University of Connecticut Commencement Ceremony for the Class of 2021

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University of Connecticut Commencement Ceremony for the Class of 2021

May 8, 2021

Thank you, Dr. Katsouleas (PRONOUNCED: KAT-sue-lay-us), for that very kind introduction – and for all you do for this amazing institution. Both here and throughout your remarkable career, you’ve brought a visionary approach to an ever-changing educational landscape. I’ve gotten a chance to get to know you these past few years and appreciate all you do and who you are! As we reimagine the possibilities beyond the pandemic, we need student centered and innovative leaders like you.  It’s a real honor to be with you and everyone assembled virtually today as we celebrate this important occasion.  I am especially honored to have a small part of your special day graduates of the University of Connecticut Class of 2021. Congratulations to all of you!

I have nothing but fond memories from my time here at UConn. I was fortunate to get four different credentials and degrees here.  UCONN gave me the skills I needed to take on new challenges, but equally as important, the confidence to follow through.  I met some of the best and most influential people in my life here, some of whom I continue to consult with today in my current role as the nation’s head of education policy. Just last night, I met with two people I met at UCONN to discuss the distribution of the $170 Billion education portion of the American Rescue Plan.  If it weren’t for UConn, I can say for certain I wouldn’t be Secretary of Education. So, thank you Husky Nation -- I couldn’t have done it without you.

Of course, like you, my best memories at UCONN are more personal in nature. I remember when I received my doctorate. It was a huge milestone for my family and me. And by family, I mean those who came before me and sacrificed much more than I did so that I could cross that stage. So picture this, in 2012, my uncle drove school buses.  So I gathered about 20-30 family members, and I was driven to my Doctoral graduation in a yellow school bus full of Puerto Ricans celebrating and singing… We had a loud speaker in it and it became a party bus. To this day, colleagues I graduated with still say, “dude, you brought a school bus to graduation at UConn!” Instead of the Partridge Family playing folk music, it was the Cardona Family playing Salsa.  But I wouldn’t have had it any other way, and I couldn’t be more proud. My family means everything to me. As you all know, walking the stage is a family accomplishment. We didn’t do it alone- especially this past year. Special shout out to the family members in attendance and those who could not be in attendance but supported you along the way.  Today would not be possible without you! 

There might have been a time in my life where I would not have ridden to my graduation in a school bus full of my family because it was “not the norm”. I may have been a little scared to express myself the way I would want to because it’s not conventional. What I want to say to the graduates, especially now after what we have gone through as a country, is, embrace your uniqueness and consider it your superpower. For me, embracing what sets me apart allowed me to find my purpose. Whether I am a classroom teacher, or the secretary of education, I am just living out my life’s purpose to serve children.

your uniqueness will be viewed as a deficit. Some will try to make you believe that what sets you apart, sets you back. I am here to remind you that your so called “deficits” are in fact your superpowers. For me, being born in a housing project, moving 7 times before the age of 13, living simply without a lot of financial resources, learning Spanish before English, and having strong connections to my Boricua roots, have served me well and allowed me to be prepared for this role. If I did not have that experience, I may not have the level of urgency or experience to ensure the successful distribution of $170 Billion in the American Rescue Plan, which is aimed at unapologetically addressing the opportunity gaps that exist in this country.

What some viewed as a deficit, I call my superpower.

Whether you have ADHD, are differently abled, moved to this country later in life, speak with an accent, grew up in poverty, or are LGBTQ, embrace your uniqueness and use it to find your purpose.  

When you find your purpose, make the pursuit of your purpose greater than the pursuit of your position.  

Make the pursuit of your purpose greater than the pursuit of your position.

During, your time here, you’ve balanced academic rigor, work, internships, volunteering, cultural activities, and more. But in the spring of 2020, everything changed. Everything we took for granted suddenly became difficult or impossible: visiting family and friends; sitting down to a meal at a restaurant; meeting someone for the first time and shaking their hand, or having a cold drink at Huskies or Ted’s- soda that is

And here at UConn, that meant labs went dark. Dining halls were silent. Classrooms were empty. Athletics seasons were canceled. I know some of you even arrived at an internship or job to find signs taped to doors saying: “Closed until further notice.” That’s not to diminish the incredibly hard work university staff were putting in behind the scenes to meet the ever-evolving needs of the student body. It’s just the suddenness of it all was so shocking and scary.

But setbacks are just preparation for Set-ups. Of course, setbacks won’t always take the form of a global pandemic, but they do await each and all of us. So how did you respond in the spring of 2020? What did those challenges teach you about who you are, and what you can accomplish? You improvised. You adapted. You rolled with the punches. Your classes moved online, and you moved with them. All of that’s impressive, but that was only the beginning.

You stepped up to help Connecticut fight the pandemic and its effects on our society:

  • Students from the School of Pharmacy became contract tracers and learned to administer vaccines.
  • UConn students joined a state program to make regular contact with patients who had survived severe cases of COVID-19, to monitor their recovery.
  • Students in the UConn Extension Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program distributed thousands of gallons of milk and dairy products to food pantries around the state, from Connecticut farmers, who had lost one of their most important markets when schools closed.
  • Two Engineering students and a recent graduate joined together to form the Ventilator Project, to design emergency ventilators that could be rapidly brought to market.
  • Kelly Ha, who is receiving her Master’s degree in Social Work this week, became the campaign manager for the #IAmNotAVirus campaign, bringing needed national attention to the blight of anti-Asian hatred that sprang up in the wake of the pandemic.
  • Thank you Kelly!

Every single part of the university was affected, from Stamford to Waterbury to Avery Point to Hartford. But no group was more affected than UConn Health, which was on the front line of Connecticut’s response to the pandemic. The medical and dental students who are receiving their degrees this week were a crucial part of that response, and this experience will go on to shape their careers and lives as healers. This experience, that binds us together, will no doubt impact our purpose and passion for the rest of our years. As I have said when visiting schools across the country these last two months: “For educators, the pandemic will serve to sharpen our swords for the real fight ahead. The fight to address inequities in education is the real fight.” The inequities that were made worse during these last 12 months. Leading through the pandemic, this setback, was the set up for a reimagined education system built on equity and access. I am optimistic that our best days are ahead of us.

If you look carefully, you might already notice signs of recovery.

Yes, flowers are blooming, people are reconnecting with their loved ones after months of separation, students are back on campus, labs are operating, our amazing Husky Athletic programs are playing again, and probably best sign of recovery possible- the Dairy Bar is open – and there’s no better way to measure UConn’s mood than whether you can go pick up a scoop or two, or three, of Husky Tracks.
The end is in sight. Let me rephrase that… The beginning is in sight. 

This is the beginning of a new day for education, one where we value social emotional well being of students as much as academic aptitude, where we unapologetically challenge what Dr. Noguera called the Normalization of failure.

This is the beginning of a new era of unity in this nation, with us gaining value, not enemies by engaging with diverse perspectives. Where we recognize that our uniqueness is our superpower.

This is the beginning of your journey to find or refine your purpose. Whether you choose to be in the arts, in education like my Godson Hector Cardona III, or as we call him Tre, who is graduating from the NEAG school of education this week, or engineering, medicine, law, or even epidemiology, know that you are stronger because of your experience at UConn.

Go out and serve, make the world better. Make sure that in your pursuit for purpose, you help others. Always remember, it is better to be known for testimonies about you than for any titles before or after your name.

The top song on the Billboard Music charts today is, Save Your Tears, by The Weekend and Ariana Grande. In it, they tell the person to save their tears for another day. After this past year, we struggled together, we cried together, and we experienced loss together.
But graduates, today is a new day.
Save your sad tears for another day. Today is a special day
Today, let your tears mark the joy you feel, the sense of accomplishment, the end of one journey and the beginning of another.
Save your tears to express the passion you have for your purpose in life.  
And like I have so many times in my lifetime, save your tears to mark the pride you feel in knowing that today, you will be a graduate of the University of Connecticut.

Congratulations again to UCONN’s Class of 2021.