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August 4, 2014
As prepared for delivery
Good morning! Thank you President Rosenberg. Graduates of Florida International University, School of International and Public Affairs and the Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work, Class of 2014, Congratulations!!
You have done it. You have worked hard. You have persevered. You have excelled. And in just a few minutes, you will be done. No more classes. No more papers. No more tests. No more late-night cramming. No more Red Bull. You have made it. You are graduates!
Years ago, I was sitting in an audience just like this. Like many of you, I was the first in my family to graduate from college. And like many of you, I lived at home while I went to Metropolitan State University in Denver. I couldn't afford to do it any other way. My going to college was a family project. My father got me a really, really big, very old, very ugly, Oldsmobile so I could drive to school. My mother pushed me to do well in my studies because she only had a fifth grade education. She knew what an education meant. My brothers and my sister were there for me, just like your family is here for you right now.
Like your parents, my mother and my father knew that education is the key to the American dream. And like them, my mother and my father did all they could to prepare their children for life's journey.
So maybe now would be a good time to turn around to your loved ones who helped you in your journey and who are proudly sitting in the audience. Turn around and say thank you! Go ahead. Stand up. Turn around. They'll be able to hear you.
Okay. So when I was thinking about what could I possibly talk to you about today that you would remember or care about, I got to thinking about how even though I am much older than any of you, we have quite a few things in common.
Like you, I went to a commuter school in the middle of an urban setting. Like FIU, my school's student body was ethnically, racially and economically diverse. Many of us were on scholarship. We had to scrape together the money to pay for tuition, for books, for rent. No question we had to work while going to school.
The hard work it took for me just to be able to go to school, combined with the great classes I took, gave me a foundation that helped frame who I was going to be. My classmates and I knew that nothing was going to be handed to us on a platter. Success was not going to come easy. That richness, that richness of my education and of the relationships and experiences I had on that campus and in that urban community, prepared me for the work ahead of me. It taught me to be flexible. It taught me to be nimble. It taught me how to network. I can trace the skills that have been so important to me over the years back to my days in college.
It was also in college that I began to figure out where my interests were, what I would enjoy doing. It was at Metro State that I started on the road to public service that led me to where I am today.
Now don't get me wrong. I did not sit in class in Denver and dream of being the first Latina to head the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. After I graduated, I became a teacher. I taught four- and five-year-olds in Denver. I thought I would be a teacher for the rest of my life. But it didn't take me long to realize that the skills and talents I learned in college and from the Denver community would push me in new directions.
In my parents' generation, people went to work for a company for 30 years. I knew that was not going to be me. Being a teacher wasn't going to be my last job. I had dozens of incarnations ahead of me. So just like your generation, I knew I would have many experiences; many, jobs.
But for me there has been one constant, one passion ---- public service. And, in particular, public service within and on behalf of the Latino community. I have never strayed from that. In everything that I have ever done, that thread has been there. It's what I always come back to. And I make every life decision through the lens of that life purpose. It's what took me from teaching little children to working for the mayor of Denver to founding non-profit Latino organizations to now working as hard as I can to make sure that people from all underrepresented groups have a place at the table in the Federal workforce.
Did I ever expect to be the Director of OPM? No. Does it completely surprise me? No. Because I can look at what I do every day in Washington, D.C. and say I am living up to my commitment to public service, that need to work for my community. And I can trace the roots of that life choice back to my days in college.
So now I have a question for you. What is your passion? What lights you up inside? What makes you excited to get up each morning? What have you always wanted to do?
It's okay if you don't have an answer right now. But I bet if you think about it in the days, weeks, months and even years to come, it will become clear to you. As you think about your future, I encourage you to find a way to do what makes you feel good inside.
And I have another piece of advice for you. Don't be afraid to fail. Don't be afraid to take a detour in your life. Don't be afraid to experiment. I ask you to be open to every possibility. Don't dismiss any idea or opportunity. And be willing to be patient.
I took a low level job as a scheduler to Federico Pena when he was running to be the first Latino Mayor of Denver. Being a scheduler certainly didn't seem like it would be glamorous. And frankly, it wasn't. But I soon realized that the job may have been low level, but it had high access. Every important person that Federico was going to have a meeting with had to go through me. I got to mingle with some very successful, influential people. They knew me and I knew them. My network had begun. That job gave me a mentor and friend for life. Years later I would become Pena's chief of staff when he was the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. I would become his senior advisor at the Department of Energy.
And when Barack Obama was elected President I translated what I had learned with Federico at the DOT to my role as chief of staff for Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. Each step in my journey met my test. Each allowed me to stay in public service, to keep my promise to myself to work for and with my community.
So trust your instincts. The foundation you have gotten from your classes, your professors, your family, your friends and your community will serve you well. Many of the people you have met in the past few years will be your friends for life. Cherish those friendships. This foundation will lead you down a path to the future that none of us here today can imagine.
So what is my last piece of advice? It's this:
First, don't forget to say thank you to those who matter to you. Dream big. Take risks. Push yourself. Don't take no for an answer. And don't just think about what's easy, what's possible. Strive for the impossible.
So I'll leave you where I began. With congratulations. Congratulations to you, to your classmates and especially to your families. And you should congratulate yourselves. You have accomplished something that was difficult, that was challenging and that tested you in ways large and small.
As you all begin the next great adventures of your lives I wish you all the best. I wish you happiness. And I wish you a life filled with passion.
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