Hartnell College Commencement Keynote, May 31, 2013
Hello, Hartnell College Class of 2013! Thank you for inviting me to share this special occasion. It is truly an honor for me to speak at this happy event for you, your families, and all of us here today.
Graduates, this is truly a milestone in your life, one that you will always remember. You have worked hard to get to this point, and you are entitled to celebrate, so congratulations!
Of course, none of us succeeds alone. Your family and friends who provided support along the way deserve recognition for their efforts as well! And we must not overlook the Hartnell faculty and staff, who are dedicated to your success and who draw deep satisfaction from seeing you achieve it!
I am sure that your experience here at Hartnell has been a rich and rewarding one. Developing critical thinking abilities, communication skills, learning how to work in teams, and acquiring multicultural competencies – all those are vital. But the most enduring and valuable competency you have acquired is that you have learned how to learn.
You are part of a globalized society undergoing rapid and accelerating technological change. In this information age, most of the specific knowledge you have obtained will become obsolete in a few years, with the sum total of human knowledge doubling every 2-3 years. In addition, people entering the workforce today are expected to change careers (not just jobs) five to seven times during their lifetimes. So you are likely to be applying lifelong learning skills you have developed in your college years to acquire knowledge that has not been created yet, and to apply it in occupations that do not yet exist.
You are also leaving college at a time of historic geopolitical changes, a real turning point in history. The era in which I grew up, one characterized by a Cold War between two superpowers representing starkly different socioeconomic models, is now a distant memory. We are now in an age of transition, in which new emerging powers are making their place in the international economic order: China and India are the two most populous countries in the world, with respectively 1.3 billion and 1.1 billion million people, are experiencing rapid modernization, a growing middle class, and are growing their share of the world’s economic output.
We are also a society in demographic transition. The US is completing its second major wave of immigration, primarily from Latin America, and its repercussions will be felt for decades to come. By the year 2000, Hispanics were the largest minority in the country at 12.6% and projected to increase to 30.2% by 2050, primarily through domestic births. The school-age population was 38% minority in 2000, and will be 56% by 2050. To navigate this new multicultural, multipolar society, you will also benefit from the exposure to diverse cultures and societies provided by your college education.
I know how valuable my college experience was as a foundation for not only my own unpredictable professional career, but also for enriching the full measure of my life experience on this earth.
Like many of you, my family and I were immigrants to the United States. But unlike many of you, I was fortunate to be in the third generation of my family to get a college education.
For me, leaving my home country to come to a new land was still a challenging endeavor. Too many years ago, my father left me, my brother, and my mother pregnant with their third son in Argentina while he crisscrossed the United States on a Greyhound bus pass for months looking for work. He found it, and a year later brought us all up. Through all the adjustments to a new culture and customs, one thing remained clear: I was going to college. And I did, because neither they nor I ever considered an alternative.
That education led me to serial careers as an engineer, a professor, an administrator, and as assistant secretary for higher education in the Obama Administration. Last July, I became interim president of Cal State Monterey Bay and that appointment was made permanent by the CSU Board of Trustees earlier this month.
It is a testimony to this country that all this could happen to a fourteen-year-old immigrant boy, but it is also a testimony to the power of education.
Looking back on these twists and turns, I can see that I have been able to draw from everything I learned in college across disparate fields throughout my professional life. Nothing went to waste, but it was used in unexpected ways. The lesson I draw from these experiences is that in this fascinating, ever-changing, dynamic world that we live in, you will be called on time and time again to reinvent yourself and draw on every previous experience, knowledge, skill, and insight. And you can never predict how and in what way that something you learned or a skill that you acquired will come in handy in the future. And this will continue to be true throughout your life.
To continue to look for new work and new personal experiences that require you to learn something new, to stretch intellectually and emotionally, that is the essence of a full, rich life. Aristotle defined happiness as living so as to attain the full realization of our potentialities, or as the U.S. Army put it more succinctly, to Be All You Can Be.
When it comes to the role of education in our country, President Obama has set an ambitious and transformational goal for us: by the year 2020, the US will once again be the most educated nation in the world, with the percentage of Americans with a postsecondary credential rising from the current 40% to 60%.
There are many reasons why this would be a good thing. Higher educational levels are associated with lower crime rates, greater voter participation, and improvements in a whole host of other social indicators. But the most critical reason is that we need to do this to maintain our global competitiveness. By one measure of educational attainment, we have slipped from first to ninth in the world. This will not do in the twenty-first century. Accelerating technological innovation means that old jobs are being destroyed and new ones being created at a faster rate, and the new jobs require higher educational levels. Without higher educational levels for Americans, there will be an increasing mismatch between the skills required by new jobs and those of our countrymen and women.
I realize that, in recent years, achieving a college degree has become even more of a challenge in California, as a result of the recession and cuts in education funding. Those who are graduating today deserve special commendation for their perseverance.
Fortunately, there are positive signs that the California economy and budget picture is turning around. And higher education institutions are working more closely together than ever before to make sure that educational opportunities stay within reach, both now and in the future.
At Cal State Monterey Bay, we are proud of our partnership with Hartnell on our visionary CSIT-in-3 program, which will allow a student to achieve a computer science degree in three years. Recently, I joined Hartnell officials in Washington D.C. to receive a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, General Electric and Intel to support the program.
Similarly, Hartnell and CSUMB are working together closely on our new bachelor of science in nursing program and are also working jointly on work funded by a Lumina Foundation grant to improve remedial math and English education.
I am proud that Cal State Monterey Bay and Hartnell share so much in common. Both of us are dedicated to outreach to underserved populations. Both of us believe that personal attention to students is critical in producing the best educational outcomes. And both of us strive to be responsive to our communities in providing the coursework that our students need to thrive in the 21st century economy.
However, while colleges and universities can provide opportunities, it is up to dedicated students to turn those opportunities into realities. Thank you for doing so, and for making today such a special day for all of us.
On this day of commencement, I’m sure there are many people and experiences vivid in your memory – people who helped make each one of you the graduate that you are today. And so this is what college is all about: a life-transforming experience. I know it was for me. That’s why the work of excellent institutions like Hartnell College is critical to our country’s future. You, the Hartnell graduates of 2013, embody our hopes for that future, and I know you will do us proud.
I congratulate you and wish you great success and a rich and rewarding life.