Patriots of Humanity

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Patriots of Humanity

Commencement Address of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at Hostos Community College, New York, New York

June 7, 2013

Thank you, President Rodríguez, and good afternoon everyone. Thanks for welcoming me to Caiman Country, and for gracing me with an honorary degree.

Now, you know the real way to my heart is to make me honorary captain of the basketball team! This is truly a first in my career as Secretary of Education, and I'll bet no other Secretary has had that opportunity. I should have brought my gym shoes with me!

Congratulations to all the students receiving degrees today! I'm honored to join you, here in this amazing New York landmark, to celebrate your achievements.

This is a day of great pride and accomplishment for you and your families. And today holds enormous promise for the families, the children, the communities, and this country—all of which you will enrich through your talents and hard work.

Now I'm aware that I follow in some pretty daunting footsteps here today. From previous commencement speakers, to the star lineup of your 2013 Heritage Lecture Series, it's tough to match the likes of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, or Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz.

In their distinguished company, I hope not to disappoint, but to reinforce and amplify their message.

So let me start by saying that every graduate here today both sustains and was nurtured by a powerful tradition. You are linked to those who came before you—and you will help those who follow in your footsteps.

Your college is named after Eugenio María de Hostos. He died 110 years ago. Yet his legacy, more than a century later, lives on here, through all of you.

This great man was not just an educator—he was a lawyer, a sociologist, and an advocate for independence and human rights throughout the world.

In the Dominican Republic, he founded the first Teachers College before returning to his Puerto Rican homeland. In Chile, he opened an innovative school that became a leading educational center in Latin America.

For de Hostos, education was not just about getting a degree, it was about what you did with your degree.

He believed that education must—and I quote—"shape men and women so that they can serve and become patriots of humanity."

To our graduates here today, please know that America needs you to be "patriots of humanity."

What does it mean to be a patriot of humanity? Part of the answer lies in de Hostos's own groundbreaking career.

He called not just for the end of slavery. More than a century ago, he advocated for the right of women to attend college and study law and medicine.

De Hostos's commitment did not stop at the beaches of his beloved Puerto Rico. He defended labor rights for immigrants, including Chinese workers in Peru. Notice that de Hostos did not ask you to be a patriot of Puerto Rico, or the United States, or even the Americas—he asks that you be a patriot of humanity.

What else does it mean to be a patriot of humanity?

For de Hostos, it also meant that no one is an island, loosened from the bonds of family, community, and a diverse, interconnected world.

You are linked to those who came before you and helped pave your way to earning a degree—just as you are bound to those who will follow you and stand on this stage one day to receive their degrees.

I know Justice Sotomayor was back on campus this year to discuss her moving and powerful memoir, "My Beloved World." As a Bronx native—and the proud daughter of a Hostos graduate—her book is full of the lessons and strength she's drawn from her deep roots in this community.

Justice Sotomayor's story shows that brilliance and learning are not confined by ethnicity, income, or zip code.

She followed a powerful passion for the law and for justice. And passion, empowered by a great education, can change the world.

It can redefine what's possible. As the first Latina appointed to our nation's highest bench, Justice Sotomayor's story illustrates that, even in 21st Century America, there are still new "firsts" that you too can achieve.

So, Hostos Class of 2013, after you leave here, follow your passion, whether it is for more education, to establish a business, be a teacher, master a trade, work in an ER room, help abused children, or be a doctor.

Don't let anyone tell you what you can't do. And, if you have folks who do doubt you, just use their skepticism to fuel your determination!

And in the course of leading a life of purpose, please make room to help others—just as you have been helped along the way. Your education does not end tomorrow; Hostos asks that you be lifelong learners. That is so important, in a world that will only continue to change, faster and faster.

Of course, not everyone can be a Justice Sotomayor. But just like Justice Sotomayor, you too can break barriers and give back to the community that helped you reach this day.

Many of you have already done so—by being the first in your families to attend college, and by volunteering for public service at The Big Event, here in April.

Still, it can be hard to give back when you are busy trying to earn a living or paying off student loans.

It takes grit and hard work to get your degree.

The average student here is 26 years old—and I am pretty sure that none of you were born with a college degree in your hand or a silver spoon in your mouth. That's a good thing. It is always better to earn something, rather than being given it. You value it more.

And yet, none of you made it here alone. Somewhere along the way, you had help. As Justice Sotomayor writes, she would never claim to be "self-made." At every stage in her life, she always felt that the support she had from those closest to her had made "the decisive difference between success and failure."

So today, thank all of those closest to the Class of 2013. Thank those who made that same "decisive difference."

Sometime today, please thank your parents. Thank your brothers and sisters. Thank your husbands, wives, and children. Thank your friends. Thank your professors, counselors, and mentors.

They believed in you and encouraged you to reach this day. Like Justice Sotomayor's mother, many of them worked extra jobs, took on loans, and juggled child care, so you could attend classes and study.

It is no surprise that Hostos Community College is itself deeply rooted in that promise of service and a commitment to breaking barriers.

The college was founded in 1968 during the civil rights movement, when so-called "ordinary" citizens, young and old, from every background and walk of life, found the courage to do something extraordinary. They literally changed the course of our nation's history.

Hostos was started because civic leaders in the South Bronx took a stand. They demanded a college that would help people in their struggling neighborhood get the education and opportunities they deserved.

Those courageous and committed civic leaders fundamentally understood—just as you and your friends and families do now—that education is the great equalizer. It's the surest path out of poverty and into a better life.

And as you may have heard your parents say, education is the gift that can never be taken away from you.

Over 20,000 students have graduated from Hostos since the first Commencement 41 years ago.

And more than 900 degrees will be conferred today—including 14 proud seniors from Hostos Lincoln Academy's early college high school, who are receiving both their high school diploma and associates' degree today. I love dual enrollment programs—think of the world of opportunity that lies ahead for these students!

I want to thank your President, Dr. Félix Matos Rodríguez, for his outstanding energy and vision. Please give him a round of applause!

Under his leadership, enrollment has doubled, and retention and graduation rates are up significantly in the last three years. Recently, the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities presented Hostos with its Outstanding Member award.

Please stop for a moment and think of the enduring difference that Hostos has made in the lives of individuals and this community.

Let Jhonathan Bocio tell you about the difference Hostos makes.

He comes from the Dominican Republic, from a family that takes great pride in education—his uncles and aunts are doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Yet it wasn't until high school that Jhonathan started paying attention to his own education.

When Jhonathan traveled to the States to live with his mom, he had a rude wake-up call. He discovered his little sister spoke English better than he did!

So a friend helped Jhonathan enroll in an ESL class here at Hostos—and that was the spark he needed. He loved what he was learning. He loved making friends from different backgrounds.

Today, Jhonathan is receiving his Associate Degree in Electrical Engineering—and he's heading to City College for Electrical Engineering.

When you look back on your time here at Hostos, I am sure each of you will have memories that will stay with you for a lifetime. You'll remember friends and professors who changed you, in ways small and large.

Perhaps you'll look back and think of the excitement of the BomPlenazo festival, or watching the Hostos Repertory Company perform the play, "Rough Magic."

Perhaps you'll think of Professor Rees Shad—the creative force behind the Hostos Media Design program, who was recently named the New York State Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation.

Perhaps you'll think of English professor Cynthia Jones, who so appreciates the "grace" of her students as they learn and grow—and never forgets that her own mother taught students in a segregated school in South Carolina.

Maybe you'll think of Professor Hector Lopez, who teaches business and accounting with a passion, and takes such pleasure in helping students gain the opportunity to succeed.

As Nelson Nuñez Rodriguez, a coordinator in the physical sciences says, all of these teachers love seeing students claim "the right to dream."

President Obama believes in the "right to dream" too—and that's why he and I are staunch supporters of the Dream Act.

The right to dream includes not only a commitment to immigration reform. It includes a commitment to equal pay for equal work. It includes a commitment to making sure that people don't get sick or go broke because they can't afford health insurance.

Thanks to President Obama's Affordable Care Act, you can now stay on your parents' health care plan until you turn 26, if you don't get a job after graduation that provides health coverage.

And if that's not an option, starting this fall there'll be a Health Insurance Marketplace, where you'll be able to visit a single website and choose from a range of affordable private plans. So, please know that you have the right to dream—and the education and passion to pursue your dreams. But please also remember that you are links in the chain connecting the past and tomorrow.

Our valedictorian today, David Ramos, knows about the links in the chain. Not one, but two distinguished legislators in his family got their start here at Hostos.

His grandmother, pioneering Assemblywoman Carmen E. Arroyo, had a groundbreaking record of "firsts" in New York. She's the State's first female housing developer of Puerto Rican heritage, and the first Latina elected to the State Assembly—where she's represented the South Bronx and her District since 1994.

David's aunt is City Councilmember Maria del Carmen Arroyo, representing the Bronx and District 17.

Given his family's tradition of public service, it's no surprise that David has a passion for justice and law enforcement. Today, he receives an Associate in Science degree, focused on forensic accounting. He plans to continue his studies at City College of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

So as you leave here today, I hope you will never underestimate, or forget, the extraordinary power of your own example.

Just think about how the world grew, how opportunities opened for you during your time at Hostos. If you reach out to help others—in your family, your circle of friends, and your community—you will keep growing.

Your friends and family will find the courage to pursue their dreams, because they will see you fulfilling yours.

Let me give one last example: Anaiz Flores. She is earning her degree in early childhood education today, and her family and two daughters are here in the audience.

This is wonderful day for Anaiz. But things didn't always look so bright. Growing up in a family of seven kids, it was a struggle to make ends meet, and her dream of becoming a teacher often seemed out of reach.

Anaiz finished high school, and her first child was born soon after graduation. The economy was tough, and she was laid off from her job at a neighborhood pharmacy.

But in her time of struggle, the seed for growth was planted. She knew there had to be a better way—she knew she had to take control of her life. With financial aid, she enrolled at Hostos.

Today, Anaiz is a happily married mom of two. She's also a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, outgoing Vice President of Teachers of the Future, and looks forward to the next step in her education.

And, already, her example is having an impact. With Anaiz's encouragement, her younger sister has enrolled at Hostos—and Anaiz is an inspiring role model for her girls.

So, thank you Anaiz, for—in your words—"paying it forward."

Despite her great success, Justice Sotomayor understands the importance of paying it forward as well.

She wrote in her memoir that she came to recognize, in her good fortune, the work of a blessing—and I quote—"a gift that made my life not entirely my own: I was not free to squander it if I chose. Gifts ... were for sharing with others. And though I was not given a mission, I had to find a worthy purpose . . . And it flowered in the determination to serve."

Hostos graduates, we need your determination to serve. We need you to share your gift with the world.

You'll walk out of New York City Center today, degree in hand, into a world with so many "firsts" still left to achieve, so many questions to answer, so many records to shatter.

Strengthened and empowered by your rich resources of community, diversity and a great education, you can shape 21st Century solutions that help perfect our union and our world.

You can, and will be, "patriots of humanity."

We are so proud of each and every one of you. We all look forward with great anticipation to all that you'll achieve. Congratulations! I wish you the best of luck!