Kathy Hochul

Commencement Address at Syracuse University - Sept. 19, 2021

Kathy Hochul
September 19, 2021— Syracuse, New York
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Gov. Hochul gave this address at Syracuse University’s “makeup” commencement ceremony for their 2020 graduates.

Chancellor, it's always a little embarrassing when someone reads all those jobs. It sounds like I can't hold down a job, doesn't it? Oh, well, oh, well. Chancellor Syverud, I want to thank you for the extraordinary leadership that is the hallmark of your administration. I know a little bit about chancellors, I've had a few run ins with chancellors, I'll get to some of my stories in a few moments, but I want to thank you for your leadership, particularly through this pandemic. I can't tell you the number of times that we called upon Syracuse University to give us advice in state government on how we handle the continuation of education during this extraordinary time. Your work to make sure that 98% of students are vaccinated. I don't think there's another institution that compete with us. So, you have always put the health of your students first. And I thank you for that, Chancellor.

I also want to thank a great friend of mine, Joanie Mahoney, for her incredible work as the President of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. We always kind of wondered what those ESF students did. They seemed to be really smart walking around and a couple of more hugging trees once in a while, so they kind of knew which ones they were. I thought that was really cool, just so you know, I did.

John Liu, thank you for your work as our vice chancellor and provost. Gene Anderson, our dean of the University. Bea Gonzalez for all the work you do as well. Ryan McNaughton. Yes, these are virtuous group of people. I think. We'll tell some stories afterward, we'll find out what that was all about. But I thank you for your inspiring words and reminder that they are part of a global network. You are already alumni. We're not talking about in the future. You already are alumni and part of an organization where, for many of you, the word orange means something more than a color or a fruit. So, that's going to be something that binds you together forever.

How inspiring was Serena Omo-Lamai? Let's give her another round of applause. She comes leaving her family in Nigeria, lands in central New York, paves her way, becomes a tremendous leader. And now I said, so what have you been up to, Serena, since you left? Oh, I'm working on my PhD in bioengineering. I'm like, okay, she's just, she's brilliant. She's brilliant. I said make sure whatever you do, you stay in New York, stay in New York, Serena, we need you. We need the talent of people like Serena.

I also want to thank all the administrators, the trustees, for caring so much about this institution. And truly on behalf of the state of New York, because I can say that now, and 20 million New Yorkers, congratulations, class of 2020. It's about time, isn't it? And to the families—mom, dad, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles, and guardians—let's give a round of applause to all the family members who brought us to today.

Welcome home. You've heard from some of our other very eloquent speakers that this is not what you expected at the time. No one could have foreseen that our world be brought to its knees by a global pandemic just 16 months ago. And you were just looking over the horizon. I've got to get through my final classes, I just have to finish my last paper, my exams, and then we'll have this great celebration and I'll be launched into the world and it'll be fabulous. And then in March 2020, it all came crashing down. But as you've heard, and I mean this sincerely, you have developed an ability to adapt that is going to benefit you in ways you have no idea right now.

I mean that, I mean that sincerely. You left this campus into a world that is radically altered, and there's no going back to the pre-pandemic world. Forces beyond our control have truly changed our economy, our society, and indeed each and every one of us.

But this is the exciting part. You are now bonded with classes from 2020 and 2021, not just here, but across the nation in a collective shared experience that nobody else can touch. This will define entire generations, just as you heard from your great grandparents, the greatest generation and World War II and the Depression. I heard it all too. People will be talking about you. You, the individuals who are born at the dawn of this new century, and what you've already had to experience in your young lives.

Yes, you've heard the words endurance and perseverance, and today they may just be words but they're part of your soul now, because whenever things get tough, you say, yeah, but I got through the pandemic. I got this, am I right? I mean, you can put it all in perspective. That you can handle any challenge that comes your way.

Serena talked about the rock. This is the rock upon which you'll judge how you respond to all future challenges, all setbacks, everything that comes your way. And for today, it's a time of new beginnings. Not just for you as graduates, who've already spent some time in the world, but also for me as a relatively newly minted governor of the state of New York.

I'm here to say that my time at Syracuse had a profound influence on how I got to this position and the person I became on that journey. And that's what I want to share with you today, because there's no other place in the world that I can tell this story and have people understand exactly what I'm talking about, okay? So, this is the place.

Syracuse is really where I found my voice, I found my focus. When I was in high school, I had an interest in politics and government. I was kind of a nerd, just to get that out there, and nerds were not cool back then. I watched all the Watergate hearings as a student, if you look back in your history books, you'll know what I'm talking about. I was glued to the television to understand what was happening in my world. I mean, we watched the Vietnam War, we watched the protest of the sixties as a young child, and I was engaged. I wore a black armband to protest the war as a ten-year-old. Who did that? But I grew up in a household of very socially conscious parents who, despite not having much, instilled in me this sense of responsibility.

When I was in high school, I'd have a job and my family didn't have a lot of money so, I wasn't able to join all the clubs and run for student government. I was actually kind of shy, anyhow. I did work at a pizzeria and I do believe that that was the experience that landed me the highly coveted job, working at The Varsity during my time here. I just want to get that out there. I don't know if they still do this, I pop into The Varsity every time I'm on campus, but I had the job of calling out the numbers when someone's pizza was done. I mean, how important is that? Nobody eats until I call out their number, okay? So, this is a very big deal.

But how did I go from kind of a quiet high school kid to land on a big campus like this? A universally recognized institution. Well, let's credit my parents, both parents, but it was my dad who brought me on literally the road trip here. My dad had been, still is, he's 85, the child of very poor immigrants, came here with nothing on their back. Nobody had gone to college; nobody even went to high school. And he worked at the steel plant, tried to go to college by night, lived in a trailer park with my mom, had my brother there, so we didn't have a whole lot; we didn't know it at the time.

But I had this chance when it came time to go look at colleges to literally have time alone with my dad. I had a big family. Everybody wanted attention, especially my younger brothers and sisters who got most of the attention. But that's another issue we'll talk about another time.

I got a chance to go on a road trip with my dad. And I was so excited to have time alone with my father. We drove around the state, looking at campuses. And what he said to me after we visited the Maxwell school changed my life. He said, Dolly, he always calls me. Still does. Dolly, some of those other schools we went to, they might be good for teaching you a lot, but that's probably where the wife of a congressperson might go. You go to Syracuse, you could be a congressperson. You could be a member of Congress.

And I say that not for the students, but to the parents out there. What he said to me that he probably said in passing and I'd never envisioned myself ever running for anything. And I know, I never knew my father had, but he had this faith in me. And I'll never forget when I was stood on election night, when I won a seat in Congress, I told the world my story started with my father telling me to go to Syracuse University.

And that's the influence this institution had on me.

So, Syracuse sparked this passion for activism. I came here and maybe some of you did as well, I literally reinvented myself. Nobody knew my history, kind of nerdy, kind of quiet, or she's the one who worked at the pizzeria. I came here and I said, I'm going to be somebody different. I want to be someone who's engaged, who's involved, who takes advantage of this incredible environment for learning, but also to make a mark in our world.

I wanted to share with you some of those specific experiences and take you down this journey. We'll call the roadmap, “lessons learned as a student at SU that are valuable to me as the governor of the state of New York.” Okay, you ready for this? Just a few stories. And I just want to say, if you are starting to look at your watch, my commencement speaker here spoke for an hour and 10 minutes. Okay. So anything short of that, I'm ahead of the game. Can you guys spot me a little time here?

When I got here, I couldn't get over how diverse this place was. It was culturally diverse. There are people from around the world, people from other parts of the state that I'd never been to, it was racially diverse, ethnically diverse, religiously diverse.

I was fascinated. My first roommate was Armenian. My second roommate was from Iran. I got exposed to the world, just in my dorm room. I loved it. And as a political science major, like David Bruen, our president of the student government and Darnelle Stinfort, our vice president, I decided to run for student government, first time ever. I wasn't one of those high school class presidents, not me, but I did it here. And I also became the student representative to the Board of Trustees. Yes. Sorry, trustees, back then. I'm really sorry. I had to push my comfort zone to give public speeches, to speak to students, to get them behind a movement sometimes.

And I had no confidence coming into this place, but I had to build it. I had to find it from somewhere. In order to get other people to lead, but to follow me, I had to show. And my philosophy was at the time, just fake it till you make it. How many times did that help me, just fake it till you make it. And I used that and said, I can pretend I'm a leader, perhaps, until I become one.

It's interesting that we're in this building. When I was a student, I found that the university trustees and at the university were looking to build a new dome stadium. Yes, this is ancient history. Ancient history. We didn't have a dome stadium. Can you imagine playing outside in the snow? That's what we did. That's what the people did, our teams played in the snow outdoors.

So they decided we needed a dome because the weather was a little rough up here. And I thought and the students thought and The Daily Orange thought that wouldn't it be great to name the brand new dome after Ernie Davis, the first black Heisman Trophy winner.

And we said, of course, everybody will think that's great. He never got the recognition he deserved. And we started building support for this idea, but I knew there was one person I had to go talk to. This was the chairman of the Board of Trustees at Syracuse University, who coincidentally was the chairman of Carrier Corporation.

So, I put on my best jeans. I didn't have anything else, put on my best clean sneakers. I went into the corporate headquarters of Carrier Corporate. Now this is the biggest office I've ever seen. I mean, I swear his desk was as big as the stage. I walked in. It's like going to see Oz. I was so intimidated.

And I said, Mr. Chairman, we know you love the university. We've got this great idea that Carrier name the dome after Ernie Davis and you put up all the money behind it. And we think that’s really be nice and magnanimous and we'll just think that's great. Isn't that a great idea? What's this called? Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So that didn't go over the way I thought. But even though I lost that battle, I learned some really good lessons.

I was very disappointed. But I'm so proud that we're on Ernie Davis Legends Field today. I don't think that would have happened if we hadn't brought this issue forth. So I walked this field for inspiration, a reminder to me that at least we tried, at least we went out there. We had the guts in our student government. We all rallied behind an idea.

So my lesson learned on that day was never, never underestimate your ability to make a difference, even as a student. You don't know until you try—am I right about that? You have no idea. And if you don't try, it will never happen.

I also learned a little bit about the art of negotiation. I had nothing on my side, other than walking in there and having a little guts. I was 20 years old, a little crazy, I guess. He said, what are you doing here? But I also walked away with this, and that to me was worth the effort. And I actually laugh when I think about the fact that I ran into Chancellor Melvin Eggers at my 10-year reunion. You'll be at your 10-year reunion; you won't want to miss that. And he said to me—I'm still not sure if he was kidding—he said, we couldn't wait for you to graduate.

I prefer to take that as a joke. I'm not sure how many times he said that to people in his 20 years as a chancellor, but we got along fine. It may have something to do with the fact that I led a lot of protests and launched a six-month boycott of the bookstore. But we had really high prices. We didn't like their policies. We thought they were unfair. So I got a resolution passed, got all the students behind me, even the Student Senate backed us. And we saw an opportunity to bring people together toward a common cause.

And we were out there, marching and picketing in all kinds of weather. And we had some really sharp people, our English majors who had this thought that we should have an ode to Shakespeare. So we came up with, as we were marching, "Boil, boil, toil and trouble. All they do is charge us double." We thought we were so clever. We were so clever. I had a good time. I did have a good time. But I also saw what you could accomplish with collaboration. Guess what my friends? The prices came down and they changed every one of the policies that we protested. We got what we needed done.

We also launched the effort to have a student union building. Can you imagine? The Daily Orange was down the road, the student government was in a building that literally should have been condemned. It was, it was a fire trap. Like, why are they putting the students in these buildings? I don't know. So we planted the seed to have a brand new unifying place for students together. And none of us lived long enough as students on campus to benefit from this, but we pulled together, we actually literally started helping raise money while we were on campus to get a building that future generations would benefit from.

We learned that by bringing people together, we could create a voice, we could create momentum, building collaboration and consensus. We got things done. And those are the exact words I use as governor. When I was sworn in three weeks ago, I said I want to change the culture. I want to have more collaboration and consensus building, and we're already being recognized for building those relationships. I'm most proud of my [applause]… thank you. Thank you. If you live in New York City, you know what I'm talking about.

I'm really proud of our final story about what I did outside the classroom, I'll say. A cruel regime had oppressed the people of South Africa for decades. The atrocities and the plight of Nelson Mandela captured the headlines for all of us as students, day after day. It was one of the driving racial and social justice issues of our time.

And on campus, we talked about the role that our university may be playing in this by having investments in companies doing business in South Africa. And we realized that we needed our university trustees to act. I went to the trustees, made a case, said we don't want to have this blood on our hands as students any longer and we want you to divest your holdings in South Africa. And they did, and I commend them for having the leadership, and joining others, and eventually, eventually, apartheid in South Africa came to an end because of the forces on places like this university.

And what I learned, the lesson learned from that was sometimes you feel morally compelled to speak up even on issues that don't touch your life directly. You have to call out injustice everywhere you see injustice. And that's why as a student, I was compelled to call out what was going on in South Africa, and why as New York governor I was compelled to call out the oppression in the state of Texas when they basically abolished the right to an abortion. I pledge right here and right now to my Syracuse University that I'll continue to use the governor's office as a platform to condemn injustice, wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head. It doesn't matter the size of your megaphone. You don't need to be in the governor's office. You can be a student on a campus to make that kind of difference.

As you can tell from these stories, I didn't spend a lot of time in classroom. Sorry to my professors, because I was picketing or I was protesting. And I appreciate the ones who let me take incompletes and fix them later. Okay, thank you, that was really important to me. But when I did show up, and I'm not, I'm glad you're all graduates, you're not getting any bad habits from me, okay? You're already done, it doesn't matter. But I want them to know that when I was in classroom, like history class with David Bennett, I did absorb the stories, and I did absorb what I learned in my criminal justice class.

And literally, on Friday, two days ago, I signed a bill into law that transformed the system of parole in our state, and ending an irrational system of injustice where someone who's out on parole can end up back in jail because of a technicality. They're not supposed to drink. They're not supposed to use a substance. They're not supposed to be in a car. They literally could end up back in jail again because of that technicality. And that put more people in jails. New York State was number one in the nation for people incarcerated on technical parole violations than anywhere else in our nation.

And that led to much of the overcrowding we're having in Rikers Island, and I hope you're paying attention to what's happening in Rikers Island. This is a tinderbox, and I literally had nearly 200 people freed from there Friday. And I thought about the fact, I thought about the fact that in my criminal justice class at Syracuse University, we talked about what is the real purpose of incarceration? Is it punishment? Is it to protect society? Is it retribution? Is it rehabilitation? And I couldn't find the right answer until I thought about those classes, and I said, we're not here just to punish. We're here to rehabilitate and give people another chance in life. And that's what I wanted to do.

So with the stroke of a pen, I said no more. And I was very proud of that. And I'll also say, because I mentioned David Bennett, this is something I need all of you to understand, whether you took a history class or not. How many of you took a history class while you're here? That's a good number. Okay. That's good. From that class, sitting in Maxwell Hall, I learned that as New Yorkers, we inherit an incredible legacy of progressivism. The NAACP started in New York. The labor movement started in New York. The LGBTQ movement started in New York. The environmental justice movement started in New York. And one of my favorites, the women's rights movement started right in New York, down the road in Seneca Falls.

And I've been asked many, many times, how does it feel to be the first governor in the state of New York who's female? And that's how I prefer to say it. I happen to be female. That is not, hopefully, my primary qualification, but I also think I would not have gotten here if it wasn't for those brave women and men who gathered in 1848. Think about this, how do 300 people even know where to go without checking Facebook for the location? I mean, seriously, it's extraordinary what they did. But they showed up, they were there and they made a difference. And this is why this is so personal to me. I know their struggles. I know they were denigrated. I know what they went through just for people like myself to even have the right to vote. And they carried a torch proudly, so boldly, and that torch is now in my hands.

I feel the weight of responsibility, not just to hold it and pass it on, but while it's in my possession, to make it glow even brighter, make it more powerful. And while I may be the first, I sure as hell do not want to be the last. I am taking this responsibility seriously and for all the women who follow me I'm going to take that glass ceiling and crush it with the weight of my heels. No more, no more barriers for women ever, ever again in the great state of New York.

So I've got a lot more stories but I'll meet you at The Varsity afterward. I just want you to know, first of all, this was a high honor for me to be here. It truly, truly is. I actually choked up watching the video. I had this flashback of what it was like to be brand new on this campus and then to leave into a world of uncertainty.

I just want to reinforce, there is no way in a million years, as a student at Syracuse University, I believed that I would become an elected official at any level, a member of Congress or the governor of this state. And if there's one lesson to take from my life, it is dream big. Envision yourself. You can be a leader in your industry, or you can be the leader of a state.

There is nothing stopping you because you have a world-class education. You have a network between SU and ESF of probably over 300,000 people who understand the shared experience. They want to help you. And here's what I'm calling on you as you go out into the world - help me solve these problems. Find the path that yes, you can earn money and be professional and do all you want to do, but there is always time for you to give back.

You have to give back, you have to find that calling and give back or else why have you taken up space on this? What is the difference you're going to make in your time, living on this great planet?

And I need you to help me be the truth tellers. What I'm talking about is the insidious campaigns of disinformation that pervade the social media in the world, and it literally has cost people lives. I'm talking about lies about vaccinations. I'm talking about lies about masks. I'm talking about lies about the climate change. I'm talking about lies about abortion, and I'm talking about lies about elections that lead people to do crazy things in this country. It stops here. It stops right now

I know the two favorite words anybody in a commencement wants to hear are "in conclusion." Right? Okay. Okay, I'm wrapping up. I'm wrapping up. I got so much I want to share. I really do. I really do. I need to share something with you and it comes not from me, but from David Brock who wrote a book, “The Road to Character.” He talked about something I want to leave you with.

He talked about résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. And let me explain the difference. The eulogy virtues are the ones that people are going to say about you when you're gone. Not a happy thought today. I get it. But will they say that you were a kind person? Did you love freely? Were you a loyal friend? Did you live a life of giving? Did you leave a life of gratitude, or were you spending your life building your résumé values which are oriented toward you being successful for yourself in your career? Important, but know that the last things they are going to say about you are not what was on your résumé. Say what kind of person you were, and did you forgive people and did you respect people in disagreement?

And there is someone in our presence here today that I believe embodies these values more than perhaps I ever will. Kevin Richardson was a member of the Exonerated Five, is known as a member of the Exonerated Five. And I am so proud of my school for giving Kevin what was denied him for decades, the right to walk across the stage and be a Syracuse graduate. And his story is something you need to remember. What this man went through. When you face a challenge, you feel discouraged, you feel hopeless, I want you to think of Kevin Richardson and know what this person endured, a horrific life-altering experience. As I spoke to him earlier, he still speaks with a heart full of gratitude for the remaining years of his life that he can give and be an inspiration to his daughter and hopes that she someday will put on the orange and be part of this family.

Those are the people that you need to seek out in life. Don't just follow politicians. There's so many people that are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances who I draw strength from. And I want to say, God bless you, Kevin. I'm sorry for what has happened to you, but I know that we're going to engage you in ways that are going to help us reform our criminal justice system once and for all. And you can help us lead that. Kevin Richardson, let's give him another round of applause.

Now the one word you want to hear, which is finally, finally, in 50 years, and I don't know if it'd be from Ryan McNaughton, the head of alumni affairs or not, but you'll get an invitation. I'm not even sure if you can look for it in your email or text message. I don't even know how we're going to be communicating in 50 years, but you're going to be invited to come back for a reunion. I encourage you now to mentally accept that because when you come back, it'll be very different. Might be the fifth rendition of a dome. I have no idea what's going to happen here. It will be a very different campus and there may be some who don't come and join you at that 50th reunion. They will not have lived long enough. They may not have been able to make it. And you'll reminisce with your friends who do show up and you'll talk about what you overcame during that indescribably challenging spring of 2020 when you were trying to simply live a normal life as a college student and everything was turned upside down.

You'll talk about that. But then, mark my words, you'll be sharing the stories of your lives and there will be one question on everyone's lips, and think of it as the last question on your Syracuse final exam. The question will be simple. What did you do? What did you do with your life? What did you do? And it is my sincere hope that in anticipating that question right now that you will begin a 50-year journey that allows you to answer quite simply, I made a difference. I made a difference.

Dear Class of 2020, I wish you happiness, success in your life as you continue to be able to answer that question. I made a difference. It started here. Thank you for the privilege of addressing every one of you today.

Governor Kathy Hochul. “Governor Hochul Delivers Commencement Address at Syracuse University.” YouTube video, 33:38. Sept. 19, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOsAUZ5guyA

New York State. “Video, Audio, Photos & Rush Transcript: Governor Hochul Delivers Commencement Address at Syracuse University.” Retrieved July 7, 2023 from https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/video-audio-photos-rush-transcript-governor-hochul-delivers-commencement-address-syracuse.