The Genius of Your Generation

The Genius of Your Generation

Remarks by Secretary Duncan at the Community College of Denver Commencement
May 14, 2015

Thank you, Dr. McCallin for the warm welcome. It is a pleasure to share the platform with you and Ms. Peña.

Thank you both for your leadership, and for all that Colorado's community colleges do to help students—from every walk of life—fulfill their tremendous potential.

The proof is right here—in the remarkable men and women who have earned their degrees and certificates today.

Congratulations, CityHawks! Thank you for inviting me to share this huge milestone with you and your families and friends.

Commencement speakers often say how honored they are to address the graduates. And I am honored to be one of many to celebrate your achievements. But I want to do more than just say those words. I want to tell you why.

Commencement speakers often tell graduates that they have the power and capacity to change this country, and the world. I agree and I'd like to tell you how.

These are amazing times. Past generations couldn't imagine today's challenges and opportunities. And our country's journey—to define ourselves and determine our destiny as the future unfolds—is ever more important to each of us, our state and our nation.

It's a journey to make sure that the reality of America lives up to the promise of America, for everyone.

That's a profound mission. It gives me great purpose and hope. As I look at each of you, our graduates, my purpose and hope expands because of what you will do as leaders of your generation!

Education is key to achieving this mission we have ahead of us. For as long as I can remember, I've seen the power of a great education to transform lives. I practically grew up in an afterschool tutoring program my mother started to help kids in a tough Chicago neighborhood.

I know that the drive to give every student in America a world-class education is the civil rights issue of our time.

And, I believe we are closer than ever to realizing the full promise of America—because I've seen the genius of your generation up close.

What is this genius? Let me start by telling you a little more about my mother, Sue Duncan, and what she taught me. It was the 1960s. One day, a minister friend from an inner-city church asked my mom to teach Bible study for a group of nine-year-old girls. All were black; all were poor. They had one Bible. My mom figured each girl could read a few lines and pass it to the next. Except... not one of the girls could read.

What happened next changed our family forever, and touched the lives of kids and families in that South Side neighborhood for decades. My mother thought: if I can learn, so can everyone else. So she set up a tutoring program in a local church basement and drove her blue van with my brother, my sister and me in the back seat, day after day, across 47th Street—which back then was an invisible wall separating the black and white neighborhoods.

She said to me, "What choice did I have?" And she said it again, forty years later when President Obama asked me to serve as his Secretary of Education.

Of course, there were other choices. Shrug your shoulders. Turn your back. Think about something else.

But my mother created a haven filled with books and tools for learning. That center opened up new horizons, new possibilities for the children who came through her doors and kept coming. The older kids tutored the younger ones—so my brother, sister and I learned, taught and played along with everyone else. That was my early education.

Through the years, we did lose some of the kids to violence and drugs. We quietly mourned each and every loss. But we also saw incredible success stories—students who grew up to be scientists, actors, athletes, teachers, entrepreneurs and writers. They became leaders in their fields and communities. Three or four generations have come through that center to this day.

My mother never gave up, no matter what. Through a fifty-year career, she lived to teach and serve. Why?

Her love for children. No matter who you were, what you looked like, where you came from—she loved you.

Love like that can outlast any challenge. It's the genesis of genius.

I used to think that genius was pretty rare. But, in the six years I've served as the U.S. Secretary of Education, I've met thousands of students—from preschool to grad school. And, I see genius in America's students, everywhere.

One of your fellow graduates, Marilyn Kruc, has it. Today she'll receive her degree in Dental Hygiene. But Marilyn is only here right now because she refused to quit when life took a devastating turn.

Midway through her studies, a midnight arson fire tore through her apartment complex. She was trapped on the third floor. She had to jump for her life.

The fall broke her back.

That accident could have ended Marilyn's dreams. But she never thought about giving up.

She loved her work. Most of all, she loved her patients.

So, she worked through tremendous pain to keep treating them. She put in extra time to make up assignments, as she slowly recovered from surgery.

Today, Marilyn is graduating, on time, with a bright future and a great career. She has the genius of unselfishness. Take a moment to join me in congratulating Marilyn for her courage, her tirelessness and her genius.

The ability to lead and inspire others: that's another kind of genius. During my last trip to Denver, I met with young Latino men from local high schools. They talked about what they'd overcome, what helped them succeed, and how to change the odds for their peers.

Those young men showed extraordinary passion and compassion. They wanted to be strong role models. In fact, one of them made it his mission to get five of his closest friends—none of whom had planned on college—to enroll along with him.

Now, that's the kind of genius that changes lives!

Whatever age you are, don't feel you have to wait to be a leader. All of you are leaders right now, in your own, unique way. Think about it.

Take Reydesel Salvidrez, who graduates today with an A.S. in Business. Rey led the Dreamers United student organization on your campus. He's also been a peer mentor and treasurer for the Urban Male Initiative.

He's a bold advocate for the Latino community, for bilingual learners, and for his fellow undocumented students—who came to the U.S. as kids, and deserve a fair shot at citizenship, and the chance to contribute to this nation they call home.

Kendrick Friendly, who leads your Center for Special Programs, says Rey stands out for his ability to promote and celebrate diversity, and for his strength of character.

Character. That's a type of genius, too. After the tragic death of Michael Brown, I visited Ferguson, Missouri. Students and teachers, black and white, spoke about their fear and heartbreak, and about the inequities in their schools. But they were totally committed to helping heal their community.

One young woman gave her week's pay from an afterschool job to help a homeless man. A young man said he was sure his neighborhood could rebuild the respect and trust that was lost, adding: "Success looks like love in the community."

In places like Ferguson and Baltimore, I've seen a deep commitment to forgiveness and tolerance, and the courage to move forward.

Your classmate Michelle Bledsoe has built this strength of character.

Primed with her CCD degree, Michelle is going on to M.S.U. Denver to get her bachelor's degree in Business Management. She's already thinking about graduate school.

But Michelle had to fight her way back to college after years battling addiction.

Her first year clean, she couldn't find a job—so, with her husband's support, she enrolled here. When she had trouble with assignments, Michelle asked for help from your student services.

Michelle learned she was dyslexic. She also learned how many resources there were to help her stay on track. Since then, Michelle has done everything she can to give back to the community that's helped her chart a new course in life.

She's volunteered and helped lead student groups—from "Women Intentional about Success and Excellence", to Alianza—all while raising her teenage daughter and baby nephew, and even starting a business!

Michelle didn't let the past define her. She took charge of her future.

Now I know that—like Michelle, Rey and Marilyn—none of you made it here on your own. Your families and friends have given encouragement and made sacrifices so you could earn your degree. Please stand for a moment, face them and give them a round of applause.

You've paid your families and friends back by succeeding, by graduating here today. But you can do even more; you can pay it forward. Help someone else enroll in college, and make it to their own commencement. Help someone else find their passion, or jumpstart their career.

Turn to a brother, a sister, a nephew, a friend, someone who doesn't think it's possible, and share your story, show them your photo and take their hand.

You also have your CCD family to thank for helping you reach this great day.

America's community colleges work to bring out the genius in all students. At CCD, that mission hasn't changed since you held your first classes in a renovated auto showroom, nearly fifty years ago.

Today, more than a quarter of CCD's students are Hispanic. At 50 million strong, the nation's Hispanic community is our largest, fastest‐growing group. That means every American's success is connected to the success of Hispanic learners. We know that Hispanic high school and college students aren't graduating at the same rate as their White or Asian peers.

That needs to change and you can help by mentoring, tutoring and supporting young people who have a longer way to go to get on this stage like you have today!

As a Hispanic-Serving Institution, CCD is doing its part to strengthen this shared future that depends on higher levels of achievement for Hispanics and other groups that are underrepresented in higher education.

Now, we all know that a community college degree gives you far better career options and lifetime earnings than just a high school diploma. We also know that college graduates lead happier and healthier lives and contribute more to their communities than those who dropped out or never enrolled.

In fact, now that more states—including Colorado—are tracking the incomes of college graduates, we've learned something new. Students with certificates and two-year degrees in certain high-demand fields can even bring home higher earnings than the average four-year college graduate, and they've paid a fraction of the cost.

For the many strong career paths that demand a bachelor's degree, there's CCD's unique collaboration with M.S.U. Denver and C.U. Denver—integrated in one campus. About half of all CCD graduates go on to a four-year program at one of these great schools. But that's not enough for what our country's going to need in the 21st century.

We need to make an affordable college degree a reality for every student in America.

That's why President Freeman and the dedicated CCD team never stop innovating. You've sparked a statewide campaign to redesign developmental education. Your early alert system gives struggling students extra help to turn things around.

And, your successful concurrent enrollment program bridges the gap between high school and college. Students save time and gain college credit that leads to credentials.

So, my special congratulations to the students here with us today who are graduating with a high school diploma and an associate's degree! All of today's graduates are proving that new paths to a more highly educated America are possible.

Not long ago, President Obama spoke at the 50th anniversary of the great civil rights march in Selma.

He reminded us that "America is not yet finished. America is what we make of it."

Then he added—

"You are America. It is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow."

Why do we need the best-educated, most diverse America in history? Because in addition to a prosperous America, we want an America that's more just and fair than ever before—an America that lives up to its promise of the American Dream.

And for that, we need the genius of your generation.

As graduates from every race and background, you stand for equal opportunity and a fair share in the American Dream. More than half of you are first-generation college students. Some of you are undocumented students. Some of you are veterans. Some of you have a disability. Some of you have been homeless. Some of you are single parents.

But all of you have proved that destiny isn't something that just happens. You shape your destiny by how you live your life.

Character and moral courage. Unselfish service. Persistence in the face of adversity. Respect for other people's differences, and the ability to forge unity from diversity.

That's the genius of your generation.

I'm convinced it will carry America forward—faster and further than ever.

Graduates of the Community College of Denver, we honor all that you've accomplished, and have high expectations for what you'll do next.

Live lives of purpose. Help others discover their genius. Work for a better world.

Thank you!