Elizabeth Warren

Wheelock College Commencement Address - May 19, 2017

Elizabeth Warren
May 19, 2017— Brookline, Massachusetts
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Hello, Wheelock. Whoo! It is good see every one of you here. I am so pleased to be here.

Thank you to President Chard and the Board of Trustees for inviting me to be here today. I also want to thank Temple Ohabei Shalomfor inviting us to this beautiful and historic space.

You know, it is a real honor to be the commencement speaker at this historic institution. Wheelock College was founded in 1888 as Miss Wheelock's Kindergarten Training School. People were taught how to deal with unruly five-year-olds. We could really use that experience in Washington today. [Applause] A few kindergarten teachers would get things back in shape.

Wheelock College is a special place with a special mission. Today, this college is focused on providing a top-notch education and real-world training for a range of careers, careers that will make a real difference in this world. Wheelock College is a college that truly believes in improving the lives of children and families. And the class of 2017—you are proof of that. Thank you. Thank you.

So let me get straight to it.

First to the graduates—you worked hard and we're here to celebrate your success. Congratulations, class of 2017.

And to all of the parents and the grandparents and the families and friends and teachers and advisors, you helped make this day possible. Congratulations to you as well.

According to the official White House inauguration crowd counters, there are over 14 million people here today. I want to thank you all. [Applause and laughter]

Graduates, this is a day for celebration. You have earned it. The size of your graduating class may be small but the opportunities opened by a Wheelock education are enormous. You have challenged yourselves with coursework, internships, athletics, campus groups. You've lived and studied just down the river way from first-class hospitals. You've been within visiting distance of outstanding arts institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts, Symphony Hall, and of course the Wheelock Family Theater. And it doesn't hurt to go to college within walking distance to Fenway Park. The Green Monster is the only wall I would like to see in this country. [Applause] But the degree you will receive in a few minutes will open many doors for you.

I also know that commencement day can be daunting. You may have worried that you don't have it all figured out. Believe me, I get it. My own path had plenty of twists and turns. Heck, I dropped out of college at 19, got married, gave up my scholarship, so I know a lot about detours and about the importance of second chances. And I also know what it feels like to pry open that door to a college diploma, so let me say from the heart, congratulations to every one of you. [Applause]

I want to talk about what you will do next. I know that here at Wheelock, most of you are already headed into public service. I'm looking out right now at lots of future workers in juvenile justice and health care professionals, social workers, teachers. I know that you will change lives, and I know that because someone like you changed my life a long time ago. Okay, maybe not that long ago. I don't want anyone to think I was in Lucy Wheelock's first class.

But I do want to say, I wanted to be here in part because it was a day, this was an opportunity to honor someone who changed my life, and it was my second grade teacher, Mrs. Lee. She gave the best hugs in the world and I loved her dearly. One day she took me aside and she told me that I could do something with my life if I wanted to. Later on I remember standing in front of her and telling her I wanted to be a teacher, and she rocked my world when she said, "Yes, Miss Betsy, you can." No one in my family had ever graduated from college. No one had ever said I could do anything. But after Mrs. Lee told me that I could be a teacher, I saw myself in a different way. I stood a little taller, I spoke a little clearer, and I organized all of my dollies into "let's play school." We were very heavy on reading and snack time. It was a long road and there were some bumps along the way, but I made it. When I graduated from college, my very first job was working with special needs kids in a public elementary school. Teaching isn't just a job, it is a calling. So let's hear it for our teachers!

So many others of you will have the same chance to help a child, to help someone in need—maybe a child who is in trouble with the law or a tiny baby whose mama needs some help to learn how to give him a great start in life or maybe a senior who needs some help to maintain her independence. Many of you will work directly in government, others at nonprofits. Some of you will work in the business world. But even if you are doing hands-on, person by person, making a difference in the world, I'm here today to make a pitch for another way to participate in public service. I'd like to get all of you more directly involved in policy work. The decisions that government makes will profoundly affect you and everyone you try to help.

You know, policies matter enormously in our lives.

Start with education. Does anyone here have a student loan? Yeah, I know. That question is like asking is anyone here wearing a black robe. The interest rate on your federal student loans was set by your elected officials. And how much funding goes to support kids in public schools is determined by officials in Washington and here in the Commonwealth. These decisions are made by a handful of people who, in a democracy, are supposed to report directly to you. And in the case of student loans, your voice is not being heard in Washington, and I want to change that.

So I'm not here today to make a pitch just to Democrats or just to Republicans. Yes, I am a Democrat. I am a proud Democrat. But my point applies to D and R, and independents, to libertarians to vegetarians. The point I want to make is a point about democracy.

It's easy to say, "I don't like politics" or "I don't like any political parties." I get it. Politics has become ugly, ugly and frustrating, but even so it matters. The decisions that get made by your government are important and far-reaching, and it is no longer possible to assume that democracy will work if most Americans simply wait until election time to learn a little about their candidates and otherwise ignore what is going on. Our country, our democracy, is not a machine that will run of its own. It needs you out there fighting for what you believe in and here's why: If you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu.

Last week during the debate over health care legislation, one congressman said he shouldn't have to pay for maternity care because he was all done having kids. Ha ha. What a clever guy. You know something like that really wants to make me say, "Come on, guys, this is 2017, not 1817." And we are not talking about the weather. We're talking for some people about life and death.

But if elected officials don't hear from people like you, then all of those policies will be set by the people they do hear from. And believe me, they hear plenty from corporate CEOs, from Wall Street, from giant corporations and from people who spend lots of money to make sure that their interests are heard.

And here's the thing—your elected officials are increasingly working only for the few—the very wealthy few—and they are setting policies to benefit the few—the very wealthy few. And if that doesn't change soon, this country will fundamentally change.

So I'm here to ask you to get engaged. Not engaged like I did at 19. Engaged with issues. The kind of engagement I'm pushing is about policy issues. I know that some of you are already deeply committed to fights for issues that matter to you, and for that I offer a huge thank you right from my heart. My message to you is, please don't quit after you leave school. We need you.

But I'm also here to try to expand the circle, to ask more of you—to ask all of you—to expand your post-graduation to-do list to include engagement and advocacy for an issue you care about.

I want to give three very serious suggestions for how you might do it. You can always tell a teacher, right—high specificity. First, start with something that is at the core of who you are. It is a lot easier to engage on an issue if you take the time to think through who you are, if you know what you believe in and what you're willing to fight for.

Figuring out who you are is not as easy as it sounds. No one can do it for you. The list of possible issues is long. It can be right in the field you're working in—criminal justice reform, childhood nutrition, homelessness, addiction treatment. It can be something that touched you personally or someone you love—the cost of college, military veterans, bullying—or it can be an issue you think hard about and care deeply about—climate change, free speech, animal rescue.

Regardless of where you are politically or who you vote for, you have to think hard about what really matters to you—not to your mom and dad or to your girlfriend or to your dog—although your dog may have a strong point of view about that animal rescue thing.

Now you have to figure out what makes your heart flutter and what makes your stomach clench and what keeps you awake at night. And I do not mean 3:00 a.m. tweets. The fact is, you are a lot more likely to follow through if you really deep-down care about an issue.

Second, do a little studying. I know that you've all turned in your papers and finished your exams and you didn't expect to show up today and be told to study, but once a teacher always a teacher. So yes, I urge you to study up. Study up, because knowing something about an issue makes a difference.

So go online and read the facts—not the alternative facts, the real facts. You know, I do and I say. I recently read that astronomers have observed a cold spot in another galaxy, which is evidence of an alternative universe, and it hit me—that's where alternative facts come from, a cold and distant place. [Applause]

Third, join with others. Find a group that is engaged on issues you care about, a group that makes a difference. More good ideas, more information, more ways to make their voice heard. One voice is powerful, but two voices is more than twice as powerful, and ten or ten thousand voices become a force to be reckoned with.

It is not as easy to join a group when there aren't weekly club meetings at a table in Student Center, so you have to try, you have to really try. I'm here today to say, please try. Our democracy depends on you.

Each generation must rebuild democracy to serve its own time and its own needs. The Vietnam-era generation faced challenges that were different from those of the World War II generation, and they shaped and rebuilt democracy differently. Your generation faces huge challenges, sharp differences that divide nation along deep fracture lines, intergenerational challenges that have saddled young people with an unprecedented 1.4 trillion dollars in student loan debt, an economy that is producing great wealth for the top 10% and locking out everyone else.

If democracy for you simply means leaving it to others, letting others set the terms of the political debates and surrendering the policy decisions to people in faraway Washington, then our country will work better and better for a smaller and smaller number of people.

But if democracy for you means connecting up, studying, making thoughtful decisions and defending them with intelligence and commitment, then this country will flourish. America needs your commitment. And here's the thing—you need the commitment. Advocacy—–getting involved in issues you care about and fighting for them can reshape our country and I guarantee it will reshape you. No matter what other work you do every day, if you find the issues that matter to you and you get in the fight, you will build a life with more heart flutters and fewer don't-make-me-move moments. You will build a life that is deeply worthwhile.

I believe in you, the Class of 2017. Your Wheelock degree has put you on the right path and I know you have great work ahead. It's an honor to share this day with you. Congratulations!