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Remarks by Secretary Jeh C. Johnson at the Cambridge College Commencement Ceremony

Release Date: 
June 6, 2016

As Delivered
June 5, 2016

First of all, let me extend a special thank you to the Board of Trustees’ Dr. Jackson for inviting me to be your commencement speaker. To graduates, to families, the Board of Trustees, faculty, Cambridge College let us all send thanks to Mrs. Barbara Edelin for organizing today’s event.

You have heard about my responsibilities in Washington. You have heard about the mission of the Department of Homeland Security. You have heard about the 22 divisions of our department, how we are a workforce of 229,000 people that manage the third largest department of our government.

Today, during this graduation speech I do not intend to make any major policy pronouncement. April Ryan, I will make no news, I’m sorry.

I want to talk to the graduates. I want to talk to the graduates here, the class of 2016 because this is about you. I spoke to some of your classmates on May 17.

This graduation is unique, it is special.

The questions that were asked of me for today: What motivates me? What motivated me to try something different? How do you push past a place of fear?

After thinking about this, I concluded that the answer to that question sits right in front me.

You are the answer to your own question. 

I am aware that, at Cambridge College, the average age of the graduating class is 35. Many of you have jobs and families. You worked hard to get things done, you studied hard to get to this point. College added to the responsibilities that you already had.

Many of you are the first in your family to go to college.  College is a new thing to you and your family. Your family is proud of you.

Each of you were on a certain life’s path and you made the decision to step off, step out of your day-to-day comfort zone, try something different, work hard, take a chance, take a risk and get an additional education, for more opportunities for you and your family. And with that congratulations.

Now, speaking to the graduates of the class of 2016, here are just a few lessons to help you keep going on this remarkable path you have chosen for yourself.

The first lesson: You are smarter than you think; you are stronger than you know; you have it in you to do more than you think you can.  

You’ve come this far, and you can keep going. Believe me, I know what I am talking about. 

When I was in high school, I was a terrible, terrible student.

You are looking at a cabinet secretary, someone who runs the third largest department in our government, but you are also looking at someone who never successfully completed beyond 10th grade math.

I was a horrible student. In 9th grade I took 9th grade math and flunked. In 10th grade I retook 9th grade math, in 11th grade I took 10th grade math, in 12th grade I took 11th grade math and flunked.

In my house growing up, a C on my report card was a gift. The only time in my 58 years of life the only time I heard my mother utter a four-letter word was when she opened my report card.

In high school, I was shy; terrified of giving a public address; no one gave me much of a chance. My guidance counselor told my mother in gentle terms, ‘four-year college is not for your son’. No one at Roy C. Ketcham high school thought I’d be anywhere close to being in a President’s Cabinet, I can assure you. 

I continued on with my education at Morehouse College. My freshman year I had a 1.8 G.P.A. I did not believe in myself. My parents, however, never gave up on me. 

From them, and I was a slow learner, I inherited a work ethic, a strong sense of right and wrong, a faith that all things will work out, and a sense of duty and service. I was a little slow, but eventually I got it and realized that I had it in me.

My freshman year I had a 1.8 GPA, sophomore year was special, a 3.0—it helped that my father promised me a car— by the end of sophomore year I had a 3.5, junior year fall semester 4.0, junior year second semester a 4.0, senior year first semester, 4.0, senior year spring semester 4.0.

And with that, you are stronger than you know and smarter than you think.

You’ve achieved a lot and I’ll keep going.

Do not be afraid to take steps out of your comfort zone.

If someone offers you the opportunity to try something different, don’t refuse because you think you can’t do it.  The person who asked you to do it thinks you can do it. When the President of the United States asked me if I could run a cabinet department of 229,000 people I could have said no.

Believe in yourself because others do.

Learn from your mistakes.  There are very few mistakes I’ve made in my life that I’d didn't learn from.  Every mistake, every wrong decision you make is a learning experience, an opportunity for growth. Whether it’s a bad relationship, bad choice of roommate, bad restaurant, bad hiring decision, bad job, bad haircut or bad shoes, learn from your mistakes.                                            

A person who does not learn from mistakes is a fool, and is bound to repeat them – swollen feet and all.

Do not be afraid to fail.  Seventy percent of life is trying. 

Most people who’ve become President of the United States have lost an election. Or, as I say to school kids, you will never get the right answer unless you’re prepared to raise your hand and risk being embarrassed.

In my years as Secretary of Homeland Security, I’ve thrown out four first pitches at major league baseball games.

Throwing my first pitch was more stressful than giving any commencement speech.

You only get one chance and as soon as that ball leaves your hand in front of 30,000 people.

And I have yet to hit my stride, I’m getting close.

Here at a Mets game, April 2014, I hit the dirt, I got booed. Washington Nats game, August 2015, hit the dirt, I got booed. Miami Marlins game, April 2016, hit the dirt, I got booed. But I wouldn't quit.

Two weeks ago at the Washington Nationals game, I took the mound, but this time I aimed for the press box, very far from the dirt.

In the course of your life graduates of 2016, you will see and do more than you can possibly comprehend as you sit here. I want you to think about that.

Thirty-seven years ago, when I sat where you are as a graduate of Morehouse College, there was no internet, no GPS, no digital camera, no blackberry, no cell phones, no iPhones, no iPods or iPads, no Netflix, no Snapchat, no selfies, no podcasts, no Facebook, no FaceTime, no Skyping, no WhatsApp and no Department of Homeland Security.  I listened then to music on vinyl records and called home with a dime and a pay phone in the hallway of my dorm.  I’m 58-years-old.  I’m really old. 

It would have been inconceivable to me then that, in my lifetime, the United States would have a black president, or that I would serve in his Cabinet.

How many of you have seen the 1967 movie classic: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”  In the movie a white college student meets an older black man, Sidney Poitier, at a university in Hawaii, falls in love with him, and brings him home to San Francisco to meet her parents for dinner. 

The daughter wants her parents to approve of this controversial relationship in just a few hours, before they get married. The parents, played by Spencer Tracy and Kathryn Heburn, are shocked. 

The movie was made in 1967, at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states. I recently re-watched the movie, on something else that didn't exist in 1979, On Demand TV.

There is an incredible question and answer exchange between Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier, which I had forgotten:

Spencer Tracy asks Sidney Poitier about marriage, children, interracial challenges and prospects for their children.

“Have you given any thought to the problem your children are going to have?”

“Yes, and we’ll have children.”

Spencer Tracy sits across from Sidney Poitier as he answers, “Your daughter feels that every single one of our children will be President of the United States, and they’ll have colorful Administrations.”

This statement, from a fictional movie in 1967 was made in jest, a throwaway line, to reflect the naïve optimism about the strength and wonder of this country. 

But, in fact, at that moment, there was already a six-year-old boy who was the child of a white woman and an older black man who had met at a university in Hawaii and married.  And that young man is now the President of the United States. 

And, I can tell you first-hand he has a colorful Administration.

We live in a remarkable country. We live in a great country. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  

Finally, remember this: Happiness in life is not derived by the size of your house, or the size of your income. Happiness comes from the personal, internal satisfaction you derive from believing you are the best at what you do – whatever  that is that you do – helping others, faith, and family in your life.

Martin Luther King said the following:

“And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do so.  Don’t just set out to do a good job. If it’s your lot in life to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine on the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley.  Be a bush if you can’t be a tree.  If you can’t be a highway, then be a trail.  If you can’t be the sun, be a star.  For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best at whatever you are.”

Cambridge College class of 2016, congratulations on all you have done.

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Last Published Date: June 6, 2016
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