Thank you Bridgewater State for inviting me today. It looks as though – I'm looking at the graduates here – most of you have recovered from Spring Fest. Some better than others. Bear with us. Today won't be quite the same. This may not be as much fun as jumping out of windows on folding tables [laughter and cheers], but you have a much better chance of remembering tomorrow morning what you did today.
I cannot think of a better place to be celebrating education than at Bridgewater State in this anniversary year. Bridgewater State, a school founded 175 years ago, with the purpose of educating great teachers. From your cutting-edge STEM to your deep commitment to social justice, Bridgewater State is a school that the rest of the country can look to as a model for excellence. A school that sends people out into the world with the sharp brains needed to be successful and with the big hearts needed to make a difference. I applaud you, Bridgewater State.
And now, let me get started on this. We start with the graduates. You worked hard, you made it, we're here to celebrate you, so congratulations. Congratulations. [applause] And out there in the rest of the seats, the parents and grandparents, the families and friends, the teachers and advisors – you helped make this day possible, and so congratulations to you, as well. Congratulations. [applause]
Now we each have a job to do today. For the parents and families and friends out there, your job is to cheer loudly, to offer creative gifts and to take lots of pictures. For the graduates, your jobs are to smile for all those pictures, not trip when you come across the stage, and when your aunties and grannies want to kiss you, to smile and be nice about it. It's just one day – you can make it through this. And seriously – don't trip. Someone will post it on YouTube – this is not how you want to become famous.
So…you have a job, you have a job, and I have a job, too. My job is to congratulate you, to give you some life advice, and to shake a lot of hands. I've already congratulated you, so let's move straight to the advice.
Sing like no-one is listening and dance like no-one is watching. [applause] Great advice. I know that's great advice because I got it off a pillow at the book store. And I'm not going to sing and I'm not going to dance.
But seriously. I know that graduation speakers are supposed to inspire and offer good advice. But I'm going to be honest. My own journey feels too improbable, too full of mistakes and twists and turns and failures. I did not sit in the back row at my college graduation and say ‘Whoa, next stop, United States Senate!” Heck, on my day of graduation, I never imagined I would visit foreign countries. I never imagined I would be a commencement speaker. I never imagined I would get into a Twitter war with Donald Trump. [laughter and applause] But here I am, living the life. [laughter]
So that's my graduation message: Get ready, because even if you think you’ve got everything figured out, trust me, the most exciting parts of your life are not even on your radar screen yet.
Looking back from today, I had so many twists in my life that it would make the Isley brothers shout. Graduates, that was a reference for your rocker grandparents. [laughter]
From the time I was in second grade I wanted to be a teacher, but that meant college. My family had no money for college. Besides, my mother didn't think I needed college. She just thought I should find a nice man to marry. But I was a high school debater, got a full scholarship, and off I went. I was set on my path for life.
Then I turned 19, and the first boy I had ever dated parachuted back into my life and asked me to marry him, and in the blink of an eye, I said yes, gave up my scholarship, and dropped out of school. Boy was I smart at nineteen. [laughter] But I was lucky enough to find a state school near my home and I scraped together enough credits to graduate, and then I truly did get the job of my dreams teaching special needs kids, and now for sure I was on the path for my life.
Except not exactly. Surprise, surprise – I was pregnant. And in those days there were actually some pretty harsh rules about pregnant teachers. So, it was goodbye teaching job, hello what happens next.
A couple of years later, I decided to go to law school. A public university was nearby, and besides, I'd seen those lawyer shows on TV and I figured I could do that, right? Warren for the defense. So off to law school I went, and now I was sure I was set on my path for life.
But I graduated from law school nine months pregnant – you may detect a pattern here. Fortunately the graduation robes were very large because I was about the size of a fully operational blimp at my graduation. And I'll be honest – nobody wanted to hire me, nobody.
So, just as that plan went out the window, I got a call. Would I like to come back to teaching, this time as a professor? And I loved it, I truly loved it, all the way down. Now I was absolutely, positively sure I was set on my path for life. In fact, I spent 30 years teaching at different schools about bankruptcy law and contracts and finance. I studied why working families were going broke and how big banks were pulling in gigantic profits by cheating people. I wrote books and gave speeches and headed up commissions and did everything I could to try to get the law changed to help hard-working people. I loved this work, and I knew I was set on my path for life.
And then in 2008, a huge financial crisis rocked this country. And one day out of the blue, I'm in my kitchen and the phone rings and it's Senator Harry Reid, leader of the Senate. He said Congress was putting together an oversight panel about how the Treasury Department was handling the Wall Street bailout and he asked if I'd come to Washington. Now, I was still a professor. I'd never met Senator Reid and I really didn't have any clue why he thought I was right person for this job. But our country was in a crisis, so I went to Washington and I did my best.
The big problem at the heart of the crash was that Wall Street has made zillions of dollars of profits by ripping people off, and there was no one with the power or the backbone to stop them. So I put together an idea for a consumer agency whose only job – only job – was to protect people from tricks and traps on credit cards and mortgages and payday loans and student loans.
Now, no surprise – the big banks and the credit card companies hated the idea. Can we underline the word hated? During the debates in Washington, for over a year, they spent more than a million dollars a day fighting against it. And we had noting on our side. This was truly the David versus Goliath fight, twenty-first century version.
And you know what? We won. That little consumer bureau, now the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is now the law. [applause]
Before you go home and say to yourself, "Good grief, I was at my graduation and I applauded for a government agency. I must be turning into a nerd," let me tell you, that little consumer agency has been up and running for nearly five years now, and it has already forced some of the biggest financial institutions in this country to return more than eleven billion dollars directly to people they cheated. That's government that works. That's government that works. [applause]
A few years later, my world turned upside down again. In 2012, I was actually right here at Bridgewater State as a candidate for the United States Senate. Running for office had not been on my bucket list, my shopping list or any other list I might have, but I was in the Rondileau Campus Center Ballroom, with our first woman secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and I was busting my tail to be the first woman to be elected to the Senate from the commonwealth of Massachusetts. [applause]
There is a point to that story. Or as I should say, because this is a graduation speech, there will be three points to that story.
First, all the planning in the world can't prepare you for the twists that are coming your way. You can't predict it all. People will tell you plan, to focus. They will tell you that if you want to succeed, you have to stubbornly stay on your path, no matter what. They will be right. They will also be wrong.
I never planned to get married when I did and I sure didn't plan to get divorced. I never planned to become a lawyer or a law professor. No amount of focus when I was 20 years old would have made me think I was going to be a United States senator. So this is my first piece of advice for you – don't be so focused in your plans that you are unwilling to consider the unexpected.
My second piece of advice is that you have to figure out who you are. I grew up in a family that was barely hanging on to the ragged edge of the middle class and that experience shaped who I am deep down, right in my gut. It makes me passionate about helping working families, families like mine, families that have kids who have all the potential in the world but don't have the resources to build a future, families that have the system rigged against them. I figured out what I'm fighting for and no matter where I've gone and what I've done, it has helped guide my life.
You have to figure out who you are. And who you are isn't what job you take or what kind of car you drive. You have to think about what really matters to you. What makes your heart flutter and your stomach clench. What makes you wake up ready to go and what makes you grind your teeth.
I'm not saying it's easy. One of the hardest things in a world of Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat is to carve out time just for yourself. And no, I don't mean time to spend by yourself following Kim Kardashian on Instagram. I mean making it a priority to develop yourself, totally separate from what anybody else thinks. But here's the thing – if you figure that out, nothing will be more valuable. Because knowing who you are is the compass that will help guide you when an unexpected opportunity blows your way. Knowing who you are is the center board that will help steady you when you might capsize.
Knowing who you are is also useful for another thing, and this brings me to my third piece of advice. You have to be willing to fight for what you believe in and to fight for what you want. It is a tough world out there and you're going to encounter roadblocks, setbacks and even people who want you to fail.
I couldn't get a job when I graduated from law school. There were only a tiny number of women law professors when I started out. When I proposed a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, people told me I shouldn't even try, I should lower my sights. And now I'm in the Senate, and I've got to tell you that Washington is filled with people who say no, it's can be done, never, never, never. And these days, they say it in nastier and nastier ways.
Knowing who you are will help you when it's time to fight – fight for the job you want, fight for the people who mean the most to you, fight for the world you live in and the world you want to live in. If you know who you are, you won't get caught up when times get tough and the naysayers try to stop you.
Or, to put it differently, as one of the great philosophers of our time as said, "Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate." [laughter] Knowing who you are helps you shake it off. [laughter and applause]
OK – I promised I wouldn't sing and I definitely cannot dance like Britney Spears, but it has been a great honor to share this celebration with you. Congratulations again on a job well done. Now, go hug your grannies and your aunties, and get ready for a lifetime of unexpected adventures.
Neither the Catt Center nor Iowa State University is affiliated with any individual in the Archives or any political party. Inclusion in the Archives is not an endorsement by the center or the university.