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Remarks by Secretary Janet Napolitano at the Southern University at New Orleans

Release Date: 
May 11, 2012

New Orleans, Louisiana
Southern University at New Orleans
(Remarks as Prepared)

Thank you, Chancellor Ukpolo and Southern University Board of Supervisors. I also want to thank SUNO faculty, staff, students, alumni, family, and friends.

I’m honored to be with you and I’m happy to be back at SUNO. This is my third trip here … and I’m starting to know my way around a bit – even with all the new buildings. Before I say anything more, let me congratulate the Class of 2012.

Today is undoubtedly one of the proudest moments of your lives. It is a day where all of that hard work, those long hours, and late night cram sessions have finally paid off. For the 486 candidates here, you’ve finished your coursework, your tests are done, and – in a few minutes – you can call yourselves “graduates.”

You should cherish this day. You should take pride in your accomplishments. And all of us here should take a moment to thank the many family members and friends who helped our graduates get to where they are.

Role of SUNO

Southern University at New Orleans has prepared you for the challenges ahead, and that’s a testament to the faculty and staff and the hard work they do here. This University is a cornerstone, not just of this community and this great city, but also a leader in many emerging fields, from social work and business entrepreneurship, to health information management systems.

I hear the Knights and the Lady Nights also know a thing or two about winning Track and Field and Basketball championships, as well as producing Olympic athletes. When it comes to halftime shows, I know the Human Jukebox can’t be beat. And, I’ll add, it has the best nickname I’ve heard in a while.

For years, SUNO has welcomed African-American scholars and thinkers to this University, and has provided an opportunity for a higher education to future leaders from many backgrounds. I’ll add that, as an art lover, I was interested to learn about the impressive collection of African and African-American art housed here on campus.

There’s no doubt this academic community, like the broader New Orleans community, still faces challenges. The campus still has buildings to repair. Many challenges highlighted by Hurricane Katrina require long-term solutions.

You have shown, however, as individuals and as a community, that you are an important part of finding those solutions … that you won’t go back.  As a local pastor - Dr. C.S. Gordon, pastor of New Zion Baptist Church - said recently, the campus is “an open door we don’t want to see closed.”

Celebration of Individual Resilience

But today is not just a day of celebration for this University, but a day to celebrate you as individuals, and congratulate you on your accomplishments. 

Graduating from college is no small matter. It takes a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication. And some of you likely had to balance your studies with other commitments – to work, or to family.  For some, you may be the first member of your family – the first generation – to earn a college degree.  And I can’t imagine the pride you, and your friends and family, must be feeling right now.

I am especially amazed by the story of one of today’s graduates, Mrs. Estelle Bolden. When asked about her motivation to become a student at SUNO, Estelle said that she was keeping a promise that she had made to her mother before her death. 

Now, Estelle – who I understand is here today – is herself the mother of seven children, one of them a SUNO graduate, and thirty-two grandchildren. Estelle entered SUNO in Fall 2007 as a 67-year-old freshman. Since then, she made the Dean’s List. And today, she is graduating at the young age of 72 with a Bachelor’s Degree in General Studies.

So there’s no doubt that you, as graduates and as a SUNO community, have worked hard, and maybe overcome some challenges, or some long odds.

When he was in New Orleans, President Obama said “this city has become a symbol of resilience and of community and of the fundamental responsibility that we have to one another.” And I think the same could be said of you here today. This idea of resilience … it’s something we think a lot about these days.

What is resilience? Simply put, it is the ability for a person or a community or organization, to bounce back quickly after a disaster or a crisis. It’s your capacity to bend … but not to break … and to keep focused on your goals no matter what.

Resilience can be personal. I’m sure many of you have heard the expression that in life, what matters is not that you get knocked down, but that you get back up. What matters is how you deal with challenges and how you prepare yourself to handle whatever life throws at you.

Katrina Impact and Rebuilding

Some of you were probably in high school when Hurricane Katrina made landfall just miles from here in 2005 – and when Hurricane Rita struck just a few weeks later. We all have memories of those terrible days, weeks, and months, whether we experienced Katrina’s wrath firsthand, or watched in disbelief on television, or lived through its aftermath.

Some of you had to suspend your studies in order to care for your families; some of you had to re-locate with your loved ones because your home was lost to the flood waters. Indeed, I’m sure many of you in this auditorium lost a dear friend or loved one, or know someone who did. Everyone in this community was touched in some way, large or small, by this tragedy.

I understand that here on campus, flood waters were 11 feet high in some buildings. In all,
SUNO lost 21 academic programs. Many thought after such a blow, this university would never be able to recover. The projections were bleak, with some predicting that as few as 1,200 students would return to SUNO.

Some questioned whether this campus could be rebuilt and made whole again. Some questioned whether SUNO had resilience. I think you have answered that question. Ladies and Gentlemen, you have proven the doubters wrong.

Not only did more than 2,100 students come back to SUNO immediately after Katrina, but total enrollment has grown every year since. You didn’t give up. SUNO pushed on, moving to other locations, and even holding classes in trailers while rebuilding got underway.

In fact, you came back better than ever. SUNO added new academic programs to better serve the needs of New Orleans’s residents. You are building programs in fields such as public administration, child development, and entrepreneurship – efforts that can have a lasting and positive impact in the community, and beyond.

And a quick look around campus shows new facilities, like the Information Technology Center, the College of Business and Public Administration, and the first-ever student housing facility. If these aren’t examples of resilience, I don’t know what is.

I have been many places hit by disasters … places where we see the terrible effects of storms, fires, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes. But I don’t think I can think of many places where the community has faced longer odds, where it was challenged in ways that often seemed too big to surmount, and where people came together like here in New Orleans.

My visit to SUNO in March 2009 was of one of the first trips I took as Homeland Security Secretary. And the reason was simple: from the very start of his Administration, President Obama made Gulf Coast recovery one of his top priorities.

On that visit, I saw a community getting back on its feet and fully committed to rebuilding and recovery. I saw faculty and administrators aware of the challenges ahead, but excited by the prospect of not just rebuilding SUNO, but making it even better than before and even more responsive to the needs and interests of this community.

But I also saw a lot of red tape, backlogs, and barriers that had to be removed. So I am tremendously proud of the support we have brought to the rebuilding effort. Beyond the support, we also made a point to focus on improving collaboration and communication – to help break through logjams. We made sure we had the right people in place so we could make decisions faster and address the most difficult challenges head-on, rather than working around them.

In short, this is a story of promises made and promises kept – to this university, to the people of New Orleans, and to the State of Louisiana. And though we are not done and there is more work to do, we have come so very far and we should all be proud.

Putting Personal Resilience into Practice

Today is not just about the past. It’s about the future … your futures – as graduates, as public citizens, and as members of this great community. You now have a credential within your grasp that can help you accomplish many wonderful things.

But life makes no promises that the path ahead will be free from difficulties or unexpected challenges. Other storms, literal or metaphorical, can always happen. I submit that your time at SUNO has built up your own personal resilience, maybe in ways you don’t yet appreciate. 

That’s why we celebrate today. We all face disappointments. We all encounter unexpected challenges.  But it’s our own personal resilience that pushes us through. The diploma you receive today demonstrates that you are ready for whatever life brings.

One of the benefits of being commencement speaker is that I get to ask you for something, to issue a challenge. The first part of my challenge to you is to see your education not as something that’s done and behind you, but as a set of tools, tools that you can use not just to succeed, but also to make the world a better place.

There are many ways to do that, but from my experience, I can tell you that a career in public service is an extremely rewarding way to make a positive impact. Across our country, there are communities that are coming together in new and exciting ways … and expanding what it means to serve the public – to collaborate, to solve problems, to make our cities and towns better prepared, and more resilient for whatever might come their way.

I don’t think there is a community with more first-hand experience at this than right here in New Orleans. So the second part of my challenge to you is this: As you think of how you will use your SUNO education – your tools – think about how you might serve the public good as well.

Consider how you can bring your experience and education to the important task of building strong, resilient communities – wherever your work takes you. You have already shown that none of today’s challenges can take away your drive, your spirit, your character, or your determination to succeed. They cannot take away your resilience either.

The evidence of that is everywhere around us – here at SUNO and in each of you. I think the motto I’ve seen here – "Dream, Commit, Succeed" – sums that up pretty well. I’d like you to leave today dreaming of your future; committing to your community; and succeeding in whatever life brings.

Congratulations on this milestone. May it stand you in good stead. Thank you.

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