Graduating to a Life Filled With Purpose

Archived Information

Graduating to a Life Filled With Purpose

April 30, 2016

I. Introduction: Graduates With Purpose

Thank you, President Mangum, for that kind introduction.

What an honor it is to be here today. To our graduates, congratulations on this life-changing achievement. To the moms and dads, grandparents, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters and friends, thank you for supporting and encouraging these outstanding men and women every step of the way. Thank you all for letting me share in your FAMU-ly pride today.

There's a strong tradition of family at FAMU, of generations returning to this special campus—second-, third- and fourth-generation Rattlers. But there's something else that distinguishes this close-knit community. You are people of purpose. This is not a word spoken lightly. Purpose has real weight. Responsibility, confidence, vision—these qualities are all steeped in this one word—and those same qualities are in each of you.

You've come a long way, and it's worth reflecting on how you got here. With your pick of schools, why did you choose FAMU? It wasn't just the rigorous academics, the Greek life or athletics. Your search for purpose brought you to this storied place. And, your FAMU education has given you the tools to make a difference. "Preparing graduates to apply their knowledge, critical thinking skills and creativity in their service to society" is at the heart of the FAMU mission statement.

Your classmate, Arriana Nwodu, reflects this mission in her sense of purpose and her commitment to serve.

Arriana grew up seeing her mother and father struggle financially—she's been working since she was 14 to help pay the bills. And as a mechanical engineering major, she worked with a senior design team to create something they call a Robo-Weeder. It's a remotely operated machine that will help organic farmers reduce their labor costs. Arriana hopes her team's invention will help to make organic produce more affordable, not only for farmers, but for families like hers, while also reducing harm to the environment. Oh, and, by the way, she also finds time to volunteer building wheelchair ramps in the homes of disabled individuals.

Arriana aspires to be a human rights activist. Arriana, I'd say you are one already. Best of luck in your new job at that nanotechnology startup!

We're proud of you and your fellow graduates, who fulfill FAMU's mission in countless other ways, whether it's pharmacy students providing free health screenings in the community, student athletes delivering "Meals on Wheels" to local elderly residents each Tuesday, or computer science majors serving as mentors in local schools.

It's that FAMU spirit—that sense of purpose—that keeps you reaching higher.

I know that for many of you, personal challenges might have delayed this day's arrival. Nearly two-thirds of FAMU students receive Pell Grants, but I know that other funding opportunities for low-income students dried up while you were here. So you had to work and hustle to find other scholarships or fellowships. And like Arriana, many of you are the first in your families to graduate from college, or even first-generation Americans—there's a lot riding on your success.

But instead of allowing that to become a burden, you pushed harder—not only to graduate, but to help others. Purpose, as it happens, is incredibly motivating.

Take your classmate, Stephon Williams. When Stephon's grandmother suffered two strokes in 12 months, he was inspired to look into a career in physical therapy. He said, "Physical therapists and counselors are the highlight of people's days. I want to have that kind of impact, like they did on my grandmother's life."

And in walking across this stage today, Stephon follows a long line of FAMU graduates in his family. They are here today, cheering him on, but there's just one person missing: his grandmother, who was not well enough to make it. Know that she is proud of you, Stephon, as you go on to pursue your master's in public health. Everyone receiving a degree today has their own personal story of how you got here, and what it took. But today you all share a story of triumph. Together, you are graduates with purpose. And, the world needs you!

Consider this little essay that appeared in a student newspaper in 1947. In it, the young writer argues: "We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate."

The title of that essay? "The Purpose of Education." The school where it appeared? Morehouse College. The young author just 18 years old? Martin Luther King, Jr.

His words as a young man now bear the weight of history. During your time at FAMU, you too have witnessed extraordinary events that most likely changed your outlook, and may well influence the future you choose. From the shooting deaths of unarmed black men and boys in cities across the country, to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, to growing income inequality, we're in the midst of a new awakening of the civil rights movement. Current events are a daily reminder of the distance we still have to travel in delivering on the promise of true equality of opportunity.

Against this backdrop, the FAMU legacy of student activism for social justice is remarkable. FAMU students have launched countless marches to the Governor's Mansion or to the Capitol—reminding all of our political leaders of the moral urgency of the moment and their sacred duty to protect and advance civil rights. The sense of justice and civic responsibility runs deep. Built atop a former slave plantation—transforming a site of pain and injustice into a beacon of opportunity—FAMU has always been the antithesis of the cloistered ivory tower. This is a place for doers, and for people who want to do good in the world.

And your degree has real value. FAMU has earned a growing reputation for genuine academic excellence and for creating unique opportunities for men and women of color. The National Science Foundation has recognized FAMU as first among HBCUs in its research and development expenditures, an investment that will make our country stronger. FAMU has also been recognized as one of the top schools in the U.S. for fostering social mobility for low-income students; many of you embody that aim. And FAMU is also the top producer of African American PhDs in Pharmacy. Those are proud achievements.

II. Breaking Barriers and Paying it Forward

You may be sad to be leaving FAMU behind, moving away from friends and the comfort of the familiar—including, if you're headed north, the truly mild Tallahassee winters. That's natural. But know how much there is waiting for you ahead in life—and how much you have to offer the world. And you'll be in great company.

Indeed, wherever FAMU grads go, you're breaking barriers and bringing others along with you. When John Thompson, class of 1971, graduated from FAMU with a degree in business, he went to work at a Tallahassee stereo store. But the director of placement at FAMU knew that he had greater talents and encouraged him to apply for a job in sales at IBM. In 2014, after Mr. Thompson was tapped to succeed Bill Gates as the chairman of Microsoft, one of his first acts was to give a $5 million gift to FAMU to support financial assistance for low-income students and programs in business and entrepreneurship. John Thompson is leveraging his tremendous success to help ensure that more FAMU students not only succeed in college and graduate, but become tomorrow's leaders of industry.

And then there's Dr. LaSalle Leffall, Jr, Class of 1948. As the first African-American doctor to lead the American Cancer Society, Dr. Leffall brought nationwide attention to the devastating toll of cancer on African Americans. At Howard University Medical School—where he still teaches at nearly 86 years young!—he has inspired and trained nearly 6,000 medical students to go forth and serve their communities. That's purpose and that's commitment.

And I'd be remiss in not mentioning the late Althea Gibson, who in 1956 smashed the color barrier in tennis—and then in golf. She paved the way for athletes of color and female athletes to compete on a more level playing field, and transcended prejudice and discrimination through her gifts and her extraordinary grace. Despite her singular accomplishments, she said simply, "No matter what accomplishments you make, somebody helped you."

Someone helped make each of you, as well. They may or may not be in the audience today to share this moment, but they're a part of you. Remember to thank them—let them know how much they mean to you.

III. Continuing the Fight for Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity

One of the best ways you can honor them is by helping and encouraging more young people to join you in attaining a college degree—a degree that will change their lives and help to build a stronger, more equitable and more inclusive America.

Indeed, the FAMU story shows just how much education and civil rights are bound up together and reinforce each other. As graduates, you are equipped with the knowledge, skills—and purpose—to make tomorrow better than today.

Take FAMU students Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson, who helped lead the Tallassee bus boycotts in 1957. Or FAMU graduate Philip Agnew and his Dream Defenders, who stood up against the Stand Your Ground law in the wake of Trayvon Martin's death. More recently, the Dream Defenders have played a vital role as advocates in Pinellas County, revealing evidence that African-American students may have been systematically denied equal educational opportunity by their school district. They were on to something. And now our Department has an active civil rights investigation there.

We're with you in the fight for equity and social justice. Much like former FAMU Student Government Association President Andrew Gillum champions restorative justice for young offenders as the youngest mayor of Tallahassee, our Department is also pushing for second chances through Second Chance Pell grants, enabling folks who are incarcerated to pursue their education while in prison. And we're supporting a new movement to "Ban the box" on college applications and job applications which asks applicants to disclose their involvement with the criminal justice system before they even have the opportunity to present their talents and skills.

I have been inspired by you. You were your brothers' and sisters' keepers before President Obama announced My Brother's Keeper, an initiative to build bridges of opportunity and break down barriers for young people of color.

As we reflect on FAMU's long tradition of student activism, we're reminded that civil rights weren't just something our parents and grandparents won for us, but something we must continue to fight for, defend, and advance.

And like President Mangum, I believe that education is a civil right—and one that can save lives. My mother died from illness when I was 8, in October of my fourth grade year. My father suffered from undiagnosed Alzheimer's, and passed away when I was 12. I bounced between family members and schools. Throughout that period, school was a refuge for me—a place I could feel safe, challenged, and engaged. But life is rarely a straight line.

Although I was always a good student, and was accepted to a prestigious boarding school, I was angry as a teenager and made some poor decisions and was kicked out. It was a bleak time. If it weren't for strong mentors and educators willing to give me a second chance, I wouldn't be here today.

At many points in my education, teachers could have looked at me and said, " Here is an African-American, Puerto Rican male student with a family in crisis going to New York City public schools, what chance does he have?" and made assumptions about what I could achieve—but they didn't. Instead they invested in me, they supported me to try harder and aim higher.

Knowing how fortunate I was, I knew I had to pay it forward. I found my purpose. I became a Social Studies teacher, and then a school founder and leader of a network of schools, before becoming Education Commissioner in New York and now U.S. Secretary of Education. In every role, it has been my mission to ensure that every child in America has access to an excellent education, regardless of their race, income, skin color, disability or circumstance.

Just as the Dream Defenders say they are not an organization, but an idea, I would venture to say that FAMU, just like all HBCUs, is the embodiment of an idea. An idea that wasn't just relevant when FAMU was founded as the State Normal College for Colored Students during the post-Reconstruction era, when African-Americans were fighting to defend African-American men's newly won right to vote. It's relevant today, in 2016, as we approach the first presidential election in more than 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act.

When we bear witness to events from the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, to the callous disregard for the health of the people of Flint, Michigan, that lay bare our nation's continuing struggle with racial inequality , each episode is another reminder of the work that still needs to be done, of the justice that still eludes us. I urge you to remember that there is so much promise in every young child, in every school and in every community.

Whether your path leads you to become business leaders, doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists or engineers, we need your purpose to turn that promise into reality. We need you to be actively engaged in the community, to take that young person aside who is struggling in your family or in your neighborhood and tell them that you believe in them and then mentor them, guide them, and help them to achieve their dreams just as others have supported you in your pursuit of your dreams.

It may feel like a heavy charge, but remember, you are not alone. You are part of a proud network of FAMU alumni and HBCU alumni, and purpose is a touchstone you share. Reach out to each other, and support each other. President Obama's initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities each year honors the nation's HBCU "All Stars." These current HBCU students and alumni are your advocates in Washington, but we need to hear from all of you, because I know there is more to be done.

Let your purpose keep you moving forward, as you apply the wisdom and knowledge you've earned here. We need you. The country needs you! And I'm so honored and thrilled to congratulate you all!