UMD Commencement Speech: Move Forward and Make History
Thank you, President Loh, Provost Rankin, all the families, friends, staff, and faculty…and most importantly, our graduates.
You have worked hard to get to this moment. Some of you persevered through personal challenges. Some of you are the first in your family to earn a college degree. Some of you juggled academics while working, being a spouse and parent, or taking care of a family member.
You made it to this day in no small part because of your belief in the transformative power of education. I believe in it, too. Education saved my life.
Both my parents passed away when I was a kid: my mom when I was 8 and my dad when I was 12. During the years after my mom passed away, it was just me and my dad. He struggled with undiagnosed Alzheimer’s. Home became a place that was unstable, lonely, and often scary.
Teachers could have looked at me and said, “Here is a Latino and African-American male student attending an urban public school with a family in crisis, what chance does he have?” and given up on me. But they didn’t. They chose to invest in me.
I am convinced the only reason I am not dead or in prison today is because of amazing teachers who made school a place that was safe, nurturing, and engaging. My teachers gave me a sense of hope and possibility when life at home seemed hopeless.
I stand here because my teachers stood up for me. Today, I encourage you, regardless of the career you choose, to use the education you earned at UMD to stand up for others.
I’m asking you to think about what you can do to shape the course of history – to be history makers.
In fact, right here on this campus, almost 10 years ago, students made history by leading the way toward uncovering UMD’s connection to slavery. In 2006, when the university celebrated its 150th anniversary, many wondered why there weren’t many mentions of the university’s roots in slavery. A group of Black faculty asked then-President Mote to join the state legislature in apologizing for the use of the labor of enslaved people. This led to the creation of a report on the university’s connections to slavery, led by students in the History 429 class.
This story of our campus’ connection to slavery is personal to me. My grandfather’s grandmother, Lydia King, was born in the 1820s just a few miles from here in Montgomery County. She lived during a time of “two Marylands,” where free wage labor and slave labor coexisted in the same state.
Reclaiming Our Time
In their research, the History 429 students told the story – previously unacknowledged – of the university’s deep roots in a system of oppression and injustice. They represented this history by telling the story of three University founders: Charles Calvert, a planter who owned enslaved people; Benjamin Hallowell, a Quaker who opposed slavery and was the first president of the university but resigned after one month (some suspected because of his opposition to slavery); and Adam Francis Plummer, a literate enslaved man owned by Charles Calvert.
Plummer is in many ways a symbol for other enslaved Black women and men whose names, sadly, we may never know, but whose labor made the university possible.
Through Adam Francis Plummer, students didn’t rewrite, but rather reclaimed the story of this campus’ founding – securing the place of an enslaved Black man as one of the founding fathers of this great university.
In an article published after the report’s release, Adam Francis Plummer’s great-great-grandson exclaimed: “I saw my ancestor…listed as a founder…You don’t know what that did for me.”
Though then-president Mote did not issue an apology, History 429 made plain the truth of our collective history. Like the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, or South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or the reparations paid to victims of Japanese-American internment, students of History 429 understood that sometimes you must look back to move forward; that an honest accounting of past injustices is foundational to building a more just future.
Confronting Injustice through Civics
Just as the students in History 429 used their education to be agents of social change, I ask that you put your education to work to fight for a more just society.
We live in a time of extraordinary division, besieged by incidents like the KKK marching across the UVA campus or the murder of people worshipping in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Scientists warn we’ve nearly reached a point of no return on climate change. Economic inequality continues to grow.
We must act with urgency to tackle these challenges. As John Legend says in his song, If You’re Out There: “We’re the generation/We can’t afford to wait/The future started yesterday and we’re already late.”
To build a more just future, I’d like to suggest that you embrace a few key attitudes essential to engaged citizenship: Be informed. Be engaged. Be open. And be of service.
In our current times when even elected leaders traffic in false conspiracy theories, all of us must be informed.
We must be informed about how our government works, retain a fundamental understanding of our rights, and have the knowledge to – as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote – “discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”
We must understand how systems—from housing to health care to education to criminal justice—intersect and can be influenced by the forces of bias, racism, and privilege.
One of the Flagship Fellows graduating today who earned her doctorate in geography has made it her mission to understand inequities like these.
As a first-generation college student, she dedicated her studies at UMD to examining economic, racial, and geographic inequalities in her native Puerto Rico so she can work to eliminate them.
Indeed, our nation’s colleges and universities should be centers not only of academic rigor, but of civic learning and social consciousness. And I believe that every graduate…students like you…can be history makers when you are civically engaged. And that’s not just about voting. Voting is important, but the work of democracy doesn’t end on Election Day. It begins with Election Day. Democracy is about participation. It’s about making your voices heard. It is about contributing to your community.
When I was in college, I ran a summer camp for kids in the Mission Main Public Housing Development in Boston. The neighborhood struggled with violence, drugs, and crime. But in this community, I also saw examples of hope, determination in the face of hardship, love, and strength.
Those experiences helped shape my decision to become a teacher and a principal in that very neighborhood.
And that’s the thing about being engaged…it can help you find your purpose and your path.
I’m inspired by one of today’s graduates, who served in the U.S. Navy, and is using his education at UMD to pursue a teaching career. He is dedicated to working with LGBTQ students and students in juvenile detention, engaging with students where they are to teach for social justice.
On your path to make history, my third piece of advice is to be open.
That will mean working with people who are different from you.
You likely experienced this during your time at UMD, learning alongside students from different communities, and racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Openness requires respectful debate and a willingness to thoughtfully listen to those who have different perspectives from your own.
Being open also requires a sense of curiosity about the world and a belief that you can change it for the better.
Take one of our graduates who wondered what UMD could be doing to better protect the planet. He co-founded a project that helps students understand how to properly recycle and dispose of things they use every day.
Be of Service
My final piece of advice is that to be a history maker, you have to also be of service.
Be of service to your community, your country, and each other. That may mean choosing a career in teaching or deciding to serve in public office. But it can also simply mean doing good with one of your most precious resources: your time.
One of your peers graduating today understands this well.
She served in the U.S. Marines. While she studied at UMD, she volunteered as a Sunday school teacher and assistant soccer coach. She is also a wife, mother, and a first-generation college student. She is a model for all of us. This former Marine shows what’s possible with a serious time management strategy!
Closing – I Believe in a Better Tomorrow
Graduates, you are well positioned to take on the challenges of today to make a better tomorrow. And I’ll encourage you, as UMD alumni, to help push this university to increase the diversity of students and faculty…to enroll more students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation college goers.
I’ll close by asking: Who will the buildings on this campus be named after years from now? Who will be the future members of the United States Congress? Who will cure diseases? Who will teach our children? Who will stand right here addressing graduates at future commencements? My bet is on you—the history makers in this room. Thank you and congratulations.