Commencement Address: West Los Angeles Community College 2014 Graduating Class

June 11, 2014

It is truly an honor to be able to join you as West Los Angeles Community College sends forth into the world another class of students who have successfully demonstrated the ability to master academic work the old-fashioned way: You earned it!

From this day forward, you should know that what you want – you can have; what you attempt – you can achieve; and what you dream – you can make happen.

In high school, you were guided, pushed and watched over as you proceeded from freshman to senior.

Whether that brought you directly to West L.A., or whether you came by another route, the point is that what you have learned here academically is not your most important lesson – as valuable as that knowledge is.

Your most important take-away from this experience is, quite simply, this: you got you here today! You did it. And this is the beginning…a new beginning for many of you.

I don’t mean that you have not had help and support, and the prayers of those who love you lifting you up, encouraging you along and, occasionally, no doubt, dragging you right up to this stage.

In fact, right now, why don’t you acknowledge how important their support has been -- whoever is here with you today from your family, friends or mentors,– please give them a round of applause.

What I do mean, is that unlike high school, you have been the prime motivator of your success today: There was no law requiring you to attend college, no truant officer to make you show up for class and no parent looking over your shoulder to make you study or to choose courses that meet your graduation requirements.

So today is, for most of you, the culmination of achievement in your life. And it’s your win. Parents, we’d better give them their round of applause now!

Having earned your Associate Arts Degree, you now know that you can summon the vision, the discipline and the resources to succeed when you set your mind to it.

That is an enormous achievement – and an even more enormous responsibility: From now on, your life is your sculpture, to imagine as you wish, to shape as your skill allows, and to complete on your own terms.

I know many of you are concerned about what’s next. And that’s exactly where your head should be. But before we get stuck in the weeds, I urge you to choose to make living your life’s work – and as you have done up to this point, you give it your all, your very best, your everything!

I turn 50 this summer. And as Oprah says, this is what I know for sure: work is not something to be endured or avoided – it is what the human spirit is designed for. It is the only way for any of us to leave our personal mark on the world during the brief time we are here.

Life has only the meaning you give it – so choose to give all you’ve got!

That means choosing a career that will, yes, support you and your family, but one that will also uplift your spirit and instill a sense of purpose, a sense of worth.

I believe that you will only be able to find a career that is meaningful and worthy of the skills and discipline you have acquired, if it is an endeavor that gives to the world more than you take from it.

Because one day you will have that “man in the mirror” conversation with yourself and a question will arise that demands to be answered truthfully:

Have I done my best? Is my community a better place because I lived in it?

Can my fellow Californians believe that building this campus, instructing me in these arts, investing in me through their taxes and tolerance was worth their while?

Don’t live your life as if, at the end, you hope to feel good about your contributions to this planet.

Rather, live each day as if it is your final achievement, your last opportunity to score big!.

When I chose my college path, I did not know where that would lead me. When next I became a Fellow at the Coro Foundation, I did not know exactly how their leadership training would yield a paycheck. Yet what I learned at Coro about civic engagement has proven invaluable to me throughout my career in the Legislature, where building a case for change that matters is the essence of lawmaking.

Because of my life experience, I realized early on that I wanted to work to empower those whom society traditionally expects to follow rather than to lead – women, people of color, the poor.

So I put myself on the path to do that and found myself running the largest child development and family advocacy program in the state, Crystal Stairs.

I was living my dream. Until a few years ago I came back from lobbying in the state Capitol frustrated by the fact that, however good I might be as an advocate, the Administration wasn’t committed to taking on the challenges facing working families. At that point, what I cared about changed: I realized that arguing the cause of working families would never be as effective as making policy on their behalf – and I didn’t just want to be right, I wanted to be effective! So I decided to run for office, changed jobs and here I am.

Once elected, I looked forward to introducing bills to improve the conditions under which underrepresented communities and low-income families lived. But California was in tens of billions of dollars in debt. We were forced to cut the budget, roll back services and completely eliminate some of the very programs I had run for office to expand.

The next four years turned out to be some of the most challenging in my life.

But often the only way out is through. So I asked to chair the committee which would oversee the brunt of the cuts and got down to work. You see, it turns out it’s better, when down-sizing is necessary, for that task to be done by those who care.

So I made painful choices, helping decide to end programs I believed were not only useful but essential. Still, I urged that we cut with a scalpel instead of a meat-axe, which meant that even major cuts were done with care. And I held so many open hearings that legislators couldn’t help hearing about the needs that would be going unmet and the suffering our drastic cuts would cause.

Because we were prudent then and made those harsh cuts, I have no qualms over the battle we are engaged in this week: with the state economy in recovery and a budget surplus in the billions, I am calling on my colleagues in Sacramento to provide relief to Community Colleges and college students by increasing funds for early childhood services and by supporting the President’s brand new Executive Order that will provide relief to student debt so student parents can learn and earn!

The point of my story is this: you will journey down some thorny paths, you will fall in the dark and you will, at times, retreat. But if you pay attention to what you care about and hold tight, no matter how many times you find yourself starting over, you will land and get up again.

Welcome, rather than avoid those learning experiences. Maya Angelou left us wise advice, “We have to confront ourselves. Do we like what we see in the mirror? And, according to our light, according to our understanding, according to our courage, we will have to say yea or nay – and rise!”

Now it’s your turn, ladies and gentlemen: What goal, worthy of your talents, will be your life’s work?

The world’s a harder place than when I took up my challenge. We had not yet pushed the planet to the edge of destruction by over-using its resources and failing to heed nature’s warnings. You are coming of age at a time when even long-time allies lodge grievances against us.

You are the first generation of global citizens: The internet has flattened the borders of our world.

For every job you seek, there will be applicants from India, Brazil, China and Israel – some of whom speak better English than you or I– and who speak other languages as well.

For every idea you strive to bring into reality, there will be others out there who are also learning how to use Silicon Valley’s newest invention online just like you.

Yours is the first generation which must compete with non-Americans who have almost as much access to American know-how as you – and who are as eager to be first and best as you are.

So let’s talk a little about the assets you take with you from now on that give you the competitive edge you will need to succeed.

First of all, you’re here, in Los Angeles, the city whose streets and people and music and movies are best known throughout the world. Take advantage of the fact that this is the world’s dream factory, and you know the ins-and-outs better than anybody from elsewhere.

Second, you are steeped in the culture of the United States. Innovation is what the world looks for from America; the newest ideas, the latest technology, the most efficient economy, and the freedom to build that which has never before been seen, done or imagined. Thinking outside the box is what Americans are best at. Go for it!

You have been exposed here to professors and fellow students who weren’t members of any privileged majority, but who understood that it is possible to starve amid plenty, and that part of the freedom of America has been the freedom to fail – and to learn success from failure.  

Here on this campus you have seen that diversity is not some abstract ideal that has no practical use in the world. You have learned first-hand that human differences show us the world from different perspectives, yet give us the perspective to appreciate what is universal in humanity.

That is why you are a global citizen. That is what makes you ready to value and keep what is good, and also ready to bring change where it is needed.

I’m not up here today to inspire you to go get a bachelor’s or PH.D., or a high-paying job or to be a stay-at-home parent.

You will, in time, learn or you already know the career path which calls you – and we trust you with your future.

I’m here to challenge you to always ask yourself, “Am I giving back? Is this world better because I have, in some small way, made it so?”

Go forth, Associates of West Los Angeles Community College, and build a dream worthy of your talents, and a world worth living in.

Engage your community, your global neighbors, your family and yourself. Yours is a future worth living. Make it count. And make your caring real in the world.

Go, West! Go far! Thank you.