2019 Commencement Speaker

Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities

Good morning! Buenos dias! Members of the board, President Collado, the distinguished faculty and staff, the beloved family and friends of our graduates — and of course family is important to us — my sister Sally and brother-in-law Louie, who join me today, and of course the most important people here today, the Class of 2019! Congratulations! Felicidades!

I am so honored and humbled to join you on your special day and this momentous occasion.

Class of 2019, you made it! Today is your day to celebrate, to know that all your studying and hard work—those sleepless nights—worked out. They paid off. And you can now binge watch your favorite shows — may that be “The Office,” “Game of Thrones,” “Project Runway,” or whatever is your latest on Netflix — and not feel guilty.

Today is your day, also, to feel your family’s pride in your accomplishments and relish in your achievements.

Now some of you might be wondering why the President of the American Association of State Colleges and University is a commencement speaker at your graduation. Well to start our institutions have a great deal in common. We serve students from all walks of life regardless of their station in their lives or their background. Our biggest similarity is the value both institutions place on creating an inclusive environment, and preparing its graduates — all of you — for working, living and thriving in a multicultural global community.

Your mission statement is clear when it states, and I quote: “Ithaca College is committed to creating an inclusive environment, and attracting a diverse body of students, faculty and staff. All members of this college community are encouraged to achieve excellence in their chosen fields, and to share the responsibilities of citizenship and serve in the global community.”

These are not just worth collecting dust on some shelf. They are the tenants upon which our respective institutions were founded. I know Ithaca upholds these tenants, not just because I see the beautiful diversity of the graduating class before me, but because I am familiar with the work of your president, Dr. Shirley Collado, a national international leader, who is passionate about student success and anxious in creating the next leaders — and that includes all of you graduates — to continue to build the capacity of equity, inclusion and participation in our democratic, multicultural nation.

That is why today we celebrate far more than a degree achieved. We honor a dream — your dream — realized. And I am proud that each of you now joins me and President Collado in being the change we want to see in the world, so that the next generation of diverse students encounter less obstacles and more opportunities, less discrimination and more equal pay, less broken hopes and more broken glass ceilings.

Like some of you, my journey to this stage was not an easy one, but it does point to the fact that the one true solution to poverty and violence is higher education. Before I was born, my parents migrated from Puerto Rico to Brooklyn, New York, in search of a better life. And we were soon a family of seven living in a Brooklyn tenement on factory wages my parents worked so hard for. They had no more than eighth grade education, not from lack of intelligence, but from lack of equitable access to quality education. And while we never felt poor our poverty led to a phrase coined by my parents that has become the through-line of my entire professional career. And I'll say it in Spanish and then I'll say it in English:

La única herencia de la familia pobre que deja a sus hijos es una buena educación. The only inheritance of poor family leaves its children is a good education.

Together, my parents wielded the power of that profound truth to light a fire under all seven of their children. My parents understood that education, and only education, could propel us beyond the factory walls. Beyond the housing projects we moved into and beyond what we could even imagine.

Today, I stand before you a kid from Brooklyn, from the projects, Puerto Rican, getting an honorary doctorate from Ithaca College. All because I continued to believe in the power of the aforementioned phrase my parents instilled in me. Because of my amazing parents and my family, I dedicate this honorary degree bestowed upon me today to them. Because they supported my dreams the way your family your loved ones support you.

This phrase that the only inheritance a poor family leaves its children is a good education, transcends poverty and low-income students. It's tapping into a universal truth about education: It is the great equalizer. And when we as educators ensure everyone has equitable access to it, all communities are lifted and all children are left with an inheritance they can bank on and their families have be proud of.

Yes, it is originated as a Spanish phrase from two migrant Puerto Rican parents, but it's no less, no less American than the words written in our Constitution, etched on the Statue of Liberty, or spoken by our most beloved leaders. For if we believe life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness truly are inalienable rights. If we believe the mother of exile shines bright for your tired, your poor and your huddled masses. And if we believe in Dr. King’s dream then we must also believe in an equitable access to quality higher education regardless of where our students come from, how they got here, what gender they identify with, how much money they have in the bank, or what god they pray to.

Yes, our country is going through a difficult time. And those who are suspicious of fear and diversity and the changing face of our nation, have been emboldened to speak out and lash against it. Yet, it is institutions like Ithaca College and the institutions I represent that contain the language that publicly affirms a welcoming inclusive environment where diversity is a point of pride and part of academic excellence.

So when our DACA students are threatened with deportation, when children are taken away from their families on the border, or the Muslim members of our campus community are subjected to religious-based travel bans, or when we witness antisemitism against our Jewish students, or the legitimacy of Black Lives Matter is called into question, or when LGBTQ students fear losing their well-earned rights, or when veterans are not treated with the respect that they should be, we as educators — and you too, graduates — are obligated to speak out, not just on moral grounds, but also on the very tenets we agree to uphold by accepting our degrees and embarking on your career and life journey.

Indeed, with your profound achievements comes profound responsibility. For you are now our beacon of hope and opportunity for the next generation of Ithaca College students, and every diverse person you meet—those who you meet in your neighborhoods, in your communities, in your chosen professions. Today, you become the role models of our country, as you join only one third — only one third — of the U.S. population that holds a bachelor's degree and beyond

Graduating Class of 2019 shine bright for them as so many people shine bright for you during your time throughout your journey here. Make the mission statement of your alma mater part of your life’s journey. Continue to learn, and in the tradition of Ithaca College, make a difference. Make a difference, and make us proud.

And now — I know you want this over — so now you can go out and party and dance the night away, and relish in your accomplishments. But after your celebrations, get some rest, and then join us together so that our country — our beautiful nation — continues to be the land of the free and the brave, a symbol of hope for everyone on our shores, and that democracy continues to lift.

Congratulations Class of 2019! Felicidades!