Let me start by saying I am deeply honored by this award. Thank you, Lesley, thank you.
Good morning, Lesley. Good morning, class of eighteen. This is fabulous. What an amazing honor. And I want to begin by thanking President Weiss and the Board of Trustees. I am truly humbled and honored to accept this degree from Lesley University.
You know, they say that every good commencement speech should connect with the students in the audience who plan to follow the speaker's career path, so if you plan to get married at 19, throw a full scholarship down the drain, have some kids, get yourself back in school, finish your education and end up in the U.S. Senate – listen up, I'm your gal. [Applause] But for everyone else I will try to do my best here.
Lesley University, what a great motto. It really is. "Perissem Ni Perstitissem," which is Latin for "I would have perished had I not persisted." Of course, that is not to be confused with Mitch McConnell's motto – Damn it, Elizabeth, sit down and stop persisting. [Applause]
So there's my first bit of commencement speech advice. There will be plenty plenty of people in your life who will try to shut you up, but people who shut up seldom make a difference. So here's to Lesley grads who persist!
So to the class of 2018 – the time to breath the heavy sigh of relief has finally come. The late nights, the early mornings,the nonstop crashing is finally over. You have made it to the finish line. Today we are here to celebrate your hard work. Congratulations, Lesley grads. Go Lynx Nation!
And we all know that without the love and support of your friends and your families, none of you would have made it to this point today, so every mom, dad, auntie, uncle, Nana, Papa, every family friend, every neighbor who got rounded up for this event today – we also salute you. Let's give them a round of applause.
Oh what an amazing day! You know, just take a minute just savor savor this moment. All the Venmo cash app and PayPal payments – totally worth it. And now now they're on their own, now they're on their own. Just kidding – keep those apps updated, you know, new clothes for the new job, new apartments, new furniture for new apartments. Oh, the fun is just getting started, Mom and Dad!
Graduation ceremonies are peculiar events. They bring together members of the community from all backgrounds for hours of pomp and circumstance, and often send them away bored out of their minds. Meanwhile, the graduates – look at these beautiful faces – the graduates are nodding in and out, nursing hangovers, swiping furiously through Tinder. The challenge – can I get a match before she ends her speech? Oh wait – look at the big smile on the guy over in row 6. I just swiped why right. Good, good, okay – hang in there.
You know the way I see it, commencements features the speakers have two jobs: first, refrain from boring the future leaders of our nation to death so they can actually get out of here, and second, give a piece of advice that might stick with people at least for a day or two after this event. So I've got the first part down – I won't be up here for long – and now I'm going to work on part two.
Your motto turns on persistence, so I want to pick up on how life is full of unexpected challenges, things that pop up and make you wonder about reality. I mean, is Kanye really okay? Did someone bite Beyonce's face? Did the president of the United States really tweet about…oh let's not talk about that. Ah yes, life will take some unexpected turns.
I say that from experience. I grew up…I'm the baby of my family, the youngest of four children, the only girl. My daddy ended up as a janitor. My mom worked a minimum-wage job at Sears and the baby sister here was the deal baby sister was supposed to be sweet. Unfortunately, I had other ideas. It was my second grade teacher who kicked open the first door for me. Her name was Mrs. Lee. She gave the best hugs ever and I loved Mrs. Lee, and it was in her classroom at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Norman, Oklahoma, that I first got a glimpse of the wider world beyond. Like so many of the great teachers on this campus – both professors and the graduates who will have their own classrooms soon – Mrs. Lee made that special connection with a kid who needed her, and she opened a door in my mind.
And I want to stop here, actually, just for a quick plug. Teachers rock. Can we just hear it for teachers? Okay. Teachers build our future. They serve one of the most important functions in society. They educate anyone and everyone who comes in ready to learn, helping each person reach their full potential. They keep our democracy strong. So love and appreciation to all of the teachers who've ever touched our lives. I hear for teachers. [Music]
But but back to Mrs. Lee, and I promise I'll get this wrapped up. One day, Mrs. Lee pulls me aside and she explains to me that if I worked hard I could become a teacher, too, and she said it in that same way that you would announce a very secret special prize: You, too, can be a teacher! Whoa! Oh, I remember thanking a teacher just like Mrs. Lee. It's true – the words changed my life. Something clicked in my head and before long I started lining my dollies up and holding school. And I just want you all to know, I was tough from the beginning. "I don't think you did your homework last night." "Detention for you two on the end there." "Stop that!" But I loved it. I loved every part of it. No one had ever told me I could do anything, but once Mrs. Lee had said, "Yes, Miss Betsy, you can," something came alive inside of me. I knew what was important and I knew that I was ready to fight for it, and through the years that fight has only grown stronger. It was that fight that made me reach far beyond sweet College. No one in my family had graduated from college, but yes college. I got a full scholarship and my life was off to a great start.
But there were lots more twists and turns coming. Two years later, the first boy I'd ever dated and the first boy who'd ever dumped me came waltzing back into my life and proposed to me, so I did the enormously sensible thing that any 19-year-old would do – I said yes and dropped everything and married him. Not exactly the best judgment, but I didn't figure that out until much later on. So here I was, 19, married and my dream of being a teacher completely tossed overboard. But I couldn't give it up. I couldn't and I didn't. I wanted to be a teacher and I found a way – a commuter college college credits transfer – and finally I was sitting where you're sitting today – a college diploma. And then came the very best part – a job teaching special needs kids. I reached my dream.
But the story has lots more twists and turns – babies, divorce, other teaching jobs – but the theme was always the same: give up or get in the fight, back down or persist. I got in the fight. I taught bankruptcy law, contract law, corporate finance. I dug in and studied how the system was sticking it to working families, and what I found made me furious. People getting cheated on mortgages and credit cards and student loans. People going broke over medical bills. So I got in more fights and I looked for any way I could to fight back against a rigged system. I can't tell you how many times someone told me to sit down, to shut up, to go home, but I believed in the fight and yes, I persisted.
And after the financial crash I had the chance to fight for a new Consumer Protection Agency so that there would be a cop on the beat to keep credit card companies and mortgage lenders and student loan servicers from cheating people. And then I ran for the United States Senate and wow – a lot of people spent a lot of money on campaign ads to tell me to sit down and shut up.
But that's the thing – I believed in the fight, and by this point millions of other people were in the fight, too, and we all persisted. And that's how I ended up here today.
I am the daughter of a janitor who became a public school teacher, a professor and a United States senator. So yes, I believe in your motto. I believe in persistence. [Applause] I believe in persistence and I believe in you. I stand in front of tomorrow's teachers and therapists, artists and scientists, business leaders and social workers, public servants and entrepreneurs, and I believe. I believe in what you can do if you persist. I believe in you and I know how much we need you.
As a nation we face a deep set of challenges. The rich and powerful have hijacked our government. A rigged system continues to leave too many families behind. And high student loan debt limits opportunities for millions of young people. Our country is fractured, but I believe that we can piece it back together if we persist.
And here's where you come in. Find that one issue you care deeply about and put everything you've got into moving it forward. Climate change, global peace, humanitarian aid, criminal justice reform, a woman's right to choose, equality for all, a fair immigration policy, gun safety – it's a long long list. But the point is that we can heal this nation if we all get in the fight for what is decent and just, if we fight for the basic values that made this country great, if we fight and we persist. [Applause]
I think I speak for every person here over the age of 30 when I say we need you. We need your compassion. We need your respect for one another. We need your strong sense of community. We need you to save our democracy. And what gives me hope every day is the fact that young people like you are here today and have accepted the responsibility to move this country forward. From the Woman's March to the fight to protect our Dreamers to the pressure you've put on all of us to stand with the students from Parkland. Young people are coming off the sidelines with the will to persist like never before. [Applause]
And so I'll say it again, because I want you to know it – I believe in you. I believe in your persistence, and I believe your persistence will make all the difference. I believe your persistence will save our democracy.
Congratulations, Lynx Nation. Congratulations class of 2018. Thank you.
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.