Today, Secretary Mayorkas delivered the following remarks at 2023 United States Coast Guard (USCG) Academy Graduation at the USCG Academy in New London, CT.
Thank you very much, Admiral Fagan. Admiral Kelly, thank you for your leadership of this great Academy and for having me here today.
So, the Academy has been rigorous. Swab for a year. Three years without a car and no leaving campus Monday through Thursday. 6 a.m. reveille every morning. Only a few weeks of leave during summer. Stiff academic requirements, demanding physical conditioning, and exacting military readiness.
It indeed has been rigorous. But just wait. The Academy has been preparing you for what lies ahead. Every one of you is going to confront extraordinary challenges of service, and the range of those challenges is as varied as life itself. A helo rescue in extreme weather; navigating an ice breaker in the Arctic; defending the maritime transportation system against cyberattacks; stopping deadly narcotics from reaching our shores; protecting our national interests in the Indo-Pacific; inspecting vessels to protect life at sea and the maritime environment; interdicting and rescuing migrants aboard a cutter in the treacherous Atlantic; and so much more. Life as an officer is going to call upon every lesson you have learned here, every skill you have acquired, and the character you have developed. Very few individuals in their early 20s are going to confront the most consequential challenges that await you in the next five years of your military careers.
The Academy has done more than prepare you for the work you will perform and the awesome responsibility that you will shoulder. The Academy has built you into leaders and you will meet the moment. In a short while, you are going to throw your cadet covers high into the air. When your covers land – when those covers fall to the ground – you will begin your career as leaders, as officers of the United States Coast Guard.
You will be leaders of people. Your charge will be to bring out the best in them, to inspire them, and to bring them together to work as one for the American people and our partners around the world. While there are many leaders from whom you can draw inspiration, today I ask that you carry with you the three leadership lessons that your beloved classmate Nathan Bovankovich wrote down before his death:
“One. Be a servant. In a world often riddled with selfish desires, be different. Be a person who thinks of others first – a true humanitarian and example of altruism. This is a sign of a great leader.
Two. Under-promise and over-deliver. Talk is cheap. Be a person of your word. Think about and weigh something before you commit and then go above and beyond when you can.
Three. Deeper meaning and love can be found in a world without boxes. Boxes of race, gender, beliefs, culture, and more. There is a world without boxes in which you share a higher meaning with your community, allowing, and resulting in love between even personalities and predispositions.”
As you engage with the people you lead, as you together confront the most difficult of challenges, keep the blessing of Nathan’s memory close to you. That will help you be a great leader.
You will lead more than people. You are also going to lead the United States Coast Guard, the service you have chosen.
Each of you has the opportunity – in fact, the responsibility – to build a better Coast Guard – for your classmates beside you, for the family behind you, and for those who came before us and in whose memory we serve, and for those who will follow you. What you do and how you do it has always been a reflection of your character; now, as commissioned officers, your actions will also reflect on the institution you lead. Always remember that. You are guardians of, and can bring honor to, the 232 years of history that have made our Coast Guard the proud, noble military service that it is.
I have always wanted to serve. Our country has given so much to my family and me. We came here in 1960 as political refugees. America gave us refuge and opportunity. I wanted to give back, though I didn’t always know how I would do so.
These past four years, you have driven hard towards the goal that you now have achieved. In my four years of college, I changed my major at least three times, delivered pizza, worked as a messenger, and in the mailroom of an office. I went to law school – unsure of what I wanted to do next. Halfway through one law school class, the Associate Dean warned me that if my grade didn’t improve, I’d never get a job in the law. My grade didn’t get any better. I stand with the anchorman. Years later, I made sure to quote the Dean’s warning back to him as he sat in the front row during the law school’s ceremony honoring me as its alumnus of the year.
No letter grade in a class was going to define my future, what I would do, and what I could become.
You are now leaders of people and of the Coast Guard. You are also the leader of your own life. What type of life do you want for yourself, what do you want out of life, what meaning do you want your life to have. Think about it; it will help you act with purpose.
My drive has been defined by a very clear purpose. My mother’s and father’s life journeys were defined by displacement. My mother was twice a refugee, first from war-torn Europe and, 19 years later, with my father, my sister, and me from the communist takeover of Cuba. My mother lost most of her family to the Nazi concentration camps, and she never really regained her sense of security. In Cuba, my father lost the business he had started, as well as the chance to be by his mother’s side when she passed. My parents were both extraordinary people – principled and kind beyond measure. They instilled in me the values by which they lived unflinchingly.
Through whatever work I perform well, and through the impact it might have, I have sought to introduce people to my parents, people who never had the gift of knowing them. They are the primary engine of my drive, and the primary reason why I work so hard, my purpose.
Define your purpose and lead your life accordingly. Reach high, your achievements will not surprise us; we know who you are and what you are capable of, and we have confidence in your leadership. Thirty-eight years ago, a graduate of the Class of 1985 threw her cadet cover high in the air. Today, she participated in her first Coast Guard Academy Graduation as the Commandant. Throw your cadet cover as high as you can today, let it symbolize the future that you will lead.