The Link in the Chain: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the De Anza College Commencement

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The Link in the Chain: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the De Anza College Commencement

June 26, 2010

Thank you, President Murphy. It's a pleasure to be here this morning to join in celebrating the class of 2010's success.

I want to begin with a confession today: I was a little intimidated to learn about some of the celebrity orators who speak at commencement ceremonies in the Bay Area.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend and colleague in the Cabinet, Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., spoke at Stanford's commencement. So I had a bit of explaining to do when I saw that the San Jose Mercury News had announced my talk here with the headline: "Move over, Stanford—De Anza's got you beat."

Now, De Anza, I don't want to disappoint. Let me just say this for the record: I am taller than Susan Rice. But if truth be told, she plays a pretty mean game of basketball. And I think I will let the comparisons end there.

The fact is that I am delighted to be here to offer my congratulations to your parents, friends, spouses, and children and to the faculty and staff on this moment of passage and great accomplishment. I have often said that we don't celebrate success enough in education. And today is a day to celebrate.

President Obama and I are huge believers in community colleges. Community colleges are so central to building a competitive America and resilient work force. And they are absolutely critical to meeting President Obama's goal that America will once again have the highest college graduation rate in the world by 2020.

De Anza is without doubt one of the best community colleges in the nation. It has a well-deserved reputation for environmental awareness, technological innovation, and civic engagement-- from the tent city erected earlier this year in the quad to protest devastating state funding cutbacks for higher education to the De Anza Flea Market. The flea market, which students started more than 30 years ago, has gone from a few small stands to one that draws 15,000 to 20,000 shoppers on a good-weather day--while providing roughly $300,000 annually to support student programs and services. Great job, DASB!

An honor roll of distinguished students has studied here. Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak attended De Anza--and they unveiled the first Macintosh computer at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts. Andrew Fire, who won the Nobel Prize for his work in discovering a mechanism for controlling the flow of genetic information, studied here as a young teen. In the arts, stars like actress Terri Hatcher attended De Anza too.

Yet for all their many accomplishments, community colleges have, for too long, often been forgotten in light of the crucial role they play in higher education. Martha Kanter, your remarkable and tireless former president and chancellor, is correcting that oversight in Washington DC. Her leadership is helping to shine a national spotlight on the critical importance and value of community colleges--this is community colleges' day in the sun.

I don't know if many people realize this, but Martha is the first Undersecretary of Education in the history of the Department of Education with experience as a community college leader. I am glad she is here with me today--and even more grateful that she has brought her wisdom, know-how, and tremendous talents to Washington on behalf of all students.

Martha knows, as do I, that every student who earns their certificate today should feel proud. Your parents, grandparents, relatives, spouses, children, and friends share that pride in the class of 2010. It takes tenacious commitment and hard work to earn a degree or certificate. And in many respects, the class of 2010 has had to overcome obstacles that more traditional students at four-year residential colleges typically don't face.

As you may have heard, I spoke at Foothill's commencement last night. I do want to repeat a brief experiment from yesterday that illustrates your tremendous accomplishment of earning a degree in the face of often daunting challenges.

Could I ask every graduate in the audience who is the first in their family to attend college to raise their hand? Please keep them raised.

Now, every graduate who came to the U.S. from another country, could you please put your hand up?

And if you are raising a family while in school, could you please raise your hand?

Last, if you worked while earning your degree, or came back to Foothill after a break, please raise your hand.

Now, almost every graduate has a hand up. Please give yourselves a round of applause.

The parents and relatives, and the spouses and children of the members of your graduating class were about the only people here today without their hands up. But it's important to recognize their contribution—especially parents and relatives who never got to attend college themselves. As much as anyone, you are helping your children attain the American Dream by sending them to college and supporting them all the way to graduation.

I want to tell two brief stories today about immigrants and their families realizing that dream. The course of their lives--and the lives of their families--was changed profoundly by getting an education.

The first story is about my good friend and fellow Cabinet member, the Secretary of Commerce, Gary Locke. Secretary Locke and I co-chair the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

More than 40 percent of De Anza students are Asian American, Filipino, or of Pacific-Islander descent. And I think policymakers and the public sometimes miss the challenges that Asian-American and Pacific-Islanders students face because they mistakenly lump Asian students from different nationalities and backgrounds together under the umbrella of a single "model minority." As all of you know, the reality is much more complex--and much more challenging.

Several years before he became the Commerce Secretary, Gary Locke achieved a milestone: He became the first Chinese-American governor in U.S. history, winning election in Washington State. But Gary Locke's journey to the governor's office is a quintessential American story--and one that could never have happened if education had not opened the door to opportunity for him and his family.

Governor Locke's grandfather came to America to work in Olympia, Washington, to be, as it was then called, a "houseboy." He worked for a family that lived less than a mile from the governor's mansion that would one day become his grandson's home.

By the time Gary was born, his family was still poor, but in his words, "not poverty-stricken." Gary Locke spent the first six years of his life in a public housing complex in Seattle--and he spoke only Chinese when he entered kindergarten. Alongside his mother, he learned English--but he struggled at times in grade school.

In sixth grade, all that started to change. Gary's extraordinary teacher saw his potential--and pressed him to do better. Gary wrote a paper on Seattle's efforts to clean up Lake Washington, and his teacher had him give an oral report to the class on his project. Before long, the teacher was selecting him as a student leader on class field trips.

Gary gained confidence, became an excellent student, and went on to Yale University and Boston University Law School. But he learned from his experience, as he said in his inaugural speech as Governor that "education is the great equalizer that makes hope and opportunity possible." The Locke family embraced three values: "Get a good education, work hard, and take care of each other."

Those are pretty good values to live by, and those three values are the values that the graduates at De Anza have embraced, too. And just to tell you the end to Gary Locke's story, his mother--who remember was learning English at the same time as Gary-- was also largely responsible for raising five kids while Gary's father ran their small grocery. Just before his mother turned 60, she returned to school at Seattle Community College to take a class on "Idioms of American English." At 60, you see, she still wanted to master the American vernacular.

I'll leave you with one last story this morning. I have not had the privilege yet of meeting Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. But like Secretary Locke, her story is a testament to the transformative power of a college education.

In 1963, when Sonia Sotomayor was nine, her mother thought about going back to school to get her Registered Nursing degree. But as an older student with two young children, and as someone who needed help with her writing in English, her mother concluded sadly that no college would help her fulfill her dreams and aspirations. Justice Sotomayor recalled her mother looking through college admission materials and despairing that any college "would accept her or give her the support she needed to succeed."

But her mother's dream of college and becoming a registered nurse wouldn't die. Six years later, Hostos Community College opened in the Bronx. It had the educational and support services that Justice Sotomayor's mother needed--and at the age of 47, she enrolled to get her nursing degree.

In a commencement speech earlier this month at Hostos Community College, Justice Sotomayor vividly recalled her mother's struggles to get through school. Like many of you, her mother worked while in school and took out college loans.

At night, after getting home from work, she sat in the kitchen table for hours in their apartment in a Bronx housing project, working side-by-side with her daughter and son as they did their homework. "She worked so hard to feed and clothe us," Justice Sotomayor recalled. "She stayed up late countless nights, deciphering foreign words and ideas and honing her writing and analytical skills."

You can guess the end of the story--Justice Sotomayor ‘s mother earned her RN degree. And not long ago, she called her daughter to say she had finally paid off her student loan.

Today, students will have even more opportunities made possible by the signing of the education affordability act in March, where Congress and the President have now put in place the availability of unprecedented federal student aid and Pell Grants for the next 10 years. This means that students like Sotomayor's mother won't be deterred in their quest for a college education. We have committed an additional $36 billion to Pell Grants over the next decade.

Much like Gary Locke, Justice Sotomayor will never forget that education unlocked the door to her mother's dreams—and it created her own pathway to become the first Latino on the Supreme Court. "My family," she told the students at Hostos, "is a testament to the contribution that community colleges make to our society."

Like Gary Locke, Justice Sotomayor understands that the gift of education is an enduring one, passed from one generation to the next. "You will breathe life into the dreams of the next generation," she told the Hostos students. "You're the generation that followed me--and your children will follow us."

So, De Anza students know that you are part of an amazingly strong chain here. You are linked both to those who preceded you and those who will follow you. Education connects generation to generation--and in doing so becomes the key to our social and economic vitality as a nation.

Your graduation marks a moment of passage to the next stage of your life, whether you are transferring to the University of California, Cal State, a private institution, or seeking a new job. Those peaceful moments sitting at a table in the sunken garden under the Grecian laurels across from Hinson Campus Center will be fewer. The movies that you might have caught this year at the new Blue Light Cinemas in the Oaks Shopping Center may be less frequent. But De Anza, and the great education you received here, are now part of you forever.

You have so much to be proud of--I know that I join with everyone here today in saying that we look forward, with great anticipation, to the next stage of your journey.

As you enter this next phase of your life, I ask you to remember all that you have learned from this college, both from your coursework, and from your fellow graduates. I also ask that you take the next step to ensure that someone else gets an education, graduates from high school, goes to college and earns a degree. In doing so, you will be educating the next generation for our country to reach President Obama's 2020 goal to have the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world. You are creating the next link in the chain.

Congratulations—and thank you for allowing me to share in this wonderful moment. We are all so proud of you.