Graduates, I know that you are expecting the traditional commencement speech. However, I am going to ask you to join me for a few minutes of reflection. I am a first-generation college student. I grew up in the segregated South. My parents were sharecroppers; my mother had a third grade education, and my father had a sixth grade education. There were eight of us siblings. I am the second sibling.
My parents followed in the footsteps of my grandfather. The small Arkansas town of 800 was a farming community. The expectation was that we would all work in the cotton fields, harvest fruit and vegetables, and help financially support the family. At that time, we knew nothing different.
It was not until my mother began working in the homes of educators that she realized there was another way. Thank goodness for “mothers.” While she did not know how to navigate the educational pathway, she knew that it was important for us to attend college.Our challenges were great. I entered school several grade levels below my actual age group. While I had a dream of going to college, I was not prepared academically. So, imagine, I stand here before you as a potential high school drop-out.
So how did I move from the cotton fields of Arkansas to the Academy known as UC San Diego where I have served for more than forty years? There were many challenges along the way. Was I tempted to give up? Yes, I was!! During my freshman year of college, I distinctly remember taking my first speech class. When my professor invited me to the podium to give my one-minute impromptu speech, I trembled. I could not utter a word, not even my name. He finally had mercy on me and suggested that I take my seat and try it again!! My first college essay had so much red ink, that it was difficult to decipher the constructive feedback.
So, you can imagine that in my first term, I was very unsuccessful. I could have given up at that time. But, I continued to remember the advice from my mother, “you can’t give up, you have come too far.” That advice continues to guide my actions and behavior even to this day.
Thankfully, I was allowed to return for the second semester. At that time, I was assigned a very supportive and caring faculty member, who was instrumental in helping me succeed during my remaining college years. It was that intervention that literally saved my college career, and really influenced my desire to pursue a profession that enabled me to work with students, and to serve as a role model for others.
I am certain that my experiences were not unique. When I served as Director of Academic Advising at one of the undergraduate colleges at UC San Diego, I would see students who were at that point of giving up. Whenever possible, I would share my first-year experience and how I succeeded.
Graduates, I am going to assume that some of you have experienced that moment of insecurity and uncertainty as well. But you have made it. You are graduating today because you stayed the course. I know that you too, found that inner strength to persevere; to remain focused; to rewrite that paper; to regroup and give that speech; to seek tutoring; and that you found that supportive faculty member, administrator, or counselor who made a difference in your college career.
And that you too will choose to give back, whether your plans include continuing your educational journey by attending a baccalaureate-granting institution. I know that some of you will join us at UC San Diego in the fall; others will attend SDSU, or other four-year institutions of higher education. Or your plans may involve joining the workforce immediately following graduation; or perhaps, you returned to school in order to sharpen your skills, and you will continue in your current profession. Regardless of the path taken, my hope is that you will give back. That some of you will choose to serve others, and that you will join other successful graduates in changing our community, our city, our county, our state, our country.