Terri Sewell

Princeton University Class Day Remarks - May 29, 2023

Terri Sewell
May 29, 2023— Princeton, New Jersey
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To the mighty, unprecedented class of 2023—congratulations! [cheers and applause]

To President Eisgruber, to the board of directors and trustees, administrators, faculty, staff, parents, friends, and all who are assembled—good morning.

It is indeed overwhelming for me to return home to Princeton as your 2023 Class Day speaker. As I look across the audience, I can't help but remember my own college graduation.

For me, college was an exciting and transformational time in my life. College was what I call the wonder years. You know—I wonder if my classmate likes me. I wonder if I got that Visa bill before my parents. You know, the wonder years.

I have also fond memories of my college graduation. I remember the excitement of beginning a new chapter in my life. The burst of pride my family felt as they watched me receive my degree. I remember the exhilaration of a myriad of friends of mine who gathered around us. We hoped, we dreamed, we prayed about our next chapter. I remember a lot about my graduation day and my Class Day, but I don't remember the Class Day speaker. I hope you do. [laughter] So I'll try to be brief.

I can't tell you how excited I am to be with you all today. My love of Princeton stems from a deep appreciation of how much this institution helped shape, mold, and nurture me as the public servant that I am today.

However, I wasn't the only Sewell who loved Princeton. My parents seemed to love this place even more than I did. The moment they stepped on this campus, they got a cap that read "P86." That's parent of '86. Princeton had a special place in my parents' heart.

As you all know, our Princeton graduation is not just an event. It is a full-blown experience. My parents saw the P-rade, experienced reunions. I think my dad drank a beer at every tent he encountered. We ate at my eating club, Cap & Gown [cheers and applause], where we met Brooke Shields, class of '87. We attended numerous receptions, and my parents even went to my prom.

Now, can your family still go to the prom these days? Yeah? Some traditions never change.

My parents loved the whole weekend. My daddy especially enjoyed the simplicity of the baccalaureate service, the spirit of Class Day, and the pump and circumstances of commencement.

As you know, I have been a perpetual student all my life, making my dad a self-proclaimed connoisseur of graduations. After attending my three graduations from Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard Law School, my dad professed that he was indeed an expert on graduation.

When Harvard Law School passed out boxed lunches after their ceremony, my dad literally walked up to the dean of Harvard Law School and said, "This is the worst graduation I've ever attended. [cheers and applause] It is peasant compared to Princeton."

Now, Princeton—they set it out. It's a family affair. If my dad's observations are true, parents, no matter how many degrees your child may obtain, you are currently experiencing the best graduation ever. [cheers and applause]

I'm sure my dad is smiling from heaven that I got a chance to experience the Princeton graduation twice. I get a do-over. No longer will I be the class of 1986. From this day forward, I am happy to be the honorary member of the class, the unprecedented class, of 2023. [cheers and applause] And for that, I say thank you.

Today, like generations of graduates before you, you will walk through the FitzRandolph Gate. You will do so undoubtedly resolved to succeed. After all, you're Princeton students. But you'll also do so, I hope, by keeping in mind the mandate of Princeton's motto, to be in the nation's service and the service of humanity.

Because class of 2023, our nation needs you. We need your humanity. We need your compassion. We need your brilliance. We need you to serve.

And that's what I'm gonna talk about today.

Now, I too have three wishes for the class of 2023. First, bloom where you're planted. Next, flourish where you're found. And lastly, spread seeds of service wherever you go.

The truth is, graduates, you don't have to go far to make a difference in this world. You can, as my mother would say, bloom where you're planted.

I grew up in Selma, Alabama. In fact, I was born the same year as the march from Selma to Montgomery, just two months before Bloody Sunday, just a few blocks away from the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Growing up in Selma, our nation's heroes were my neighbors. Growing up in Selma, I was reminded every day of the powerful change that ordinary people can ignite. Growing up in Selma, I remembered that one day, it would be my responsibility to ignite that change.

So when I had the opportunity to go from Selma to Princeton, it was with that responsibility in mind. It was a big change to come here from Selma, Alabama. I was 1,000 miles from home, and it seemed light years away from the sense of history that I grew up with. Still, I was resolved to do, deep in my roots, to do what I can to help home.

I remember when I met my freshman classmate, and she was my roommate in Mathey Hall. I think it was Campbell. Mathey College, Campbell Hall. Anybody know about Mathey? [cheers] Whoa.

I've always been proud of being from Selma. When I told her that I was from Selma, Alabama, my roommate literally gasped. “Oh my God, how did you escape?” As if I had come on an underground railroad. To which I repeated, "Delta Airlines. There are three flights daily."

Another time, I was introduced to a senior who had one of those last names that I should have known. Like, one of those names that are on one of these buildings. When I didn't react to his last name, he said, "Don't you know that I'm a third-generation Princetonian?" To which I replied, "Well, excuse my manners. I failed to properly introduce you to me. You see, my name is Terri Sewell. You know, the Sewells of Selma.”

Now, you would've thought that I was an heir to the throne of some African country instead of the daughter of a high school basketball coach and a school librarian.

After I graduated, and then graduated again, and then graduated again at those inferior, vastly inferior graduation ceremonies, I didn't go home to Alabama at first. My student loans from Harvard Law School led me to New York City to work at a big law firm where I practiced corporate law for seven years.

The good news is I finally paid off my student loans. [cheers and applause] The even better news is that I'm fighting in Congress so that you don't have student loans. [cheers and applause]

I went back to Selma and to Alabama when my dad had a massive stroke that left him in a wheelchair. At the end of the day, I wanted to have no regrets. It was one thing to send money home, it was another thing to send myself. My parents needed me. As the oldest and the only girl, it was a tough decision, but seeing the smile on my dad's face for the next 14 years when he survived that stroke was worth it.

I realized when I got home the truth of my mom's words, "Bloom where you're planted." I didn't have to look far to find things that needed changing in my state of Alabama and in my hometown.

To be clear, my hometown needed help. My hometown needed my help. Even though Selma stands on hallowed grounds, it is still a distressed city and heartbreaking place to live for far too many. It was and still is the poorest district in the state of Alabama, which is one of the poorest states in this nation.

Nearly one in three people live below the poverty line in my district. The economic freedom that the civil rights activists won through the vote seemingly passed over the place where they fought and died for it.

And yet, I know what's possible. Possible from my hometown with opportunities and resources. My life's journey is a living testament to it.

I remember the exact moment I decided to run for Congress. I was sitting in my usual pew in my home church, the historic Brown Chapel AME Church. Any AMEs in the house?

When my law school classmate, then-Senator Barack Obama, came to speak in Selma during his presidential run in 2007, he talked about the Moses generation that day from the pulpit. He talked about the generation of John Lewis that marched for civil rights and voting rights. And then he talked about the Joshua generation, those of us who have benefited from those victories. He asked, "What will the Joshua generation do to fulfill the debt owed to the generation who paved the way for us?" And I felt like he was talking to me.

It was a real turning point in my life. I realized that I was no longer the 17-year-old that came onto Princeton's campus. Now I was a full-blown adult, and it was my generation's turn to lead. What would I do?

So Terri Sewell, you know, the Sewells of Selma, decided to run for Congress. And guess what? Mr. Third-generation Princetonian even wrote a check. [cheers and applause]

Class of 2023, authors say, "Write what you know." Artists say, "Paint what you see." And my mother says, "Bloom where you're planted."

You can make a difference right where you are. Each of you comes from somewhere that would be better served by your help, your service. You know your communities, the schools, the churches, the small businesses on Main Street. You know the problems. You know the potential. You can make a difference right where you're from.

Class of 2023, my second wish for you is to flourish where you are found.

Now, Selma formed me, but Princeton found me. My road to Princeton was paved with many benefactors. It was the Princeton alumni Julian McPhillips, class of 1968, who first introduced me to Princeton. He had read an article about me buried very deep in the Montgomery Advertiser, the local paper, and called my high school guidance counselor to invite me to a gathering at his house the following week to learn more about Princeton. He wouldn't take no for an answer. Princeton found me.

At the student gathering at his house, I was unusually antisocial, preferring to hang out by the dining room where the food table was laid out. His wife was very good at making pimento cheese. Really good pimento cheese. So I stood over the buffet to eat the pimento cheese. There was a woman who joined me at the buffet and took particular interest in what I liked and the high school that I attended. She talked to me about what classes I enjoyed. She asked me about my debate experience. And she also listened to me sing "Bali Ha'i" because South Pacific was a play that I was gonna be in next week. It turned out that she was a Princeton admissions officer who was a speaker at the gathering. Months later, Debbie Nelson would stay on me to complete my application to Princeton. Princeton found me.

I beat the odds when I was admitted to Princeton. While I was valedictorian of Selma High School, a public high school that had never sent a person to an Ivy League school, I was still woefully unprepared for the rigors of Princeton. And yet, because of this institution's commitment to diversity, a commitment far ahead of its time, I was accepted, and then given every opportunity and every resource to catch up. Princeton found me.

There wasn't that many minority students when I attended Princeton in the '80s. So then we had upper class African-American students who would adopt freshman students. My big sister walked into the room, and she was none other than Michelle Robinson. Now, you may know her as Michelle Robinson Obama, class of 1985. [applause] It was because of Michelle that I completed my science requirement. Yes, Geology 101, rocks for jocks. [cheers] Princeton found me.

I recall when my entire family drove me to Princeton to drop me off. My mom bumped into the then-university-president, Bill Bowen, William Bowen. He gave me his card, and he gave one to my mother. He said, if I ever needed anything, to look him up. I am sure President Bowen gave his card to a lot of freshmen that day, but I'm pretty sure that none of them actually took him up on his offer.

You see, I took Economics 101, taught by Alan Blinder, who wrote the book, and I had never heard of a supply curve or a demand curve. Distressed by my poor performance on the midterm, my mother suggested that I go visit that nice young man who gave me his card. I told my mother that nice young man was the president of the university.

Turns out that President Bowen actually had office hours. Who knew? Most people didn't. I got there early thinking that there would be a long line, waiting to see the president. It was just me. When I arrived to his office, I was so nervous. I got there, like I said, 30 minutes ahead of time. And I can remember, when he opened the door, the feeling that was in my throat. I started to cry when he opened the door. He quickly gave me his handkerchief, and he said to me, "What's the problem?" And I looked him dead in the face and I said, "I'm failing." And he said, "Well, let me see that midterm."

And then I handed him, or handed out, my dad's Green American Express Card that he gave me for emergencies only. I said, "I need a tutor. My dad will pay for it." He said, "I think I have a small budget and a little bitty endowment. Please put your card away."

I will never forget President Bowen's face, as he peered over his glasses towards me. He looked at me and then the midterm paper. He looked at me and then the midterm paper again. He finally said, "You do realize that an 87 is a B." To which I replied through my tears, "But I don't make Bs." I handed over my dad's card one more time, and of course, he didn't take it. He looked at me and he said, "In your academic life, you will make Bs. But I know that you're not ready to make it today, so we'll give you a tutor." Princeton found me, and President Bowen rescued me.

Twenty years later, when I was running for Congress, my finance director heard that story about President Bowen and found his number and decided to call him. I was nervous 'cause I didn't think he would remember me. It had been 20-plus years. His assistant answered, and I introduced myself. I'm Terri Sewell, Princeton class of '86, calling for President Bowen.

There was a long pause as I debated whether I should hang up. Surely, he would not remember me. But then he answered. He answered and he said, "Is this Terri, I don't make Bs, from Selma, Alabama?" I said, "Yes." And he said, "A little birdie told me that the girl from Selma wanted to represent Selma." It was a good fundraising call. Princeton found me.

I was encouraged to run for Congress a second time by a friend who had gone to Dartmouth College. I knew her as Tina Rutnik, but you may know her as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Well, in that case, Dartmouth found me.

But nevertheless, I am grateful for all the opportunities that Princeton education has afforded me. My proudest moment was not the day that I graduated and walked through those gates. It was five years later when Princeton admitted April Young, another black student from Selma High School, to this transformational opportunity. Princeton found her, too.

And a few years later, well, maybe not so many, Princeton found all of you.

Class of 2023, we must flourish where we are found.

As you leave here today, know this. There is always a place for you here. And there is always a world out there waiting to find you. Waiting to find your heart, to find your brains, to find your might, and to find your voice.

To this day, I still have classmates who tease me because my slogan when I ran for vice president of the class my freshman year was, "Mouth of the South." And I have to tell you, it still tickles me today when they call me that.

I graduated from Princeton some 20 years after the civil rights activists crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. By the time I graduated, I had lived through a hostage crisis, an oil crisis, the end of the Cold War, and the women's movement.

By the same token, you, class of 2023, are graduating some 20 years after 9/11. You have endured unprecedented times, a global pandemic, an insurrection, climate crisis, a racial reckoning. You have seen MeToo go from hashtag to a movement and social media go from connective to divisive.

Our nation needs you. Humanity needs you now more than ever, not just to succeed, but to serve. To spread seas of service wherever you go.

Class of 2023, service can take lots of forms. For me, it's all about civic engagement. You cannot, you must not, leave this place and not serve. How you serve is up to you, but that you serve, it's a mandate.

Hear me loud and clear: The cost of apathy is great. And when people like you decide not to participate, we all lose. Progress is a never-ending struggle. Old battles become new again. Each generation must fight to hold on to the wins of the past and fight and fight again for more gains. And there is nothing easy about that.

But I believe that when we have the courage to see the flaws in our system, when we have the courage to come together and harness our power to fix these flaws, progress remains within our reach.

I believe that when you lift up the most vulnerable in our society, when we distribute resources equitably, then we can increase opportunity. It is said that a rising tide lifts all boats. And so it does.

Now, as I take my seat, I wanna leave you with my favorite quote. It was from Shirley Chisholm, who was the first black woman elected to Congress. I got a chance to meet and interview her for my Princeton thesis. My Princeton thesis was entitled "Black Women in Politics: Our Time Has Come." That was back in 1986. But I have to tell you, with 120 women in Congress serving right now, our time is now. [cheers and applause]

Shirley Chisholm said that service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this Earth. Class of 2023, as you enter to the next chapter of your life, I am asking you to make a deposit on that rent by having a season of service. Whether you bloom where you're planted or transplanted lots of miles away, have a season of service.

Your season of service doesn't necessarily have to be electoral politics. But if it is, I have a card to give you after the speech.

Whether you flourish where you're found or are the one doing the finding, please have a season of service. Doesn't have to be a lifetime. But to whom much is given, much is required.

My mom used to say, "Those of us who are blessed must be a blessing to others." You cannot walk around this campus, suck in this air, learn from these brilliant people, and decide to do only the thing that will make you wealthier, happier, and more secure. You have to take a chance.

Civic engagement is our birthright. Please, no matter what you do, vote. Vote like your life depends upon it. [applause]

Whether you spread seas of service or kindness or happiness or brilliance, have a season of service. Your season of service is the return on investment that Princeton made in you.

You don't have to run for Congress, but I sure hope that you will run for local offices all across this nation. Lend your voice to a cause near and dear to your heart. Use your talents to solve problems big and small. And, by all means, vote. Did I say vote? Vote.

You have to volunteer, you have to organize, and you have to turn out and elect officials that will do the right thing. And when you do that, you are not only participating, you're not only engaging, but you're making the world a better place.

I had the great honor of having as my special guest at the State of the Union in 2015 Ms. Amelia Boynton Robinson. Ms. Amelia was 103 years old, and at the time, was the oldest living survivor of Bloody Sunday. She was bludgeoned on that bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. She was precious cargo. I got a chance to have her as my special guest.

And as we waited in the little anteroom for the president to walk through before he gave his speech, his cabinet to a person said the same thing. Oh, Ms. Amelia, we stand on your shoulders. Oh, Ms. Amelia, we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for people like you. Oh, Ms. Amelia, we stand on your shoulders.

So when Eric Holder, who was the then AG, knelt down beside her and said, "Oh, Ms. Amelia, I stand on your shoulders," she said, "Get off my shoulders. All of you, do your own work."

Do your own work. And there's lots of work to be done. It's actually a post-it on my mirror, both in Washington, DC and in Alabama.

When the president finally came, she literally cradled Barack Obama's face in her hands, and there wasn't a dry eye in the room. He said, "Ms. Amelia, I'm about to give a speech in a few minutes as the president of the United States of America. And I do so because of you."

She looked up, she looked at him, and she said, "Make it a good one. That better be a really good speech."

Please, class of 2023, make every day a good one. Make every day and everything you do. Be good. We need you as a nation to remember the mandate of this university: Princeton in the nation's service and in the service of humanity.

May God bless you, keep you, and may you remember that Princeton will always be here for you. Thank you. [cheers and applause]

Princeton University. "Congresswoman Terri Sewell '86 delivers Princeton's Class Day remarks." YouTube video, 28:14. May 29, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZ8cGt1sweY