On the Path to Opportunity

Archived Information

On the Path to Opportunity

Milwaukee Area Technical College, 2016 Spring Commencement
May 13, 2016

Thank you very much, President Martin and trustees.

Good afternoon friends, family, staff, and most importantly, the MATC Class of 2016.

It's an honor to be here today with you in Milwaukee. It's an honor to celebrate this important moment in your lives. I imagine many of you have looked forward to it, some with nervousness, some with a sense of relief, but whatever you are feeling, you've arrived.

Today is the day. You've made it, and you should be proud of your accomplishments. Know that your family and friends, all of us on this stage, the President of the United States, are all deeply proud of your accomplishments and congratulate you on this moment.

I want to start with a few questions. I encourage you to respond with applause—raucous applause—or screams or shouts or whatever makes sense. How many of our graduates today are the first in their families to graduate from college?

How many of our graduates today were also holding down a full-time job while studying?

How many of our graduates are also parents themselves?

And how many of you are planning to go on at some point to a four-year degree as well?

All of that illustrates why MATC is such an important institution, not only to Milwaukee, but to the state of Wisconsin and to the country.

MATC is about creating a path to opportunity. It's about a new definition of the college student. It is about recognizing that our country's future depends on our diversity. MATC is not only the largest institution in the state, but it is among the most diverse institutions in the state, serving a population of students that reflects who we are as a country.

MATC is also vitally important to the economic future of Milwaukee and the state. Students here will go on to careers in nursing, in accounting, in business management, in information technology, in early childhood education, in human service, in criminal justice, in welding, and so many more fields. The future of this state depends on you, depends on the skills that you've acquired here.

A majority of the students here are eligible for Pell grants, relying on the federal financial aid that is critical to creating opportunity in this country. The Pell Grant program has been a priority of the President since he took office. The President has made college affordability a priority. He has made investing in community colleges a priority.

In the Obama administration, we believe that you are our future, you are the investment that we must make in the future, not only of our economy, but of our democracy.

But the federal government doesn't do it alone, and one of the challenges that we see here in Wisconsin and across the country is that states have not always lived up to their responsibility to invest in public higher education. When states fail to invest in public higher education, it is short-sighted and misses the benefit of investing in the future workforce and the future leadership of this state.

Now I want to celebrate the students of this class, and I want to point out that students of this class don't look maybe exactly how college is depicted on sitcoms, for example. Not everyone here was hanging out going from party to party throughout their college experience.

Folks here were balancing work and the challenges of family. Folks here were balancing supporting other members of their family. Folks here were balancing trying to get their lives back on track after making decisions they regretted. Folks here had to overcome obstacles to be here, and some of your classmates demonstrate exactly what it is that we hope college can mean for students.

I think of Yucca Donahue.

Yucca is graduating from the Early Childhood Education program today. Yucca is a single mother who works 12 hours a day operating a daycare center out of her house. She decided to go to MATC both to expand opportunity for herself, but also for the sake of her students, because she loves her students as she would her own children.

When a fire destroyed the kitchen in her daycare center and cost a considerable amount of money to repair, it was simply for Yucca another challenge to overcome. Yucca insisted on going to school the same day the fire occurred because she understood how important it was not to miss class.

For Yucca, nothing was going to get in her way of pursuing her dream. She and her twin sister live by a saying that they repeat every time things get tough: failure is not an option.

For Yucca and most of today's graduates with us today, the most challenging thing about college is finding the right balance among family obligations, work, and school; but she's got momentum now, and Yucca intends to go on to get a four-year degree and one day to run a state-of-the-art Head Start program.

I think of Anderson and Cody Randolph—a father and son team, both of whom are graduating from MATC's Funeral Services program today.

Anderson decided to pursue a degree in funeral services after he was downsized from the banking job he had held for over 30 years. He had done part-time work in the funeral industry, and he thought it might be a good way to get back on his feet.

For Cody, in addition to going to school, he works the third shift for the Milwaukee Department of Corrections, raises five children with his wife, and volunteers at his church.

Needless to say, with such a hectic schedule, sleep is at a premium for Cody, but he and his father encouraged each other along the way. They were an inseparable team throughout and lifted each other up when they were discouraged or just plain exhausted.

Like Yucca, they both have a dream to one day start their own business. In this case they want to establish a funeral home and serve the community that has been so good to them throughout the years.

Yucca and Anderson and Cody are examples of the kinds of accomplishments represented by this class. It's the reason that the President has proposed America's College Promise, the idea that we should make community college universal, just as we've made K-12 education universal in the United States.

The President believes that community college can be a path to greater opportunity, and that's what Yucca's story and Cody and Anderson's story represents.

We're also inspired by the example MATC is setting by creating the Milwaukee Promise, by creating the opportunity for students who graduated from Milwaukee schools and are committed to doing well academically to have the opportunity to come to MATC. That step exemplifies the trend we see all across the country, a recognition by states and foundations and business leaders that community college can be at the foundation of the future of our economy.

But it isn't possible for students to do it alone, and one of the things we have to celebrate and lift up today is the great faculty and staff here at MATC, because every student in this room understands that they are here because of their hard work and determination, but also because of the people who helped them along the way.

I think of Sue Silverstein, who was a once-aspiring ballet dancer who now teaches welding in MATC. There are not many people in the world I suspect who have gone from the ballet stage to the welding shop, but Sue has succeeded in a male-dominated profession because she has been tough and focused. She has earned the respect of her peers and of her students. She describes herself as more like Vince Lombardi than Mother Teresa.

But Sue also has a compassionate side. She once gave a student a pair of her own mittens because he was taking the bus to school and couldn't afford a pair of his own. She gives food away in her class at times because she knows that for some students, access to food is a challenge.

She is the kind of instructor who understands that she is teaching the whole student, that she is equipping students with skills, but also giving them hope about their future. Sue's vision is reflected in the culture of MATC, an understanding that student success here depends on supporting not only their academic needs, but the full range of needs. It's why MATC has been a leader in the Wisconsin HOPE Lab in drawing attention to the national crisis we face in inadequately supporting our higher education students.

We have too many students, here and across the country, too many students who are hungry, too many students who don't know where they will stay from night to night because they are homeless or under-housed, too many students whose needs outside of school can get in the way of their academics, but MATC is committed to changing that.

MATC also understands the importance of mentorship and role models. I think of Major Cooper, a student service specialist who has dedicated his career to helping others. Through MATC's recently launched Men of Color Initiative designed to increase the educational and career outcomes for the 9,000-plus men of color served here at MATC, Major is working with that initiative to help men of color navigate through MATC and outside of MATC by apprising them of tutoring opportunities, financial aid, counseling, and other critical resources.

Major's efforts are very consistent with the President's vision in the My Brother's Keeper program, which is about the realization that too many of our young boys and men of color face extraordinary obstacles to success, and we will all be better for investing in a better, brighter future for them.

Major has been able, through this initiative, to mobilize the community businesses in support of the young men here at MATC, and just this past semester, Major began working with a student who spent the past ten years in prison and is determined to turn his life around.

Major sat down with him and built a vision board outlining short-term goals and showed him things that many of us take for granted, like how to tie a necktie or how to network. This young man is changing his life with Major's support. He is in MATC's entrepreneur program and plans to start his business one day.

And while he gets a ton of credit for resolving to make a change in his life, his journey has been helped along by Major. We in the Obama administration are committed to this kind of second chance approach. The President announced just last year a Second Chance Pell Pilot Program to allow students who are incarcerated to take advantage of Pell Grants to pursue their education.

We know that for folks who are incarcerated or folks who are leaving incarceration, the opportunity to get an education and job training can be the difference between returning successfully or ending up back in prison.

I am particularly moved by the stories of the students and educators here because I understand deeply and personally the difference that education can make.

So I want to close with this—part of why I am so inspired by the stories of students here and by the faculty here is because I understand deeply and personally the difference that education can make in students' lives.

I grew up in New York City, in Brooklyn. My mom passed away when I was eight, in October of my fourth-grade year. I lived with my father who was quite sick with undiagnosed Alzheimer's and passed away when I was 12.

Folks could have looked at me and said, “Here's an African-American, Latino male student in a family in crisis, what chance does he have?” Folks could have given up on me. Folks could have said he's not going to be able to make it; what chance does he have?

But instead, teachers like the faculty here chose to invest in me. They chose to see hope and opportunity, and they made school a place that was compelling and engaging and interesting and safe, in the same way that faculty members here endeavor to make MATC a place that is safe and supportive and a path to opportunity.

I met with a few students before coming to the stage who talked about the ways in which MATC has changed the course of their lives, changed the trajectory of their lives. That's what MATC makes possible.

Today is a celebration of individual achievements. It's a celebration of each of your reaching this graduation moment. But it is also a celebration of the notion that education can be the difference, that education can save lives, that education can put folks on a path to opportunity that they didn't even know was possible.

And so for all of you, the challenge I would leave you with, the thing I would ask of you, is to pay it forward: to think about the opportunities that you had, the people who looked out for you, the faculty members, the family and friends who were there for you, who were a source of support for you.

I became a teacher and a principal because I wanted to try to do for other kids what my teachers had done for me, and I'd ask each of you to try to do for someone else what the faculty here, what your family and friends, have done for you. Find someone to mentor, find someone to support, find someone to help along. Be active in your community. Pay forward the benefit of this wonderful opportunity that you have.

Congratulations on this moment. Congratulations, Class of 2016!