First-Generation Graduates of 2018 Honored at Knox Reception
The main reason for the gathering is "to tell you how very proud of you we are," says President Teresa Amott.
Office of Communications
2 East South Street
Galesburg, IL 61401-4999
June 04, 2017
Thank you so much!
Good morning Knox College! How are you? I am so, so honored to be here. Thank you, President Amott, Trustees, faculty and staff, parents, alumni, friends and family, but—most of all—the graduates of 2017. Congratulations.
I would also like to say congratulations to all your loved ones who have stood by you on this journey. I'm sure all of y'all are very happy because they're going to get a job, right? So, a big round of applause for your family, your friends, everyone who's supported you.
I'm humbled to share this special day with you—mostly because I'm included with my fellow honorees, Dr. Jackson and Ambassador Hartog-Levin. I aspire to be a tenth of what you both are, so congratulations to you.
I have to admit, I'm overwhelmed right now. I always read scripts, so it's hard to just come up with words all on my own. I'm used to somebody else writing them for me. But it's overwhelming to think of all the distinguished people who have received honorary degrees from Knox—Presidents, Senators, Cabinet Secretaries, ambassadors, titans of business...going all the way back to include Abraham Lincoln. So needless to say, I felt a lot of pressure coming here to speak to you all.
Knox has such an incredible legacy of moral leadership; a place that was far ahead of its time in opening the doors to women, to people of color. I know you will draw on that legacy throughout your lives.
You are tomorrow's doctors and lawyers and scientists and entrepreneurs... some of you might disappoint your family and become an actor!
As your Commencement speaker, it's tradition that I pass on some words of wisdom—as it should bes tradition that you pretend to listen and not be on Snapchat.
As Sherwood mentioned, it wasn't so long ago that I was in a cap and gown myself. Four years ago, I received my master's degree at Cal-State Northridge. Just a little context: I come from a family of educators. Everybody in my family is an educator. I'm actually the LAST person in my family to get a master's degree—my mom calls me the underachiever! But I do know there's a lot of first-generation people here today graduating. I applaud you. As I'm sure your families do, too. It's very hard to be the first. For me, it was very easy to be the last. I was the last born, I was the last one to get my master's, I was the last to get a job. I was the last to do everything—because my sisters and my family paved the way. But you first-generation kids—young adults—you are paving the ways for your families, so you should be very proud of that.
Returning to school while working in Hollywood was crazy. I was doing homework on set of Desperate Housewives, I was working on my thesis in my trailer, I was reading my textbooks between takes.
And I was very nervous about going back to school. It had been a long time since I had set foot in the classroom. I kept thinking to myself, what if I wasn't smart enough? What if I was too old? What if everyone looked at me differently because they thought I was just a "dumb celebrity?" (Because there are some dumb celebrities, so I had to prove I wasn't one of them.)
But I had a curiosity that could only be quenched by learning. I went back to school because I wanted to better understand where I came from. As you may have guessed, I'm from another country—it's called Texas. I was born in Corpus Christi, and I grew up proudly as a Mexican-American.
I returned to school for a master's degree in Chicano studies, or what people like to call Mexican-American history, because I was seeking a fuller understanding of who I was, a genuine search for identity.
I grew up, like many of us, as a hyphen—straddling two worlds.
I'm a 9th generation American; my ancestors arrived way before the Mayflower. I am as American as apple pie and proud of my Mexican heritage. I love hamburgers and enchiladas. I listen to mariachi music and Justin Timberlake.
Growing up in South Texas, I grew up very close to the border, and I remember the U.S.-Mexican border was a very different place then. You could cross back and forth, no problem. You didn't need a passport. My family go to Mexico for the day, for lunch or medicine or a margarita. At the time it was just a short walk across a bridge. All you needed was a few coins and to say those magic words: "American citizen." I remember the border agent every time would ask "nationality" and we would answer "American citizen." I actually thought it was a password; I thought tomorrow it might change to, like, "peanut butter and jelly."
I remember seeing a long line of people, slowly inching along—and my family zooming into the country.
I asked my father, "Why don't they just say the magic words? Maybe they don't know the password."
He replied, "Because they were born on the other side."
And I remember asking, "The other side of what?"
And he said, "La ligne, the line."
I asked him, "Well, how did we get to be born on this side?"
And he said, "Luck. We were lucky."
He was right. Because it was a twist of fate that gave me the privilege of being an American, or as Howard Buffet likes to call it, we won "the ovarian lottery."
I was born here—out of anywhere in this world. I could have been born somewhere where women are stripped of their rights, where there's no freedom of the press, or freedom of speech. I could have been born where it's forbidden to pursue your education or hopes and dreams. So to me America is the greatest country in the world because it's an idea, an idea that all of us have the opportunity to pursue any vision that we set for our lives.
That's the idea that still draws talent from all over the world to our shores and that allows all of you to dream big. In America, our ambitions aren't limited by what we look like or where we come from.
But of course, we have a lot of work to do in achieving the ideal of the American dream and what that means.
Because, as hard as you worked to get here—the tests and the late nights and the grades and the classes—an education like yours is still a privilege—a very rare privilege that not everyone gets to experience. When you receive your degrees today, you will be among the few in the world with such an education. And as my mother never ceased to remind my sisters and I—"to whom much is given, much is to be expected."
And this leads me to the word "philanthropy." People always ask how I became interested in philanthropy, how did you get this idea for your foundation, why are you politically active? It was actually something my family instilled in me early on.
You see, some of you may know that I have an older sister with special needs. She was born prematurely so her brain didn't finish developing. Her name is Liza. She's the light of our family.
It was because of her that we were introduced to the word "volunteer" very early in our lives. We volunteered for everything. I thought "volunteer" was a job, I thought you got paid for it, and they just weren't giving me my money. My mother made us volunteer for causes like the Special Olympics and the local Boys and Girls Club. If Liza was part of any community program, my mother would sign all of us up as volunteers to that program in order to watch over her.
So you learn a lot about caring for others when you have a sister like Liza. There are certain things that cannot be taught in classrooms or by professors.
I remember one time when my sister Liza first went to high school. She was mainstreamed into "normal" classes with "normal" students—and she encountered some people who were not so nice to her. People who didn't understand that she was different, but NOT less. She came home one day with her letterman jacket missing—someone had stolen it off of her.
I was 10, maybe, and I was so mad. Who could take a jacket off a special needs student? I asked her, "Liza, who would take your jacket?"
And she replied, "Somebody who must have been cold."
That day I learned about compassion—about putting myself in someone else's shoes. Liza didn't get angry. She didn't get mad. She chose to see the best in someone, even if their intentions were bad.
I hope you will always choose to see the best in others, too. I know It's easy to say; it can be hard to actually live in practice in life. The technology that we have at our fingertips today has done so much to connect us, but it can also bring out some of our worst impulses. And it can numb us; it can stop us from understanding what it's like to be on the other side of that phone screen or computer screen.
We might be quick to judge the beggar outside the Starbucks begging for money, begging for food. But how often do we really place ourselves in his shoes? How often do we consider what his story must be like? "How did he end up here? How could things have gone differently in his life?"
I hope that along the way of your chosen paths, you will continue to find ways to show kindness and serve others. Because places like Knox have done so much to expand access to students from all backgrounds and walks of life—but we know that as a country, we have a lot more work to do. It's going to be your job, each and every one of you, to help the next generation learn from your path and experiences. And it's going to be your job to help create a society of more equal opportunity for others.
Something else I have always done in my life is reject the boxes that others may try to put you in. Don't let anyone else define you. If you belong to more than one world and you want to be a hyphen, embrace being a hyphen! Stand on that hyphen and plant your flag down on the hyphen, stand on the hyphen, and say to people "I'm not 50% this and 50% that, I'm 100% of this ALL the time." You can be complex, it's okay. This country is big enough and diverse enough for all of our dreams AND ...
This country needs diversity. This diversity is our country's greatest competitive advantage. Not just a diversity of skin color or ethnicity—I mean a diversity of thought and of life experience.
On a campus as diverse as Knox, you live in close proximity with people from different walks of life. But as you get older, it can be all too easy to cloister with those who think like you,who speak like you who come from the same background, who make the same amount of money... Don't live in a bubble. Keep building relationships with those who have a different point of view, those who come from a different world, who speak a different language, who grew up differently.
We have a lot of challenges facing our country and our planet today—and they all seem a lot worse when we talk past each other, when we demonize each other. But I have hope because of you. Because of the graduates of today, here at Knox College. Part of it is that your generation has the potential to make connections like none before. Part of it has to do with technology, but a lot of it has to do with all of you having an open and free mind. A mind that is tolerant of others and interested in others and their contributions. Your generation is not hung up on differences, you're celebrating them! Your generation doesn't want to tear something down, you want to build things up, you want to leave a mark.
I'm pretty confident you will do that—because wherever you go in life, you'll bring the Knox spirit with you. I hope, I know you're going to do great things and I know you're going to set the world on fire—maybe even a Prairie Fire. (I didn't even know what that meant honestly, but my friend who went to Knox told me to put that in there!)
I think we were all put on this earth for a far greater reason than you can ever imagine. Even as you sit there, in your seats, and think you have plans for yourself, I am here to tell you that LIFE may have some other things in store for you. So be ready for anything and everything. And I want to leave you today with the words of Maya Angelou, my favorite poet, words which I live by. She said "....people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
So thank you for making me feel special today Knox College! And congratulations to the class of 2017!