Press Release

On June 14, 2018, John B. King Jr. spoke with graduates at the Guttman Community College Commencement about choosing their future. That Part of what education confers upon us are options. And beyond career choices, graduates will have choices about how to use the knowledge, skills, and sensibilities they’ve acquired to help their family, their community and the nation.

I, myself, am optimistic. Because as I look out at all of you I know that Guttman has given you what you need to begin making ripples that will become that mighty current, that unstoppable force that will further open doors to opportunity for all.

– John B. King Jr.

Thank you President Evenbeck for those kind words and for this honor.

And thank you Tatiana and congratulations on your achievements.

Thank you also to Lisette Nieves, the chair of the Guttman College Foundation Board, for the invitation to speak with you all today, as the college celebrates its fifth anniversary as one of the most innovative—and inspiring—community colleges in the nation.

Greetings again to the CUNY trustees, members of the college foundation board, representatives of the Guttman Foundation, faculty and staff, and to other Guttman supporters and dignitaries.

Finally—and most importantly—greetings to the students, their families, and their friends. It is you that we celebrate on this day!


As Joseph and Miguel said a few minutes ago—This is What Success Looks Like!

When you came to Guttman you made a choice—to invest the effort to get to this day. You chose to not let the obstacles in your path—time-consuming jobs, long commutes, family responsibilities—stop you.

You also chose to reach out for help when you needed it—from mentors, advisers, professors, and fellow students. It’s never easy to ask for help. None of us wants to admit we need it. But everyone does—nobody succeeds entirely on their own—and I recommend you continue to seek help when necessary throughout your lives.

Indeed, it’s true: life is all about choices.

Part of what education confers upon us are options.

Doors that were closed to you before you came to Guttman will now be open. Beyond career choices, you’ll have choices about how to use the knowledge, skills, and sensibilities you’ve acquired here to help your family, your community and the nation. Here, you’ve learned how to work with others in pursuit of a common goal, to push others when they needed it, and to step up when others needed you to do so. And you’ve learned to value the perspectives of others—something critical at this moment when some of our leaders are trying to drive us apart.

This remarkable college exists in large measure because former CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein chose not to look away from one of the most disturbing shortcomings of American higher education: the fact that, nationally, less than a third of full-time community college students graduate in three years.

It’s true that more students than ever before are attending college. But not enough of them are finishing their education, and many leave with serious amounts of debt to repay.

It was brave of the chancellor to recognize that the community colleges in his own system were not immune to this problem.

As my friend Amy McIntosh said earlier, CUNY brought together a task force of folks to figure out how to improve those numbers. They recommended creating a college that had student success in its DNA, a carefully designed environment that supported students, regardless of their needs.

And all of you are living proof that it worked!

So, consider yourselves lucky. But, you and I both know that it was pluck not luck that got you through. You are here not by chance, but by design.

Hector Castillo, the president of your student government, felt like a failure when he first got here, because he had had to drop out of high school for a while to help his family. But he says he had the will and passion to take advantage of the many opportunities to grow, travel, learn, and lead at Guttman. Now he has a full scholarship to attend the University of Rochester, where he plans to study political science and discover ways to combat food insecurity.

Your classmate Melise Douglas also felt that she had failed because she wasn’t admitted to the four-year college she had in her sights. But she says the people at Guttman helped her realize that sometimes you have to move past disappointment, pick yourself up and move on. They encouraged her to join student government, which sparked in her a fascination in how individuals shape social institutions, which she plans to study at Baruch College on a scholarship. She wants to work on criminal justice reform and get people to understand that many people behind bars got there, in part, because they were denied a good education. I couldn’t agree more.

Another classmate, Ernest Butts, credits the mentoring, tutoring, and counseling he received from the United Men of Color group on campus with helping him become the first in his family to earn a college degree. He will study public administration and accounting at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with a goal of working to help more young people of color finish college.

All three of these inspiring students have identified ways to make a difference in their communities.

Many of you have similar stories and ambitions and they touch me deeply because, in you, I recognize myself and the challenges I faced as a young man growing up in Brooklyn.

My mother came to the Bronx from Puerto Rico at the age of five, learned English in the New York City Public Schools, studied to become a teacher at Hunter College, and later worked as a school counselor. My father, who was African American, was born early in the 20th century in New York, when the city was highly segregated, and opportunities were few for people of color. He, too, chose to become an educator. Both my parents spent their careers working to make our society more just and equal by helping students. But I lost both of them early in life.

My mother died when I was in the fourth grade and I lived with my father, who suffered from undiagnosed Alzheimer’s. I had to grow up fast, do my own laundry, shop for groceries, and try to avoid the chaos all around me and ignore the fear that came with it.

I was lucky, though. My teacher in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades was Mr. Osterweil, who made school an interesting, compelling, and safe space. We read the New York Times every day, went to the zoo and the Museum of Natural History and ballet; and we put on plays like A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream and Alice in Wonderland, in which I was cast as a rose. One of my first opportunities to speak in public was wearing big, red, felt petals around my head and speaking in the voice of a flower. Can you picture it?

However, by the time I was a teenager, I was angry—like many young people who experience trauma. I got in trouble. In fact, I was the first Secretary of Education ever to have been kicked out of high school.

It would have been easy for folks to give up on me—an angry, troubled African-American and Puerto Rican male student with a family in crisis—and to focus only on what I did wrong. But I was blessed to have family members, teachers, and school counselors see me for what I might become, with their support. I do the work I do because my parents were socially conscious educators but also because Mr. Osterweil and other teachers cared about me and gave me opportunities and a sense of hope—just as your family members, your teachers, your professors, your counselors, and your peers have done for you.

You and I are where we are today because people made choices.

People like those who envisioned a school like Guttman, who provided the resources for it, and who helped make it a reality. They all understood the words that we, as Americans, hold so dear—that this is a land of opportunity—are not just words. They understood that those words are a call to action. That an America that provides opportunities only for some is not an America that can long stand the forces of history that have torn apart other nations.

Providing opportunities is not only right, it’s smart: the bet New York City’s leaders placed on Guttman College will pay off over the long term in higher tax revenues, greater productivity, improved health, realized potential, and stronger communities.

Now, it is time to double down on that bet. It is time that city, state, and national leaders invest in making the opportunities at Guttman available to more students here as well as across the country. We’re spending billions of dollars on practices that just don’t work for the students who need the most support. We should follow the evidence and do what we know works. The Guttman model may be more expensive, on a per student basis. But that’s not how to think about it. Instead, we should think about the cost per graduate. And by that measure, it’s a bargain.

[It is also time, by the way, for Guttman to have a real campus. Not just rented space in an office building.]

Now, I know politics is the process of dividing up scarce resources. But we live at a time when public resources are only scarce for those who need help, and those who have everything are greedy for more.

Over the past four decades, some politicians have tried to convince us that government cannot accomplish anything worthwhile. They’ve tried to tell us that evidence doesn’t matter and that poor folks and immigrants are undeserving of assistance. And now we have folks in DC who, each day, manipulate the truth for political and personal gain.

We have folks in DC who seem to see greed as an animating principle—as if the goal is to concentrate as much wealth as possible in the hands of as few families as possible.

But it does not have to be this way. We can choose a different future.

You can choose to vote for candidates who recognize that we, as a nation, are stronger when the American Dream is reachable, with effort, by everyone.
And you can call out politicians when they choose to make policies based on false ideologies, rather than on evidence.

You can tell your stories about the challenges you’ve overcome and explain to your City Council member, your state legislator, Governor Cuomo, Mayor DeBlasio, and your member of Congress why they should invest over the long term in the supports and policies that have made a difference in your lives.
You, yourselves, can run for office and fight for these policies.

And you can identify a need—as Hector, Melise and Ernest have—and advocate for potential solutions.

Fifty years ago this month, Robert Kennedy, a great leader who reached out to people of every community and called on them to work side by side to help this nation live up to its ideals, was assassinated.

I’d like to close with a quote from him that is more relevant than ever today.

He noted, that, quote, “Every time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Although you may be discouraged by today’s politics, you also can see those ripples of hope and change in the fight against the racist travel ban against those of Muslim faith….in the protests of police violence by NFL players and the Black Lives Matter movement….in the struggle to defend the rights of Dreamers….in the courage of the #MeToo movement….in the strength of the Parkland students pushing for sensible gun regulations…in the growing outcry against the barbarism of this administration’s treatment of children at the border.

I, myself, am optimistic. Because as I look out at all of you I know that Guttman has given you what you need to begin making ripples that will become that mighty current, that unstoppable force that will further open doors to opportunity for all.

Your family, your community, and your nation need you.

Thank you.