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Commencement Address to Class of 2015 of Miami Dade College

William D. Adams, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Miami Dade College Miami, FL
United States

May 2, 2015

(As prepared for delivery)

Presidents Padrón, Vicente, and Roig-Watnik, members of the Miami-Dade faculty and staff, proud parents and family members, and above all others today, members of the class of 2015, thank you for the invitation to share brief words on this important occasion. I am honored and grateful to be here.

I’ll begin with the most obvious and important words of all: warm congratulations to the graduates. Your Commencement matters. It represents hard work, sacrifice, and accomplishment. This day is about you and all that you’ve done here.  Enjoy it and be proud. 

I also want to congratulate family members—parents and grandparents, husbands, wives and children, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters—for you, too, are part of the success we celebrate today.  Thank you for your support of these students. They could not have succeeded without you.

This moment is also important and gratifying to members of the Miami Dade faculty and staff. You’ve had the pleasure of watching these students learn and grow and now succeed, and you’ve contributed much to that success. Thank you and congratulations.

Finally, we acknowledge the fact that this is an important moment of transition—of moving out and beyond this time and place to the interesting futures that you will have as graduates. Wherever you’re headed, this is a moment of excitement and anticipation. Inevitably, it’s also one of uncertainty and perhaps some uneasiness, as well.   

It’s alright to feel a bit uneasy—it’s part of life and life’s big transitions. But after today, you will have a new source of confidence—the permanent touchstone of your success here at Miami Dade and the degree that symbolizes that success. Whenever you feel uneasy about transitions and next steps, I urge you to return to the knowledge and sensation of accomplishment that you have today. Doing so will serve you well in the many transitions yet to come. 

Of course, some forms of uncertainty are beyond our individual control. Consider the world around us.

For starters, the U.S. economy still struggles to recover fully from the depths of the recent recession. All of the economic indices remind us that we have a long way to go before we regain completely our economic footing. And we acknowledge that this presents challenges to all of the students graduating around the country in this season.

Our political system doesn’t seem to be helping much. Particularly at the national level, our politics remain caught in gridlock, and even the routine responsibilities of government seem nearly impossible to carry out. As I’ll say a bit later, I hope you will be part of the solution to this problem.

It’s not any more comforting when we look outside our borders at what’s happening around the world. There, too, we see economic distress and political dysfunction.

In the face of all this uncertainty and these specific sources of worry, what gives me hope and confidence is you, the students and shortly graduates of Miami Dade.  

I am heartened first of all by what I have read and learned about Miami Dade College since I was invited to speak here today.  In so many ways, your college is a leader in showing our nation how we should respond to the challenges of globalization, demographic change, and the pressures and promise brought about by technological progress and innovation.

The college is also a leader in another important way that’s particularly important to me. You may not be aware of it since it surrounds you so completely, but the environment the college has created here on campus and fostered in downtown Miami is infused with the arts and humanities. From the numerous live performances to the impressive collections of artwork displayed across the campus, to the readings, lectures and workshops hosted by the Center for Literature and Theatre, to the Miami Book Fair International and the Miami International Film Festival, the arts and humanities are clearly alive and well at Miami Dade. They have surrounded and nurtured you, infusing your lives with their special energy and insight. 

This matters because the humanities and arts are powerful forms of understanding and experience that speak to all parts of our lives and identities—not just to our working lives, but to the parts of ourselves that find expression in our communities, in our political and civic engagements, in our family lives and in our friendships. In those places, especially, we desperately need the insight and perspective that the arts and humanities bring to our experience.

Within this rich cultural environment, you’ve created a very special and promising form of community. As the presence of all these national flags attest, you come from an unusually large number of backgrounds. Some of you are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and English is not your first language. Some of you have parents and grandparents whose access to education was thwarted by discrimination. 

But these differences don’t divide you. Indeed, you’ve created a community that values difference and places diversity at the very heart of the educational experience and your experience with one another.

The diversity I see on this campus and in this audience is a harbinger of what America is becoming.  And the experience of community that you’ve had here at Miami Dade is important to the country because we need your skills and engagement as people familiar with the work of creating a common life from difference.

We’ve all been reminded recently of just how important this kind of community building will be in the coming years. Earlier this week I was in Atlanta, where I had a chance to see materials from the Martin Luther King, Jr. archive at the Robert W. Woodruff Library at the Atlanta University Center. It was deeply inspiring to see hand-written drafts of important speeches that Dr. King delivered in Georgia and elsewhere. But it was just as inspiring to see materials from the student movement in Atlanta in the early 1960s. It’s important for all of us to recall that without the energizing force of the student movement in Atlanta, Dr. King’s message would not have resonated as widely or deeply is it did.  

I returned to Washington on Monday night, and when I got home I turned on the television to watch the news. The lead story was the rioting in Baltimore that followed the funeral of Freddie Gray. As I watched those reports, I realized in a new way how far we have to travel as a nation to realize Dr. King’s dream, and how much we need citizens who are capable of building community out of difference. You are those citizens, and what you’ve learned here at Miami Dade will be crucial to our success as a country.

Your achievement here also says a lot about your desire and your commitment. I’m told that most of you are the first in your family to attend college. I know that most of you worked during your time as students and made substantial sacrifices to be sitting where you are now. You clearly have the ability to study hard and well while balancing competing interests and demands.  Your determination and passion inspire all of us who now look to the next generation to move this country forward.    

You’ve also learned a lot at Miami Dade. That learning included the very specific skills that you’ve acquired in your areas of concentration. But as you’ve mastered these specific areas of competence, you’ve also acquired and cultivated more general intellectual capacities that will be just as important to you in the future.  Those capacities include the ability to communicate with power and conviction, the ability to think carefully and clearly about complex problems and issues, and the ability to imagine and create. You’ll find plenty of uses for these capacities as you move out into your futures. They’ll pay off again and again in both your personal and professional lives and in whatever kind of work you end up doing.

In the many places to which you now depart, I hope and trust that you will apply the knowledge and skills that you’ve acquired here at Miami Dade toward our common good.

Several weeks ago, the National Endowment for the Humanities hosted a lecture by the actor Anna Deavere Smith. You might know her from her roles in Nurse Jackie and The West Wing. Her lecture—part reflection, part performance—was about American character and American characters. She performed the late Studs Terkel, a radio journalist and oral historian; Congressman John Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement; a young man who had been failed by the education system; a school principal trying to keep kids in school and out of prison; and—possibly most poignant of all—a Korean shopkeeper who had suffered during the Los Angeles riots and felt abandoned by her community and country.

It was easy for all of us in the audience to forget the performer as she became these characters. The power of Anna Deavere Smith’s performance art comes from the time she spends interviewing and learning about people to capture their thoughts, their voices, their movements and concerns. She’s a brilliant interpreter, but she is above all else an unusually close and sympathetic listener.

When asked what she has distilled from all of this listening, she had this to say:  

“So many people in this country—when they gripe, when they protest—they really believe that it’s possible, this idea of the more perfect Union. And I think people come here because they think it is possible, and they believe that they should matter, so when they don’t, if they are wise, they say something about it.”

I hope you will not forget that the education you received here is a powerful foundation for “saying something” significant about your communities, states, and the country as a whole.

This assumes, of course, your desire to participate in our democracy. What does participation mean? It means voting, of course. And voting obliges all of us to pay close attention to what’s going on around us—to what our legislators and leaders are doing in our name, and to what’s happening in distant parts of the world.

But participation also means finding ways to engage directly in our shared institutions and political processes. I hope that many of you will decide to serve on the PTA at your children’s schools or to run for the school board. I hope some of you will be inclined to serve in municipal, state or the federal government. When you have concerns about public issues, I hope you will petition your local officials regarding the things you care about. I hope that you will work to end poverty in your communities and to ensure that all children have access to food, schools, and healthcare. I hope you will contribute to the life of your cities, just as the founders and leaders of this college have.

And I hope that you will never, ever underestimate your potential impact as citizens. Nation-changing legal cases that made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court were the result of ordinary citizens fighting for free speech, for the right to marry, for the right to legal counsel, for the right to practice religion—or not. It was ordinary citizens who marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and who, in doing so, changed this country forever.

Every great change in our history—the end of slavery, women getting the right to vote, fair labor practices, desegregation, laws protecting the environment—came about because there were people courageous enough to speak up. What William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rachel Carson had in common was the determination and ability to move people with the power of their words and their examples. Their causes would have gone nowhere without people brave enough to say “yes” to their calls for engagement.

Engagement is not always easy. Like Anna Deavere Smith, it will require you to really listen to people with whom you might disagree, and to understand lives you’ve never considered before.

But listening, observing and understanding are all at the heart of what you’ve been practicing here at Miami Dade. That’s why I’m so optimistic about your class and the good things that you will do in your careers and in your communities. You’ve worked hard, you’ve learned, and you’re ready. And I know that you’ll do well. As you leave this important place and time in your lives, I wish you the very best in what comes next, and I thank you again for inviting me to share in this important moment in your lives.

¡Que les vaya bien, y gracias!