Good afternoon everyone!
Teachers, families, graduates: I am so honored to be back in Charlotte for such an important day. Graduating from college is an extraordinary achievement, and I would like to congratulate all of you. Each of you had a hand in the success of these incredible graduates. Congratulations—you did it!
I'd also like to give a special thanks to President Zeiss for inviting me to join all of you. Last summer, I had the pleasure of traveling to Switzerland for an international conference on workforce training, where I first met President Zeiss. Ever since, he's been encouraging me to visit your beautiful school, and I am so pleased to finally be in Charlotte with you.
Central Piedmont Community College is among the best of the best. This school is one of the leading institutions of higher education that is adapting to the needs of our modern workforce. Central Piedmont is equipping students with the skills they need to excel in careers in some of the fastest growing industries in the United States, like manufacturing, engineering and health care.
By partnering with local businesses, you are answering the call of our nation, to provide a well-equipped and well-trained workforce. And the best-educated workforce too—for many of today's graduates will continue their education at a four-year university to earn a Bachelor's, Master's or a PhD.
Charlotte is one of the fastest growing cities in the country—and Central Piedmont has been a reflection of that growth. You are truly the community's college. And, I am not the only one who loves being at a community college.
A few days ago, President Obama delivered a commencement speech at a community college in South Dakota. He and my husband Joe understand what we all understand—community colleges are America's best-kept secret, and it is time to let the secret out. That's why our administration wants to make two years of community college free—to provide millions of responsible students a pathway to new jobs and higher education.
But I am not a politician. I am an English professor. I feel at home here because I have taught in community colleges for more than 20 years, and I still teach full-time at a community college outside of Washington, DC. Teaching is not just what I do; it's who I am.
At the end of one semester, a student of mine said she had seen me on TV with First Lady Michelle Obama. My student said to her mother, "Mom! Mom! That's my English teacher!" And her mother said, "That's not your teacher, that's the Second Lady." Most of my students don't know I have two jobs. But they do know that my first priority is to them.
I'm relieved to have completed another successful year; sad to see my students leave, but enormously proud of what they have accomplished. And I know many of the teachers here today feel the same way. So, I'd like to give a special congratulations to all the faculty and staff—teaching with no assistants, responding to emails in the middle of the night, grading papers on the weekends and holidays, getting excited about "summer break" only to begin thinking about your syllabi for next semester.
Working at a community college is a huge honor—and the best motivation is the students we celebrate today—and their families who support them. To the parents and grandparents, spouses and partners, children and grandchildren, I know how deeply moving this day is for you. I remember when my kids graduated from college—each nervous but full of potential, more prepared for their life's work. This is truly a special moment, and it simply could not have happened without your love and support.
And, of course, I'd like to congratulate the students. You should be so proud of the hard work you have completed, the relationships you have built, and the enormous honor you are about to receive.
I'd like to take a moment to thank the student veterans who are graduating today. As a lifelong educator and a military mom, I am always inspired by your strength, resilience, and pride. I know you have the skills, discipline, and leadership to succeed in anything you put your mind to. You are among the best our nation has to offer. Thank you for your service to our country.
Now, most commencement speakers give graduates advice on what to expect when they leave this place and enter the real world. But, like my students, most of you already live in the real world.
You are students like Kelley Creed—a single mother of two who moved across the country and enrolled at Central Piedmont to provide a better life for her children. After graduation, Kelley plans to transfer to the University of North Carolina, Charlotte to get her bachelor's degree in respiratory therapy.
You are students like Jaimz Andrews—a single father to a four-year old daughter, and an Air Force veteran who returned to the classroom to complete his education and re-tool his training for a civilian career. Jaimz was accepted to Central Piedmont's Cardiovascular Tech program so he'll be back here for another degree.
You are students like Elizabeth Burgos—who won two music scholarships and has been able to live out her passion playing the piano thanks to this community college. Elizabeth was accepted into three four-year schools and plans on attending Winthrop University next year and eventually go on to become a teacher.
Like Kelley, Jaimz and Elizabeth, as I work hard every day to inspire my students, it is ultimately they who inspire me. My students teach me so many lessons of life, more than any lesson I could teach in the classroom—and I would like to share a few of those with you today.
The first of which is to seize opportunity.
In my classroom, I have students from all over the world—from Poland, Senegal and Taiwan—who left behind their families, their friends and everything that was familiar to them, to get their education in the United States. Many of them had to overcome so many obstacles in life—tragedy and heart breaking loss—but who are now turning the page on their past and creating a brighter future for themselves and their families.
Remember that the education you received here is so much bigger than the diploma. It is the confidence to know that you can succeed, even when you face the most difficult, knotted problems. It is the courage to take a leap of faith into a new career, move to a new city to pursue your dream, or ask for the promotion you know that you deserve.
The second lesson is to be charitable.
A former student at the community college where I teach was one of the lost boys of the Sudan. During his time at my school, he collected bicycles to send back to his war-torn village, which had been devastated by a Civil War. Because he knew that even one bike could benefit a whole family and help to change the welfare of his entire community.
So show kindness to others with your time, but most of all with your heart. As college graduates, it is now your responsibility to use your knowledge to lift up others. As you become successful, pass that good fortune along to those around you.
Third, remember to always, always, be yourself.
One student of mine—an 83-year-old man from Korea—took my class to help improve his English. Can you imagine being 83 and back in the classroom! The other students were so nice to him and always helped him out, especially with technology. For him, he simply loved being in class to better learn a second language.
So, you too can work to identify your greatest passions, the things that captivate and animate you, and strive to match them to the needs of the world around you.
Community colleges are a gateway—a gateway to a new career, to a four-year university and to a more prosperous life. CEO's of Fortune 500 companies, star athletes, and public officials have all walked through the doors of a community college. They started their careers here just like you.
Take for example one of your very own Central Piedmont graduates. Crystal Carson, who is here with me today, earned her associate's degree from Central Piedmont in 2011, and now she works for the President of the United States. Crystal serves as the Assistant to the White House Director and Deputy Director of Communications, and her desk is just down the hallway from the Oval Office.
When I asked Crystal if there was one piece of advice or wisdom that she could share with all of you today, Crystal said, and I quote, "Never quit. If you believe in yourself, anything is possible. When presented with opportunity, just say yes and figure out the details later."
Crystal works alongside Deesha Dyer, who went to a community college in my hometown of Philadelphia, and now works for the President and First Lady as the White House Social Secretary. Deesha is responsible for hosting hundreds of events that open the doors of the White House, for the world to see our character and vibrancy—from the annual Fourth of July festivities on the South Lawn to State Dinners with foreign leaders. As Joe would say, her job is a big deal.
The new U.S. Chief Data Scientist, DJ Patil, also went to a community college. DJ is responsible for helping us use technology to improve the way government works for the American people.
Finally, take to heart the words of one of my favorite actors, Tom Hanks, who credits his community college experience with his success in life. As he put it, and I quote, "That place made me what I am today."
The degree you have earned here will help you build the life you want to live. So today, reflect on how far you have come. And know that if you dream big and work hard, there is no limit to how far you can go. Wherever your path takes you, I hope you will seize opportunity, be charitable, and always, always be yourself.
Cherish this moment, and celebrate your hard-earned achievement with your friends and family.
On behalf of President Obama, the First Lady and the Vice President, my husband Joe—we are so proud of you.