University of Texas at San Antonio
College of Liberal and Fine Arts
As prepared for delivery
Thank you, President Romo for that gracious introduction and for the honor of sharing this important moment with you and everyone on this stage. I want to extend my personal congratulations to President Romo as he marks his 11th year as leader of this great university. During his tenure, UTSA has undergone phenomenal growth and thanks to his hard work and vision, these students are graduating from one of the most respected and fastest growing universities in this state and in the nation. And he is committed to ensuring that more people of color both get into college and make it all the way to graduation day. This will go a long way towards reaching President Obama's goal set forth last year that America will have the highest college graduation rate in the world by the year 2020. Thank you, President Romo for your national leadership in that important endeavor.
I also want to echo President Romo's thanks to the village of parents, family and friends who are with us today. Your support has made this day possible. And of course, I have to say: “Go Roadrunners.” (show school hand signal). Congratulations to the class of 2010. This is your day. And you should be very, very proud.
In preparing for this occasion, I did a mental search to see if I could recall the commencement speeches I had to sit through on my way out of high school, college and graduate school. It might surprise you, but I can't remember a single one. In fact, I firmly believe that commencement speakers can be the biggest obstacles to the enjoyment of your graduation day. So I am going to follow the three B's of a good commencement speech: Be brief, be sincere, and then be seated.
I'm here, on behalf of the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Obama Administration to tell you how proud we are of you and to remind you that today is a day not of endings, but of beginnings.
Like me, many of you have had to overcome some difficult obstacles to get here today. Everything from low incomes to low expectations may have conspired to hold you back. I don't mind telling you that, as the son of Haitian immigrant parents, I know what it means to overcome barriers of race, culture, language and opportunity to sit where you are sitting today.
And like you, I did not get here all by myself. To one degree or another, each of us made it here today because someone cared for us…sacrificed for us…invested in us. Whether it was a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a mentor, or a member of the community, we're all living proof that none of us can make it without a little help from our friends. My mother was a nanny. I struggled at times growing up. I worked my way through night school and college. But every step along the way, especially when I was about to fall, there was always someone there to pick me up.
And when I asked myself, how can I ever repay them…for me the answer was simple. The only way I could even remotely pay back all the people who cared and invested in me was to devote the rest of my life to service. I am reminded of something I heard a long time ago: “Service is the rent you pay for living.”
That's really what I want to talk to you about today. If you want to be remembered for more than the size of your income or the square footage of your living space, seek to serve some good greater than your own.
The big question before you today is not how can you use the degree you have earned at UTSA to achieve personal fame and fortune. The question is how can you use what you've learned in college to benefit your family, your community, your country and your world. In short, how can you serve?
That is a question that has been central to my life. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to lead the Corporation for National and Community Service at this pivotal moment. President Obama and the Congress have made an historic investment in the belief that national service can be a solution to many of the problems facing this nation.
The President has issued a challenge that every American become engaged in some way in their community.
Citizen service is not new in America. It is as old as the Republic itself. But it was first placed on the national agenda in 1961 when a young president – John F. Kennedy – challenged us to ask ourselves: “What can I do for my country?”
That led to the creation of the Peace Corps, and later our domestic Peace Corps, VISTA and then, in 1993, AmeriCorps. Fifty years later, another young President has asked us to take service to the next level.
President Obama believes, as I do, that citizen service is essential to solving the big problems facing our nation – from poverty and high unemployment to the drop-out crisis that is especially devastating in communities of color. Service cannot just be about counting the hours – it must be about raising test scores, lowering the drop-out rate, eradicating poverty, moving people from the unemployment line to the dignity of work. In short, service must be about making a real difference – the kind of difference you are making right here at UTSA.
In April of last year, hundreds of UTSA students, faculty and staff, in an effort organized by UTSA graduate and campus AmeriCorps member, Mary Vadillo, fanned out across the San Antonio community – to work in soup kitchens and child care centers…to clean up the environment and to offer help to children in need. An overwhelming majority of those who participated in UTSA United to Serve came away feeling like their efforts made a difference.
You demonstrated the power of service to make a difference last year, when student interns devoted more than 3,000 hours of volunteer time working in non-profit organizations throughout San Antonio – helping build management, fundraising and communications capacity. Students again gained as much in the way of experience and leadership training as did the non-profits they served. In fact, two recent UTSA graduates are now currently employed in the organizations where they did their internships.
And we saw it again last year when UTSA students decided to spend their Spring Break building a home with Habitat for Humanity for a single mother of four in Corpus Christi.
Your volunteer efforts have made a real difference -- so much so that just a few minutes ago, I had the pleasure of awarding Dr. Romo the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor roll certificate, which recognizes UTSA for its outstanding commitment and achievements in community service.
Young people like you throughout this country are making a difference.
At this very moment, as an oil slick the size of Delaware continues to grow in the Gulf of Mexico, AmeriCorps members are preparing to spring into action in concert with the National Response Team.
Right now, in response to the largest tornado to strike Mississippi in eight years, 50 AmeriCorps NCCC members are on the front lines clearing debris, assessing the damage, and coordinating volunteer efforts.
And right here in San Antonio, AmericCorps VISTA members in a program called, College for All Texans, are working in this city's public schools, helping to pave a smoother path to higher education for students who might otherwise never get that chance. Students who hopefully will one day sit where you are sitting today.
These young AmeriCorps members have chosen the path of service not only as a way to help others, but also as a stepping stone to a better life for themselves. That's how it worked for me. I chose the path of service. I didn't get to be CEO of the Corporation after working years at a big company or law firm.
I chose the path of service and it has taken me from the soup kitchens and homeless shelters of Washington, DC all the way to the Obama Administration. Service is the path that brought me here. It worked for me. It worked for President Obama. And it can work for you.
Thanks to President Obama, more young people than ever will get the chance to serve.
The President has challenged us to triple the size of AmeriCorps by the year 2017. We need more college graduates like you to sign up.
But whether you pursue service as a career, a passion, or both, as you leave here today, there is a lot of work to do. We live in a time of extraordinary challenges. Too many of our brothers and sisters here in San Antonio and throughout this country, are living in poverty. Too many are dropping out of school. Too many of our seniors are alone and neglected. Too many of our young people have been cut down by crime and guns and violence in our own communities. We have the power to tackle these problems. But we need your help. Government cannot and should not do this work alone.
As you leave this campus as an undergrad for the last time, some of you are going on to graduate school. Some are beginning new careers. Some are even going back to work tomorrow. But all of you are taking the next step in what must be a lifetime of service. The need is great. You are the service generation. You have made service central to your lives. You expect it from yourselves. You expect it from the communities where you live. And you expect it from the companies and organizations where you're going to work. You are the service generation. And you are already making a difference.
The challenges we face may seem overwhelming, especially as new college graduates who haven't even had time to frame your diplomas. But your energy, enthusiasm and commitment are up to the task and will not be denied. I am reminded of an old African parable about the lion and the gazelle. The gazelle wakes up every morning knowing it has to be faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. The lion wakes up knowing it has to be faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve. The point is, when you wake up every morning, whether you are chasing a dream or just trying to do the next right thing, start running.
I can't tell you with certainty what your life will look like in ten years, but I expect that America will wake up running every morning and many of you will be leading the way – with service as your guiding star.
None of us has a crystal ball, but as has been said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” So, as you leave here today, I'm asking you…President Obama is asking you, your country is asking you: What kind of future will you create? What will you do to make this world a better place? How will you serve? That is our challenge and this is your moment. Congratulations Class of 2010. Go Roadrunners!