; so please give back and support others along the way.
Remember, too, that you’re not alone. You are a part of this community. Everyone here wants you to succeed. We need you to succeed, because you are the future of New York.
And from where I stand today, that future looks very bright.
Congratulations, Monroe College Class of 2015!