Good morning, Gettysburg College. I hope you’ll indulge me for just one moment. [takes out her cell phone and turns for a selfie with the audience] Can everybody give me a big smile? [takes photo] You guys are wet, but still looking great. I really appreciate that. In politics, we say it didn’t happen unless it’s on Instagram, so we’ve got it covered. I want everyone to know this happened, Class of 2022, your graduation. I’m so excited to be here.
President Iuliano, Provost Zappe, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and family and friends and staff, and most importantly, students of the graduating class of 2022—thank you so much for inviting me, thank you so much for your hospitality. It's so great to be here.
I’m really happy to be here celebrating your special day. You're probably feeling a mix of emotions right now—and a little wet—but you're probably happy about everything you've accomplished and already a little nostalgic about Gettysburg College traditions, like the First-Year Walk and something called Servo Thanksgiving; proud of the adversity that you've overcome, including a pandemic that has caused terrible suffering and disrupted your education; grateful to your family for always having your back, indebted to them literally in every sense of the word; excited for the future and confident that Gettysburg has prepared you to lead a life of consequence; and probably a little sad to say goodbye to classmates who've become close friends and to professors who challenged you because they saw the potential in you.
Personally, I’m feeling excited for you. And a little nervous for myself because I recognize that I’m one of the only things standing between you and your hard-earned degrees and your, shall we say, “spirited” celebrations.
Since President Lincoln set the bar pretty high for speeches delivered in Gettysburg, you know my goals for this speech are pretty modest. I polled members of my staff, many of whom graduated from college fairly recently, and they said to me they didn't really remember the name of their graduation speaker and those who did couldn't remember a single thing the speaker said.
So I suppose my main goal is that if sometime in the future when someone asks you who your graduation speaker is, you'll remember me. You don't even have to remember my name—some Asian woman with an Irish name is good enough for me. [laughter]
My second goal is to avoid the fate of Edward Everett. You've probably never heard of him. He had been the president of Harvard University. I believe it's also known as the Gettysburg College of Cambridge, Massachusetts? [laughter]
Everett gave the main address in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, and was followed by President Lincoln. And while Lincoln spoke for about two minutes, Everett spoke for about two hours. I promise I won't be doing that. But the next day, a newspaper said this about Everett's speech: “Seldom has a man talked so long and said so little.”
If someone says that about this speech, I'll never forgive myself, so my hope is to be brief and inspiring. Because I know that when you want brief and inspiring, the first person you turn to is a member of Congress. [laughter]
What I'd like to do is to give you three suggestions for life after Gettysburg College, and then I would like to sit down and have you stand up to applaud me. [laughter]
My first piece of advice is to be courageous. To be clear, having courage—whether it's physical courage or moral courage—isn't the same thing as being reckless. Courage is bravery but with a purpose. It's about taking a calculated risk for a cause, knowing you could fail, or suffer consequences even if you succeed.
And when I look back on my own life, I see countless acts of courage all along the way. Simply put, I wouldn't be where I am today—or maybe even alive—if it weren't for the courage of others, both those closest to me and complete strangers.
Let me explain.
I was born in Vietnam in the late 1970s, a few years after the Vietnam War had ended. And the new communist government was persecuting people like my parents who had worked with American or South Vietnamese forces during the war.
And my mom and dad, like all parents, wanted a better future for their children. They wanted a life of safety, freedom and opportunity. But that was no longer possible in Vietnam.
And so when I was a baby and my brother was eight, we fled our homeland by boat in the dead of night with my father at the helm. I think my parents knew that we might not survive the passage, but they had resolved that it was better for us to die together in search of light than to live on in darkness.
And now that I’m the mother of two kids myself, I can't imagine the courage this took.
Several days into our attempted escape, our boat ran out of fuel in the middle of the South China Sea. Evidently my dad's bravery was not matched by his logistical skill. But thanks to grace or good fortune, a U.S. Navy ship found our small boat adrift in the vast sea. And the sailors on board, all of them trained for combat, gave us the fuel and food we needed to reach a Malaysian refugee camp.
And in extending this grace to desperate strangers, they embodied the power and generosity of America.
At around the same time, the administration of President Jimmy Carter, in the face of significant public opposition, they made the politically courageous decision to increase the number of refugees from Southeast Asia that the United States would accept.
And this policy change set the stage for the Lutheran church to sponsor my family's passage from the Malaysian refugee camp to the United States, and we settled in Virginia and became proud American citizens.
And when I reflect on the earliest years of my life, I shake my head in astonishment. If it weren't for the courage of my parents, those American soldiers, and leaders in the Carter administration, my life would have turned out very differently and could have ended soon after it had just begun.
Let me tell you another quick story about courage.
It was 2016. I was in my late 30s. I know—I look a little younger than that. My husband and I were living in Orlando. I had two kids under the age of five and two jobs. I was working at an investment firm and teaching at a local college.
And one evening in June, a man walked into the Pulse nightclub in my city and gunned down 49 innocent people who had gathered that night to dance and have fun with their friends. And the incident shocked me, as did the inadequate response from the long-serving member of Congress who represented the area.
So I did something that a few people called courageous, but that most people called crazy—and trust me, it's often a very fine line. I launched a four-month campaign for Congress, trying to unseat a 24-year incumbent. And did I mention the only elected office I'd ever held was vice president of my sorority? [laughter]
So on election eve before we knew the results, my husband—who's sitting over there, also wet—he presented me with this ring and he told me, “Whatever happens tonight, whether you win or you lose, you've earned this ring because you had the courage to try.”
Well, in a huge shock to everyone, myself included, I won, becoming the first Vietnamese American woman ever elected to Congress in our nation's history. [applause]
And as an aside, I confess that when I first arrived in the halls of Congress and walked around taking in all the history and the architecture and the statues—mostly of men, but we're working on that—I thought to myself, “You know how did I—a refugee, an immigrant, someone who grew up in a trailer park and was the first woman in her family to go to college—how in the world did I get here?”
These days when I listen to some of the things that my colleagues say and see how they behave, I think to myself, “How did you get here?” [laughter]
But all jesting aside, back to my point about courage.
Look, I still wear this ring. I’m wearing it now. I call it I call it my courage ring, which I guess I realize makes me sound a little like a character from the “Lord of the Rings,” but I hope you find your own version of a courage ring.
You know, throughout life you're going to be presented with opportunities to act and you're not going to know what the outcome will be in advance. There are no guarantees in life, but I hope you'll have the courage to try. And if you do, I think you can change your own life or the life of someone else in ways that you never imagined.
So my second piece of advice is to calibrate your internal compass towards your true north. True north represents the person, the thing, or cause that gives you purpose, meaning, and direction.
And I think you're going to need this, because no matter how much you plan out your life it's unlikely to follow a predictable linear path. And when you arrive at a fork in the road, you're going to need to check and recheck your internal compass in order to chart the best course forward.
For me, my true north is the desire to honor the memory of my late father, to live my life in a way that makes his sacrifice worthy. It's also the hope that I'll make my children proud of me when they're old enough to understand who I am and what I've done. And finally it's this desire to continue paying back the debt of gratitude I owe this country, which first gave me sanctuary and then gave me opportunity.
It was this internal compass that first led me to public service around the time when you all were born. I had just graduated from college. My classmates and I were setting out on our own for the first time. We were splitting our time between our first jobs and big-city versions of college weekends.
And then on September 11, 2001, terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers in New York City. They flew a plane into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. And they planned to fly another plane into a high-profile target in our capital.
Thanks to the unbelievable courage of its passengers, that plane instead crashed into a field here in Pennsylvania.
For me, I saw the nation I love come under attack. So I quit my private sector job, I went back to grad school, and got a job at the Department of Defense. It was an honor to work alongside the men and women in uniform, the same uniform worn by those sailors who had rescued my family so many years earlier.
I think my dad was proud I was helping to chip away at the debt our family owed this country, and one day I hope my children will be proud of me for doing my part to leave them a safer world. And I hope my country is proud of me for giving the best of myself during her time of crisis.
My late father, my children, my country—together they're my true north on my internal compass. They've helped me make decisions as I try to lead a life of consequence, and I urge you to find your own true north. It'll guide you as you head into your next adventure.
And finally I hope you strive for a life of service.
You know, in my experience nothing will give you a greater sense of personal satisfaction than dedicating your time and talents to helping others.
There are many different ways to do this. And I’m sure to the great relief of the parents out there, not all of them require you to take a vow of poverty. You can do good and do well.
And I'll also make a personal plea. I hope you'll consider a career or at least a serious stint in government service. Because boy does our country need young people like you right now.
You're living through one of the most challenging moments in history—a global pandemic, climate change threatening the only planet we have, an uncertain economic outlook, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, an America that is deeply divided. At times it feels like our union, which thousands of soldiers died to preserve just steps from where you sit today, is unraveling at the seams.
And at my own graduation over two decades ago, a man who became my mentor made the same plea to me and my classmates. Gen. Brent Scowcroft had been the national security advisor to two presidents and he said, “I ask you to consider public service, not because it is easy but because it is hard, rewarding, and oh so necessary. How well the wonderful things this great nation stands for will be preserved and projected will depend on the quality of people whose hands are on the helm of state.”
Those words ring more true today than ever.
So, graduates: you sit here together, for the final time, at your commencement—the beginning of the next stage of your lives, each of you destined to head down a different path.
Through education and experience, you have acquired knowledge and developed character.
You have proven yourself to be strong and resilient. You’ve endured remote learning and social isolation. You’ve sacrificed to keep others safe and healthy. Through it all, you’ve persevered.
Your diploma bears a name—Gettysburg—that is central to the American story and represents what is best about the American spirit. That should make you feel proud and humbled.
As a Gettysburg graduate, you are now ready to do great work for your community, your country, and your world.
I urge you to be courageous, to find your true north, and to live a life of service.
You’ve made this place so proud. You’ve made the people who love you proud. And I know you’ll continue to make them proud.
Good luck and Godspeed. Thank you. [applause]
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