President Pedraja, alumni, faculty, friends, family, graduates – I am honored to be here with you today at Quinsigamond Community College, home of the beloved Wyverns – have at it. So, President Pedraja, thank you very much for inviting me to this year's ceremony. This is President Pedraja's very first commencement at Quinsig. Congratulations on one year on the job. Nicely done.
Now I know what you're all thinking. If Elizabeth is here with us today, how will she ever make it to Windsor Castle in time for the royal wedding? It's okay – there's a Southwest flight that leaves in two hours. Has 17 stops, but it's cheap. I'll make it.
So to the class of 2018 – you did it! Great! [applause] Yes. The classes are over, the papers are finished, the exams are done and you have made it to the finish line. I think it is safe to say that none of you would be here today without the love and the support that you received from your family, from your friends and from your loved ones. They stood by your side during thick and thin – the late nights, the early mornings, the endless cash app transfers, all of it – so let's take a minute to say thank you to all of them. [applause]
And we certainly can't forget the faculty, the adjunct professors, the staff who helped you get across the finish line. So let's hear it for all the educators here at Quinsig. [applause] You bet. [applause]
When the president invited me to be here today, I said yes in part because I went to a commuter school that was a lot like Quinsig, and I know that you are leaving campus with a quality education that will help you take the world by storm. But I suspect that I have been invited here today to make sure that you leave with one small addition to that quality education. So I'm here to impart that last little bit of education. Later today when you're celebrating with family and friends, they will give you all kinds of career advice, and here's my addition to the list, a piece of advice that down the line may save your life, may save your career, maybe even your marriage. So listen up. Delete every college photo you have ever taken. I'm serious. No matter how well-behaved you have been, nothing good will come of those pictures, trust me on this. And here's another piece of advice: save the embarrassing photos you've taken of other people. You never know when one of them may be running against you in the United States Senate, so it could make a difference. [laughter and applause]
Okay, seriously. I do have one piece of advice that I want to share with you as you move into the next chapter of your life, and that is that democracy depends on you, today more than ever. And I know that sounds like something you hear on a cable news show just you're about to drift off to sleep, but I'm really serious. At this moment in history, our democracy is in crisis and it is up to us to save it. Our democracy was founded on the ideals of liberty, equality and justice for all, and a host of laws and rules and standards and traditions have helped make America that land of opportunity.
And I know the value of that opportunity firsthand. When I graduated from a commuter college like this one, I didn't say to myself, "United States Senate, here I come." Now, my principal feeling was not what was coming in the long term, it was what was going to happen right away. And boy, when I sat where you sit, I was celebrating. I didn't have to wait 40 years to hit my dream – I had arrived, and it had already been a bumpy road to get there. Because from the time I'd been in second grade, I wanted to be a teacher. You know, can we hear it for the teachers in the group, all the teachers? [applause] Yeah. [applause] Teachers rock.
You know, but for me to be a teacher, I needed to go to college, and no one in my family had graduated from college, there was no money for college. And besides, my mother didn't think I should go to college. I was supposed to find a husband, raise some kids – that was the deal. But I had a different plan. I was a high school debater. I got a full scholarship to college, and off I went. And then when I turned 19, the first boy I had ever dated parachuted back into my life and asked me to marry him. So what did I do? I did the logical, sensible thing – I said yes. I gave up my scholarship, I dropped out of school and a few weeks later I marched down the aisle. That was the 1968 version of swiping right.
Now, I dropped out of college but I didn't give up on the dream of becoming a teacher. And it was a commuter college – a commuter college that cost $50 a semester. That was my second chance. Take a deep breath and think that price tag - $50. I found a school that I could pay for on a part-time waitressing job. I found it, and I held on for dear life. And I eventually scraped together enough credits to graduate. The process wasn't easy. It was full of ups and downs and sideways slides, but this was my chance to do something and I was deeply passionate about it. You might say, I persisted.
My story has a lot of twists and turns, moving and babies, and law school and divorce and remarriage, a ten-year-long fight against credit-card companies that tricked people, a fight to build a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to protect American families and to stick it to the banks, and then the first woman to be elected from Massachusetts to go to the United States Senate. [applause] Yeah. [applause]
It's been a really amazing journey, but it all started with the chance to earn the diploma that you are about to pick up. I got my $50 second chance at a commuter college because I grew up at a time when America invested a lot more in its kids. America – our government, our democracy –made it a priority to invest in kids who are trying to get an education.
I stand here today, deeply grateful for that opportunity. I believe that one part of democracy should be about helping people get a chance to build something valuable, and I am deeply, deeply frustrated that our government – not just this administration but our government over the past 40 years – has shifted more and more of the cost of an education directly over to students. And I have to be honest with you – there's a reason that's happened. It's happened because in Washington and in state houses across this country, money talks. And the voices of students are not as loud as the voices of CEOs and billionaires. [applause]
Our democracy is under siege right now. The integrity of our democratic institutions is being eroded at a breakneck pace. Our regulatory agencies have been hijacked by giant corporations. The free and open press is under daily attack. The rule of law is questioned from the highest office in the land.
And I'll give you just one example that is especially relevant today. The Department of Education – the department that is supposed to look out for students, the department that hires the companies that administer your student loans – has been loaded up with lobbyists and executives who make their money shilling for phony schools and high-profit student loan companies. The Department of Education is committed to helping make investors rich while you, the students, pay and pay and pay. This is wrong, and it is time for all of us to fight back. [applause]
Okay that's heavy, heavy for a graduation speech, and heavy for a group of people who were up really, really late last night partying. It is heavy, but I say it to you because I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful because of you. Yes, money talks, but only so long as millions of Americans remain silent. When we use our voices together, we are louder and we are more powerful than any force in this country. That's what we can do in a democracy. [applause] And that's why I'm hopeful. Even as the rich and the powerful tighten their hold on democratic institutions, democracy itself is changing and you – you – are helping lead that change.
In the last year, I've had 27 town halls across the Commonwealth and the number one question I have gotten is, how can I get involved? How can I make my voice heard in the fights over health care, over immigration, over net neutrality – and yes, over student loans? How can I make sure that this democracy represents me? How can I make this government deliver on the promise of America?
Democracy is changing. It's not going to be the democracy of big money. It's not the democracy of big party bosses. It's a democracy that is powered by the people. This is a democracy that is led by women wearing pussy hats and carrying handmade signs who organized the biggest protest rally in the history of the world. [applause] I like that. [applause] This democracy is led by people who flooded every airport terminal across the country and said America cannot and will not ban Muslims from this country. This is the democracy led by scientists who marched in their lab coats, the scientists who are working with real urgency to use science to save us from climate change and global destruction. [applause]
By the way, the Science March was like the coolest march ever, right? They had the best signs. My personal favorite was "Beer – brought to you by science." You know, uh – hang in there with that education.
But this is a democracy led by people with disabilities who stormed the halls of Congress during the health care debates to put a face on Medicaid and argue for health care for all of us. [applause] This is a democracy led by Dreamers who are as American as you and me and deserve their chance to dream. [applause] This is a democracy led by 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds who have said enough is enough. Kids are dying in schools, on their way to school and on their homes and their front steps, and we want to put an end to gun violence. [applause] This is a democracy led by you, the class of '18. This is a democracy that depends on you.
Make no mistake. We are a diverse nation. Just look around you. The stories and the backgrounds of the people at this ceremony are as diverse as they come. But even with all our differences, there is so much we have in common, so much we have to figure out together, so much that we cannot manage alone. Rising healthcare costs, climate change, the cost of college, reforming our criminal justice system – all of these issues affect our future.
And here's the truth – every step we take further into cynicism, retreating into our corners, digging in with resentment and suspicion is another step away from solving the problems that threaten to destroy our democracy. So whether Quinsig is the first stop in your journey or the beginning of your second chance or your third chance, jump into the fight to save our democracy. We need your voices, we need your perspectives, we need your experience. Democracy depends on you.
So get in the fight, class of 2018. And if you don't know how to start, I'm going to give you three suggestions.
First, join a group. Groups help us be stronger and they help us organize.
And second, don't just talk to the people who agree with you. Talk to that cranky uncle of yours or the new office mate who's obsessed with conspiracy theories. Yeah, the two of you may disagree, but talk and more importantly listen. That's how we'll begin building bridges.
And third, show up. Protest, rally, organize – stand with those who share your values. Stand and fight alongside them. Use your voice, use your energy, use your determination – use whatever you have to move this country forward.
America gave me a chance and I am grateful down to my toes. I ran for the Senate because I want the next Quinsig kid to have exactly that same chance – to grow up in an America full of possibilities. That is the true promise of our democracy and it is a promise worth fighting for. I'm in this fight all the way.
So here's to you, class of 2018. You are the future of America, and I am honored to fight alongside you.
Thank you. Let's make some changes.
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.