Address to the Queens College class of 2016
Thursday, June 2, 2016 – Remarks as prepared

To President Matos; to the leadership of CUNY; to the deans, faculty, and staff; and, most importantly, to the Queens College Class of 2016: Congratulations!

I’m so proud to share this day with each of you.  I’m humbled to celebrate your extraordinary achievements.  And I think each of us owes a special debt of gratitude to this momentous day’s unsung heroes.

Graduates: Please stand and join me, once again, in thanking your parents and grandparents, your spouses and partners, your brothers and sisters, your godparents and mentors, your friends of every kind and every category.  None of us walks our unlikely journeys alone.  Today’s milestone belongs as much to them as it does to you.

Over the years, I’ve been to more than a few commencement ceremonies in more than a few places. And I’m very proud that just about 10 miles from the Ford Foundation’s office in Midtown, there is a school that rivals any other—a school that stands out for encouraging excellence while celebrating diversity.

I don’t need to belabor the observation that, for the United States, this is a seminal moment—a period of profound (and not always equal) change.  Indeed, the America of your college graduation day looks, and feels, and sounds very different than the America of mine.

Consider this: A half-century ago, 17 out of every 20 Americans—the vast majority—were of European descent. A half-century from now, there will be no vast majorities based on where people come from, because this country will be more diverse than ever before.

In other words, with each passing day, America looks more and more like New York City.  And taken together, what this means is that your perspectives matter more than ever.

Look around, and you’ll see the American story.

You’ll see the American story in Petty Officer Second Class Christy Orquera—a working mother, a wife, a veteran of the United States Navy—who served our country in Operation Desert Shield and triumphed in the face of trials upon returning home.  Today she graduates with a degree in Library Science.

You’ll see the American story in Christopher Lopez, who graduates with his second degree from Queens College today—who has never let personal obstacles or anything else become a barrier to his success.

And as I look around, in your faces, I see my own—because I started my journey like so many of you.  

As a young boy, raised by a single mom, I wasn’t guaranteed a spot in college.   As a young man unprepared for the world, I wasn’t guaranteed graduation from a top-flight law school.  As a young professional, with no experience in the world of Wall Street, I wasn’t guaranteed success on the trading floor of a major global bank.

And when I started in philanthropy, there were a few skeptics and cynics who appeared again.  They told me to lower my sights.  They said that because I went to public schools, not private schools; that because I had on-the-ground experience in Harlem, not a Ph.D from Harvard; that because I had never worked in the halls of elite foundations, I might not be able to manage the buttoned-up executives.

In other words, at every step of the way, I was faced with inequality—in one of its many forms.  And I would guess this is something we’ve all experienced at some point in our lives.

Now, I was lucky that there were people in my life who said I could do it—and showed me the way forward. I listened to them, as I hope you will.  Because in the eyes of some, I wasn’t supposed to have the opportunities I did—and I certainly wasn’t supposed to seize them.

And every time I think about my journey to the presidency of the Ford Foundation, I remember how I was nearly not here at all.  My childhood friends were cousins—boys with talents, and passions, and potential no different from my own. They found themselves caught in the same cycle of despair and injustice that has trapped so many of our young black and brown men and women.  By my count, six of them have spent significant time in prison.

It reminds me exactly why days like today are so special, and so important, and so precious.  Because there are entrenched systems at work in this country that make it harder to go from aspiration to achievement.

The good news is, there also are institutions, like Queens College, that work to level the playing field—to disrupt those systems.

Graduates: Look around. Here we all are, sharing this glorious day.  But you are not done.

You have to push forward, with courage and resolve, with poise and patience, with gratitude and grace.  You have to represent these institutions of good, with excellence.  And you already know exactly what this takes—better than most.

Like me, some of you are the first generation in your families to graduate college—blazing a trail for generations to follow.

Some of you attended class, while holding down a job, and raising a family. You woke up early. You worked and studied, and then worked some more.

You did not coast. There were no short cuts. Cruise control for you was not an option.  You took nothing for granted.  And, as a result, you remind us all that anything—that everything—is still possible.

And so today, I ask you—I implore you—don’t stop.  To paraphrase Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit musical Hamilton: Do not throw away your shot.

Do not throw away your shot to start a business—or change the way business works.

Do not throw away your shot to participate in your community—and to make it more equal, more fair, and more just.  

Do not throw away your shot to vote.  This year it matters more than ever.

And do not throw away your shot—as the Queens College motto says—to “…learn so that we may serve.”

Let me close with this:  America is a great country—and we are great because we are strong enough to admit our flaws, and bold enough to face them head on.

All across this country, we have seen people adamant in the face of inequality, courageous in the face of injustice.  People who are elevating ideas and lifting up one another when the unfortunate norm of our discourse is to tear people down.

And you know what else?   To borrow another phrase from Hamilton: We see immigrants getting the job done!

From now on, in every job you take—in every day that you walk this earth as a Queens College graduate—you have the opportunity to work for justice.

For some of you, the fight may be here in New York City. For others, it may be wherever else your family calls home.  But your location does not change your responsibility—and it cannot trim your ambition.

Graduates, this final assignment is one that you must carry with you always: Demonstrate your excellence every day.  Climb the ladder up, and when you do, extend a hand back down and lift up the next person working for their shot.

This is a moment you will remember and cherish forever.  Earning a degree from Queens College is a great achievement.  But do not let it be your greatest achievement.  Because there is so much work to be done in this world.  Because your work is just beginning.  And I cannot wait to see what you all accomplish next.