Debra Haaland

Bard College Commencement Address - May 28, 2022

Debra Haaland
May 28, 2022
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Thank you so much, President Botstein – that was a very kind introduction. And good evening, faculty, staff and the class of 2022 – and the class of 2021, for those of you who are joining us today.

I'm so honored to be here with all of you and the people who love you on this beautiful afternoon for this important step in your life's journey.


I acknowledge that we are on the ancestral homelands of the Mohican and Muncie tribal nations, who have stewarded these lands for millennia, and I thank the ancestors for giving me space here thus the profound opportunity to have this time with all of you.

Du hino meh, Idz ah dyu ee dza, suwimI hanu.

I am a member of the Pueblo of Laguna. I am who I am because of the people who raised me. My maternal grandparents were boarding school and assimilation survivors. I identify as a Pueblo woman, and my pronouns are she/her.

You should all be proud—I know that getting to today wasn’t easy, but you did it. YOU DID IT!

Your Bard education will not only lead you into the next chapter of each of your lives, but I also believe that it has instilled in you the power to change the world for the good.

We should all believe in that possibility and always work to make the world a better place for everyone. An education, and specifically a college education, is a unique gift. None of us are born to be naturally afforded a higher education. It takes work and every support system to succeed in it, and along the way, you have recognized the value you bring to this endeavor.

I don’t have to tell you that the college experience is about more than just gaining an education—it’s about the connections you make, the new ideas you share, and exposure to a new world beyond the one you were nurtured in by your parents and your communities.

Here, you have had opportunities to think about our country and our world from the different perspectives of this beautifully diverse class of students.

As I look out over this sea of mortar boards, I think about the professors at my alma mater, who didn’t just teach me how to string complex sentences together or to analyze English literature, they also cared that I needed to get out of an apartment lease because it was an unsafe environment for me and my child. They counseled me when I mourned my father’s death and they never ceased to inspire me because of their combined decades of dedication to teaching and their commitment to a better world for all of us.

Hearing from people at Bard tells me that the community that has been cultivated over the past four years and longer is similar to what I experienced. You all are more than classmates—you’re each other’s problem solvers, support systems, and friends. You share the experience of getting through First-Year Seminar together, learning citizen science, completing a strenuous Senior Project, and going to the Bard Farm Stand on campus (and by the way, it would be really awesome if every single college across the country had a farm and a market to go with it, so y'all are lucky.)

All this, in the midst of a deadly pandemic that had early and terrifying consequences for New York State. The world will never be the same, but you all are prepared to take on new challenges and achieve tremendous success because of—not in spite of—the experiences you have had together. You and your classmates will be bonded by the collective experience of getting your degrees during the pandemic.

These are moments and circumstances that leave an indelible mark.

However, it’s also the small things that tighten the bonds that you created here—searching for a shuttle that never seems to be on time when you need it, eating DTR sliders, and organizing trips to the “Old Gym” or “Smog” for music. Yeah, I talked to a few folks about that. Eventually these connections will become your professional networks.

Many of the people I went to college or law school with went on to become incredible lawyers, non-profit leaders, advocates, organizers, and elected officials.

When I was younger, I helped many of those pursuing public office to get elected, because I believe that leadership matters. Because representation matters. And it would take me another decade or so to recognize my own potential as a leader. Needless to say, we learn by doing.

Now, this is the part of the speech, where I say that your college degree is just the beginning of yet another journey. I'm sorry – I have to say that! The hard work isn't over yet! Even though you have your degree in hand – or you will very soon – your educational journey is, in some ways, beginning again.

Some of you will have already secured a place in graduate or professional school, or perhaps you are traveling, or steeping yourselves in the outdoors and nature for a short while. Regardless of what you decide to do, I believe that your passion for fighting the good fight will still be viable whether in a few months or a few years, and that your Bard education is something that will get you there.

In 1978, on the day I graduated from high school, I had no college applications in the queue and not a thought about a career or a future—neither of my parents nor their parents graduated from college, and I had to figure all of that out on my own. I went from part time to full time at the local bakery where I had worked since I was 15, and I had early and very long hours . . . until one morning I looked in the mirror and asked myself if I would be doing that for the rest of my life. The following day, I called my sister to ask her, "How to fill out a college application?"

I started my first semester at the University of New Mexico when I was 28 years old. I had 13 years of experience as a retail salesgirl and later as a cake decorator.

For the record, I can still make some pretty awesome cakes, but when I think about how far I’ve come, I also remember that at times I was so doubtful about what I could actually accomplish. Though, I never gave up thinking that I could make a positive difference for people who often don’t have a voice. So, to you I say: trust your inner voice, know your strength, and follow your heart.

If you do those things, it will be nearly impossible to not live a fulfilled life through making a positive difference in the world.

I know that your experience at Bard has allowed you to fine-tune your passions, develop critical thinking, and has empowered you to move forward with purpose. Part of that purpose and the privilege of a college education is the responsibility to open doors for others.

When I won my election and became one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress along with Sharice Davids, it was incredibly clear that people looked up to us and that we had the means to leave the ladder down for future leaders.

Leaving the ladder down for those who follow you, and for the next class of students to climb is one of the most important things that you can do.

Now, I made plenty of mistakes before I set on the road to Capitol Hill. I was not perfect, I wasn’t groomed from a young age to go to college, run for Congress, or even to be a cabinet secretary. My work experiences, my work navigating life for my child and me, and my mistakes, good and bad, led me to my life’s purpose.

No one finds success alone.

The family and community who have said a kind word to you, given us $20 for our birthday just to spend however you want, and even the smallest tokens of support have helped you get to this point.

I’m here today—a 35th generation New Mexican, not because I have done anything on my own, but because centuries ago, my ancestors worked hard, fought drought and famine, reclaimed their land, and had the intelligence and foresight to protect our culture and traditions against all odds.

You never know how one’s journey will inspire their future.

My father was a 30-year career Marine, who won the Silver Star for saving the lives of six Marines in Vietnam. My mother was a Navy veteran who went on to spend 25 years as a federal employee working in Indian Education. As a child, my dad’s military career took us to military bases on the east coast and throughout Southern California on the west. I went to 13 public schools before graduating from high school in Albuquerque. I raised my child Somáh as a single mom, and there were many times when I had difficulty paying for rent and even basic necessities. In fact, because times were sometimes so hard, I am still paying off my student loans.

All of these experiences, though, and especially the struggles, have made me who I am today.

We need more people in leadership positions across the board who understand the struggles that people face. We need leaders who understand persistence and know what it means to be fierce in the face of adversity.

It’s why representation matters. It’s why I’m so impressed by the work Bard does to ensure the doors of opportunity are open to a broad group of students who bring their whole selves to this institution—their experiences, their perspectives, and their struggles.

This is part of the big picture. It’s part of who you are and who you will become.

To the parents, family, friends, supporters and other members of the Bard community—we all know that any educational endeavor is a family affair, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank YOU for everything that you have done for these wonderful students. Thank you so much.

And I want to sincerely congratulate all of the graduates on a job well done, and this community for creating a place of learning that challenges students to rise to the occasion in addressing, head on, our changing world. There is a transition to a clean energy future, a climate crisis, and true equity that need to be embraced by fresh hands and minds, and you are the ones suited to this mission.

But most importantly, never discount the perspective that you bring to the job.

I never thought that the times I spent with my grandfather in his corn field, in the still summer air, irrigating, hoeing weeds, and picking worms off of corn, would mean something to a career in public service—that I never dreamed I would have; until it did.

Your life and your experiences matter greatly, and I wish you all the joy in the world in seeing that value come to fruition in ways you will least expect. I have hope for the future, because you all will lead it.

I know my generation and even past generations haven’t entirely lived up to our end of the deal, otherwise you would be inheriting a country where every individual and every ecosystem is thriving.

I know you all have the intelligence and foresight to move our world in a loving direction of progress, and for that, I thank you.

Thank you all so much for allowing me the honor of being your commencement speaker today. Congratulations and BE FIERCE.

Bard College. “Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland Delivered Commencement Address at Bard College’s One Hundred Sixty-Second Commencement on Saturday, May 28, 2022.” Bard News, May 28, 2022.

Bard College. “Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland's Address to the Bard College Class of 2022.” YouTube video, 15:15. May 28, 2022.