Father Donohue, thank you for that honor. Thank you, Dr. Hicks, for that very kind introduction.
Good afternoon, everyone! It's wonderful to be here at Villanova to celebrate such an important day with each one of you and your families. To my fellow teachers: congratulations on finishing another successful year. I also want to recognize members of the military who are graduating today. Thank you for your service.
As Second Lady, as a lifelong educator, and as a proud Villanova graduate, it is truly my honor to be here with all of you. I'm a Philly girl. I grew up in Willow Grove straight down Broad Street. My childhood was spent crossing the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge every single weekend with my entire family. Five sisters would pile in our car—without seatbelts—and drive to South Jersey to visit my grandparents. Along the way, we would pass pretzel vendors on the street corners, but we'd never stop. We didn't ask because we never had any extra money.
My summers were spent watching the Phillies with my Dad on a black and white Philco TV. As a teenager, I waitressed at the shore. I ran the Race for the Cure, the Broad Street 10-miler, and the Philadelphia Half Marathon. I watched the Mummers Parade and spent my class field trips at the Fels Planetarium and the Betsy Ross House.
I skated in the winters on the canals of Washington's Crossing. Growing up, I knew early what I wanted in life: a marriage like my parents', maybe kids, definitely a career. Although things didn't necessarily happen in that order, I did get all three. But it wasn't always easy.
As I matured, I became more aware of the changes that were happening all around me. I couldn't see it clearly at the time, but a new counter culture was emerging that would seep into America's psyche: spurred on by Vietnam and the draft; the "feminist revolution;" the increasing use of so-called recreational drugs; greater awareness that our planet's resources were finite; student unrest on campuses like Kent State, where I personally knew one of the students who was shot but survived; racial inequality and the struggle for civil rights, and the cruel loss of our heroes, Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Kennedy.
I had to grow up, and perhaps like many of you here today, I learned that growing up takes some stepping up. During your years at Villanova, you have seen: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down; dire predictions about climate change and the effects of global warming; revolutions for democracy spurred by social media use in countries around the globe; and the continued struggle for civil rights, especially related to women's issues and our new definition of what makes a family.
So when I sat down to write this speech, I asked myself what is it that I can say that would matter? Because, quite frankly, I can't remember one word from any of my graduations, nor can I remember the speakers. My answer? What matters is what we have in common—our compassion for one another is what binds us together. Although we each carry our own hesitancies, our own fears—we each have our own capacity to dream, hope, give, and receive in return.
So I thought I'd tell you briefly three things I found that matter in life. The first lesson is one that I try to impart to my students. It's one that I didn't always recognize, especially when I was facing my own setbacks. And it's this—everyone around us is struggling, and it is during those trying times when you really have to rely on your inner strength and your faith, whatever that means for you.
I've been in the classroom teaching for more than 30 years. One day this semester, I was telling my students I would miss our next class for personal reasons. Of course, they have no filter or any sense of privacy and were shouting out, "Where are you going to be, Dr. B?"
So I told them: "My sister Jan is having a stem cell transplant. That's her first treatment and she will have to stay in the same hospital room for six weeks, and I need to be with her." I turned to face the chalkboard because the words caught in my throat. I just needed a moment. When I turned back to face my students, the entire class was standing, lined up to give me hugs, one by one. They took my breath away.
And that leads me to my second point: the power of a small act of kindness. My son Beau deployed to Iraq for a year in October 2008. That was a very tough year for our entire family. A military family goes through a lot during a deployment.
For my daughter-in-law Hallie and my grandchildren, Hunter and Natalie, there were so many moments—some big and many small—when Beau's absence cast a long shadow. Like any child, Natalie had trouble understanding why her Daddy couldn't be with her to celebrate her fifth birthday.
The holidays were difficult for our entire family because we always spent them together. We tried to keep our spirits up with our regular traditions, but the empty chair at the table was a painful reminder of Beau's absence. What kept us going were the many people who found ways to support our family that year, through so many acts of kindness. A neighbor shoveled after a snowstorm. Friends brought meals. Our church included Beau's name in the prayer list. At Natalie's school, her teacher hung a photo of Beau's unit on the wall of her classroom, so everyone would know that her daddy was at war. That meant so much to our entire family.
Those small acts of kindness are a big part of why First Lady Michelle Obama and I started our Joining Forces initiative three years ago—so that all Americans would be inspired to take action on behalf of our troops and military families.
I challenge all of the graduates here today to commit to their own act of kindness as we wind down the war in Afghanistan and our troops return home. I'm sure every single person in this room can think of a time when someone did something seemingly small that really made a difference for you. A stranger picked up the tab for your coffee when you forgot your wallet. A teacher said she believed in you, and pushed you a little further on a project. A friend asked how you were doing, and took the time to listen.
These are pretty simple things. But they are things that can change your day. Those acts of kindness, stacked up day after day, over a lifetime, can make all the difference. I hope you understand its power and try to find a way to use it, every single day. You will be surprised by how much of a difference you can make for those around you and by how much better you will feel yourself. The third and final lesson is to have confidence in yourself and don't let anything stand in the way of your goals.
I see this over and over in my classroom at the community college where I teach: students who are facing significant challenges, but are determined to get their education, so they can build a better life for themselves. I helped one woman who was writing her scholarship essay for a four-year university. Her path had not been easy—she left an abusive relationship and was homeless, living in her car with her kids.
Once she got into a homeless shelter, she was encouraged to attend a community college, where I met her as part of a women's mentoring project. She went on to a four-year university where she is working to earn her accounting degree—with confidence that she is on the path to a better life for herself and her family. I have many students who have come to the United States from countries all around the world. Another semester I was teaching a course on refugees.
One student attending the community college was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, part of the more than 20,000 boys displaced and orphaned in the Second Sudanese Civil War. He had lost his entire family when he was only 10 years old. Everything he had known growing up was different in the United States. Yet he was persistent, doing everything he could to finish his education. He completed his associate's degree and is now working to help other young boys find their path in the world.
As Second Lady, I have seen this over and over—ordinary people, often facing extraordinary challenges, staying true to themselves to reach their dreams. Teachers who stay late, who spend their own money on classroom materials, and are always dreaming up creative lessons—who are there for their students 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Because teaching is who they are. Veterans who return home and transition out of the military who use their training to continue to serve their communities as medics, nurses, firefighters, and teachers. Young mothers in the poorest slums in the world in Africa and India who decide to stay in their villages, so they can help educate other young girls. Young women, like those in Nigeria and Pakistan, who risk their lives to receive an education—which we take for granted.
The Villanova motto is "Veritas, Unitas, Caritas"—Truth, Unity, Love. These are the values you have been surrounded by here—a community dedicated to pursuing knowledge as well as a commitment to serving others.
During the time I was earning my master's degree here, I was also teaching full-time and raising three small children. I remember so clearly the hour-long drive each way a few nights a week—this was before the Blue Route—to get to classes. It was a lot at once. But I loved what I found here—the intellectual rigor of the classes, the supportive values of the community. And even though it took me 15 years to earn two master's degrees and eventually my doctorate, I kept at it because I knew teaching was my passion. And along the way I picked up those three lessons: Everybody struggles. A little act of kindness can make a huge difference. And, it's not easy to have the confidence to stay true to your goals.
You may have to step back, dig deep, refocus, and rely on your inner strength. But, persevere. Let me end with one more thought that is reflected in all of these lessons: show your heart to the world. Pope Francis recently paraphrased St. Ignatius by saying, quote: …Love is expressed more clearly in actions than in words."
So graduates, I hope you keep sharing your time, your skills that you learned here at Villanova, and your heart, with the rest of the world. And on behalf of President Obama, the First Lady and the Vice President—we are so proud of you. We look forward to all that is to come. Congratulations and God bless you.