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Tina Tchen - Knox College Commencement Address

Transcript of remarks to graduating seniors at Knox College, June 5, 2010

June 05, 2010

Congratulations to the class of 2010!

I am delighted to be here on this beautiful and historic campus -- that was the original line. I should add now that I'm delighted to be here in this beautiful and historic Fieldhouse.

I had the honor yesterday of coming to dinner and was able to see the original layout and the original chairs out there, so I would like join President Taylor in one more round of applause for your amazing staff here at Knox, because they have really done you proud this morning.

I'm also delighted to be back here in the Midwest. Now, you couldn't tell by looking at me, but I am a born and bred Midwesterner, and I am really happy to be back home...a little applause for the Midwest.

And thank you Professor Civettini for that generous introduction and nomination. I had the pleasure of hearing about Professor Civettini's work on psychology and politics yesterday, and it's a topic I feel like I'm living every day, so it was very momentous and interesting to me just to hear the study of my life.

And thank you, President Taylor. It is a special treat to be welcomed by you.

I think it is fair to say that President Taylor, in his prior career, when he was merely Roger Taylor, Esquire, was the first lawyer I worked for when I started my legal career. This was during the summer after my first year in law school, when the very lucky are able to get a head start on their peers who must wait till the second summer to be a summer associate at a top law firm. Even then, Mr. Taylor Esquire was as much teacher as he was lawyer, treating me with patience, humor, and good advice. He was already foreshadowing the qualities that have made his second career here at Knox such a resounding success-leadership, vision, and above all, a deep concern and care for the young people placed in his charge. Knox, I can attest to you from personal experience that you have indeed been fortunate to have had Roger Taylor as your President.

Thank you Knox College for the great honor of awarding me this degree, and for placing me in the company of my fellow honorary degree recipients, Kwame Dawes and Jim Owens. You have made my late father, a physician, very happy today - he always preferred that I become a "doctor" rather than a lawyer!

Thank you and congratulations to the parents of the class of 2010 - including my good friend David Orr, father of Michael Orr. The sense of achievement, relief, pride and wonder you must be feeling today - looking at these young people, now fully adults, and remembering back to the toddlers learning to walk, the first graders learning to read, the pre-teens adjusting to their hormones (I have one of those at home right now), and the teenagers, with hormones in full force, just...well, just being. You must be thinking, how is it that they are about to be college graduates - which leads inevitably to the thought, how is it that I got so old to have a child who's a college graduate? I know - I am one of you. I'm watching you and practicing for next week, when I sit in your seat and watch my own member of the class of 2010, my son Patrick, walk across the stage at UCLA.

And to the class of 2010, let me start by putting out there on the table what you must be thinking right now. You're thinking, Class of 2005, Barack Obama; Class of 2006, Stephen Colbert; Class of 2007, President Bill Clinton; Class of 2008, Secretary of State Madeline Albright; Class of 2009, US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald... and for us, the mighty Class of 2010, we get ....Tina Tchen?? In a nod of sympathy to my fellow honorary degree recipient Kwame Dawes. Isn't she the one who couldn't get to Pumphandle this year through the fog? So now we ask her to speak at Commencement? What is this, Flunk Day?

I confess I have the same feeling of bewilderment. Because as those of you who are regular readers of the Galesburg Register-Mail know - this is my first commencement address. So not only do you get the not so famous, you get a rookie. My apologies, but also my profound thanks to the Class of 2010 for choosing me as your speaker - I will try not to let you down!

Knox has had a fine tradition of rookies, because I know my current boss, President Barack Obama, to this day remembers and speaks fondly of his appearance here at Knox as his first commencement address, when he was just a newly elected, and not particularly well-known, junior Senator from Illinois. I hold no illusions, however, that this occasion marks the start for such a trajectory for me. But I am no less honored and grateful for the invitation and opportunity to share in this all important day for Knox College.

So what, you may now be asking, did she do to deserve the invite?

It was likely not because of my first career, which was that of corporate lawyer, partner in a big international law firm, and a litigator no less.

It is likely my second career which I suspect is the source of my invitation to be here today. But for that career, I am not sure I can take a lot of personal credit. I come to you today as the Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, the Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and a Deputy Assistant to the President of the United States. Mostly because I, like the Knox College Class of 2005, had the serendipitous opportunity many years ago to run into a tall guy, with big ears, and a funny sounding name - as he likes to describe himself - long before others knew who he was.
But regardless of the reason, the opportunity to serve in these positions is the chance of a lifetime. It has given me a sense of pride and wonderment at the great country we live in, to witness the dedication of the men and women who work in our military, our public government agencies, and in the Office of the President. To simply go to the office everyday through the iron gates of the White House, and through the doors of the West Wing is a breath-taking experience every time I do it. And I am especially fortunate to be doing the work that is now my responsibility there.

First, as the Director of the Office of Public Engagement, as Professor Civettini noted, I run the outreach office for the White House - meaning we are the place where ordinary Americans, and constituency groups, and concerned activists interact with the President. And this President has emphasized the importance of public engagement - hence the name of our office - and values hearing a broad range of views as he makes his decisions. In addition, my office is working hard to make the White House truly the people's house, by making sure the rich diversity of our country is heard and represented within the iron gates of the White House.

This includes, for example, holding the first observance of the Hindu holiday of Diwali in the East Room of the White House, where the President lit the diva lamp. And bringing a small group of civil rights icons, like the late Dr. Dorothy Height, together with children too young to remember those struggles, into the Oval Office to see where our nation's first African-American President has hung an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. And just last week we hosted the first Jewish American Heritage Month Celebration, with Sandy Koufax joining young Jewish leaders and Supreme Court justices as our guests.

It includes Ty'Sheoma Bethea, an 8th grader from Dillon, South Carolina, whose school was literally falling down around her and her fellow students. She wrote a letter asking for help for her school, which led us to invite Ty'Sheoma and her mother to sit with the First Lady during the President's first joint session speech to Congress. This was her first plane ride, and in the aftermath, her school was flooded with donations, new furniture and a face lift.

It includes the guests who watched the President sign last year's Public Lands Management Act. Now that's a law that you might think might not have human interest story. But we found out that Frank Chee Willetto, who served as a Navajo Code Talker in World War II, lives in a community in the Navajo Nation that through this law will receive clean, running water for the first time. That's right - clean running water for the first time, in the year 2009. It was our privilege to have Mr. Willetto, in his Code Talker uniform, join us at the White House as the bill was signed.

And one of my most moving moments for me personally was the first time I stood in the White House with my hand over my heart to recite the Pledge of Allegiance - something I, like all of us, have done many times. But this time, it was at the ceremony we had where active duty members of our military, who hailed originally from countries around the globe and had immigrated to the United States, sworn in as U.S. citizens. To say the Pledge together with these new citizens, who are performing the most patriotic of duties, was a true honor and privilege.

I am also the Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. This is a different kind of council - our members are every federal agency and every policy office in the White House. It is organized that way because, as the President said when he created the Council last year, we want every part of the federal government to understand that it is their responsibility to take into account the interests of women and girls in what they do every day - because whether they are the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Veterans Affairs - or something in between - the work of their agency touches the lives of the women who work there, and the lives of women and girls across America, and beyond.

This is important, because wage discrimination still exists - women still make only 78 cents for every dollar a man makes; because the rate at which women die from childbirth and pregnancy in this country is higher than in 40 other industrialized countries; because every year in the United States, 1.5 million women are raped or physically assaulted by an intimate partner; and because in the developing world, one out of every seven girls is married before her fifteenth birthday.

And even as women make progress at places like Knox - where I know not only are women 60% of the undergraduates - but 100% of your class officers - women still only hold 17% of the seats in Congress; comprise less than 3% of the Fortune 500 CEOs; and are only one-fourth of the U.S. Supreme Court - although we hope to improve that percentage by bringing it up to one-third, if the President's nomination of Elena Kagan to the Court is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

These are just some of the reasons that I go to work everyday inspired to do more, conscious of the time going by, and acutely aware of one of the big lessons of the last year - that no matter how much we want it - or how many people voted for it in the last election - change is hard.

It's hard on a personal level - you know this, or you're about to find it out, as you go through a major life changing moment, the moment you leave Knox and move on to the adult phase of your life. I just went through a life-changing moment myself - proving you are never too old for change! As I moved from Chicago last year, my home for 30 years - leaving my job of 23 years, my community that I loved and devoted many hours to improving its schools, and libraries, and Chinatown - even to come to one of the most exclusive work addresses on the planet, I have found days when I am still disoriented, still learning to find my new personal equilibrium.

I suspect you will find yourselves in similar places in the weeks and months to come. Change takes you out of your comfort zone - but that's the essence of change. If you aren't challenged, if you aren't nervous, if you aren't even scared, then you are not changing enough. And if you aren't changing, you aren't growing. It's as W.E.B. Dubois said, you must "be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become." Or, as Ben Franklin said a little more succinctly, "When you're finished changing, you're finished."

Change is hard on the broader level too - just look at our first sixteen months in Washington. Yes, we passed health care reform, after contentious debate and great effort across the Administration. And we continue to move forward on the other major issues on our agenda, but changing an entire country is hard - the entire country is being challenged out of its comfort zone and into a vision of the future, of what America, and the world, should be in the 21st century. The change we are undergoing is nothing less than building the foundation not just for your future, but for the future of your children and your grandchildren.

But change takes time. For me, I am remembering one of my mother's most constant lessons - the one about patience. In many ways - and you parents know this. It's every parent's lesson - from patience on car trips (no, we are not there yet), at Christmas, Hanukkah, or birthdays (no, you can't open the presents yet), to staying out past 10 pm (just no, never, not yet!). But patience is key - good things, important things, like building friendships, doing public service to improve a community you love, creating a home, take time. I had 30 years to build that in Chicago - sixteen months in the bubble that is Washington is not enough time, and patience is required.

Changing a country takes even more time, especially in America. As President Obama said in his commencement address at Michigan last month, "Democracy in a nation of more than three hundred million people is inherently difficult. It has always been noisy and messy; contentious and complicated." Given my day job, I know firsthand that everyone has a voice, and we want an involved, active electorate. That means to the disappointment of those who voted for the President - and I suspect the relief of those who didn't - there are few things that can be changed with the stroke of a single pen. Most of the hard things to change - climate and energy policy, comprehensive immigration reform, repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" - require Congress to act, so these things take time.

But as hard as change is, as long as it may take, the final message is change is important. It's worth it. It is worth it for 10 year old Marcelas Owens. Marcelas is the young boy who was standing at President Obama's elbow when he signed the Affordable Care Act into law - in a new shirt and tie, I might add, that my resourceful staff was able to get to Marcelas moments before the ceremony started. Marcelas's 27 year-old mother died from hypertension, a treatable condition. But she had no health insurance, and she wasn't able to get the care that could have saved her life.

It is worth it to change how we manage our precious planet. It is worth it to improve the lives - and indeed, save the lives - of the world's women and girls.

And now as you embark on your own personal change, you are in a position to be part of, to lead the change we need to build the America of the 21st century, the world of your future. And because it takes time, and because it is hard, we need you to be involved - to be, in the words of the name of my office, engaged. And especially we need you to be involved because it is important.

Whether you agree with our Administration, or whether your disagree, being engaged in the process of change is how you will make your voice heard, how you will share in shaping the change that is happening, and how you will have the satisfaction - even with the occasional frustration and disappointment - of living your life as an involved, informed, active, responsible, and rewarded citizen. Because what I found out long before I got to Washington, D.C., was that some of my most cherished accomplishments, moments, and friendships came from the time I spent in volunteer public service. It was watching my children make friends with members of the homeless community as they helped serve a hot meal at our church food pantry. It was eating homemade tamales at the joyous celebration where we cut the ribbon on a new public library on the west side of Chicago. It was watching amazing young inner city girls at the Young Women's Leadership Charter School recite their own powerful, and empowering, poetry.

Your years here at Knox College have prepared you better than most to be leaders and activists in this change. To be leaders and activists who know the value of diversity, who appreciate the benefits of public service, and who have the talent and the patience to see change through.

Leaders like your fellow alum, Jennifer Jones, known as JJ. JJ was a philosophy major here at Knox and graduated in the class of 1994. JJ's life has come full circle in many ways thanks to Knox. She spent the first few years of her life in public housing in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and was only the second person in her family to attend college. The house she grew up in, and where her mother lives to this day, was made available through a federal government home-ownership program for low-income families. She is now a presidential appointee at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, where she works on Public and Indian Housing.

It was Knox that taught JJ, a young African American lesbian from Tulsa, Oklahoma, about grassroots activism. She was one of only a handful of openly gay students on campus and the only out person of color during her four-years at Knox. Yet, in her sophomore year, she helped resurrect and revitalize the LGBT student group.

In her own words JJ says that her dedication and commitment to political activism were born out of the amazing experience she had at Knox. An experience you all now share.

So Class of 2010 - go forth into the world and be a part of change - whether it's your own personal change, whether it's change in your local community, or whether it's change on a global scale. We are waiting for your leadership, and we are looking forward to sharing in your achievements. Congratulations 2010!

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