Address to the Arizona State University Class of 2018

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, President Crow and the whole ASU community, for this wonderful honor. Thank you also for the kindness you have shown my wife, Chris, and me, during our visit. 

Before I continue, let me do a quick sound and accent check.

To the people in the upper deck: Can you hear me?

What about the people in the lower decks?

What about those on the field?

And finally, to the Great Class of 2018, can you all hear me?

Particularly to the Class of 2018, CONGRATULATIONS! Or, as they say where I grew up, FELICITACIONES!

I am delighted and humbled to be with you this evening: the Arizona Board of Regents, the ASU faculty, staff, families and most of all, the stars of today: the Class of 2018.

I played a little baseball in my youth. For this former second baseman, being here in this beautiful stadium and with all of you this evening is the thrill of a lifetime. See, MIT’s Commencement draws, at most, 15,000 people. I thought that was an adrenaline rush! I now realize that our ceremony is, by comparison, just an intimate, cozy get together.

I also want to offer a special shout-out to the four ASU seniors admitted to MIT graduate programs for the fall. I am told that all four have accepted MIT’s offer. I thank you! And I congratulate you! We very much look forward to welcoming you to Cambridge in September.

Last month, I sat for an interview with a talented reporter from ASU Now. We had a pleasant conversation. And she asked me smart, insightful questions. During our phone call, she mentioned that MIT and ASU are very different. And of course, she is right:

  • ASU is public. MIT is private.
  • ASU spans four campuses. MIT only one.
  • ASU is made up of 17 schools and colleges. I do not know how President Crow does it. I have my hands full with just five schools.
  • Every year, MIT gets an average of 43 inches of snow. Here, you get…let’s say, less.
  • And ASU’s mascot is the fearsome Sun Devil. MIT’s is the beaver.

But it occurred to me that, for all of our differences, we have a lot in common.

  • For instance, both ASU and MIT believe deeply in the role of advanced scientific research in creating new knowledge and uncovering new truths.
  • Both ASU and MIT have invested in digital learning to help reshape our residential model and reach millions beyond our campuses.
  • Both believe in the power of innovation to solve complex global problems and to make a better world.
  • Both understand the importance of opening our doors to talented and motivated people, regardless of their backgrounds.
  • And both ASU and MIT know that education remains the best way to improve your circumstances and those of your families.

This evening, I want to focus my remarks on that last point. 

For all of you graduating today, the education you have received through hard work, discipline and determination offers exciting opportunities to pursue a meaningful career. But I believe it should bring with it a deep sense of responsibility, too.

To give you a sense of what I mean, I hope you will forgive a brief reflection on how education transformed my life.

For those of you who have never been to Boston, I must tell you that my accent is, well, not a Boston accent. I grew up in Venezuela, in a family of refugees who scraped by to make a living. Before I was born, my parents fled Eastern Europe in the late 1930s for South America – first to Ecuador and then Venezuela. They had nothing. They didn’t speak the language. They were poor. They knew no one. 

The story of my parents may very well be the story of many of you here tonight or that of your parents or grandparents.

What my parents could not give my brothers and me in material possessions, they provided in principles and values. And they instilled in us a deep appreciation for the value of learning. I remember my father telling me, “When you have to leave in a hurry, education is all you can take with you.” In effect, he was saying that if you have an education, you have the possibility of inventing your own future. I have carried that lesson with me throughout my life.

I grew up in a time and place where education was not a given. It was a luxury (and, for far too many people in the US and around the world, it still is). Moreover, I had no sense of my potential. I always studied from textbooks on loan from the library. In college, some of those books were written by faculty at a far away, magical place known only by three initials: M – I – T. I remember feeling immensely privileged just to hold the library’s only copies in my hands.

Eventually I made it to MIT – still today, almost impossible to believe. But I think about those other kids in Venezuela – or in the poor neighborhoods of any town or city, in the US or anywhere. Kids with the same potential – or more – but who won’t catch the same breaks, who won’t have the same opportunities. 

I am aware of how fortunate I was to get an education and how extremely fortunate I am to lead a remarkable academic institution. Like every one of you, I worked hard. I struggled. And I persevered. But I was lucky, too. Education opened a door that I have been privileged to walk through my entire life. And I take seriously my responsibility to hold that door open for those who follow.

I admire President Crow and the ASU leadership for taking that responsibility seriously, as well.

In corresponding with colleagues at ASU, I couldn’t help but notice a detail in their email signatures. There, at the bottom of the signatures, is bolded, highlighted text. It announces the US News and World Report ranking: “ASU #1 in the US for innovation.” I also couldn’t help but notice the line below. It reads: “Stanford #2. MIT #3.”

Well, I come from #3. And I studied at #2. But the best part is that, as of today, I am a proud holder of a degree from #1!

Watching this “New American University” increase its impact over the years has been inspiring. But being #1, as an institution, comes with a duty I hope all of you will accept as individuals. To live up to this responsibility, you don’t have to choose a career in education. What matters is that you recognize that the line you have been working hard to advance in for all these years, that line does not end with you.

Education is a gift. But it is not yours alone. By all means, go out and get a job that will help you make a better life for yourself and your family. You deserve it and you have earned it. 

But also use the opportunity to lift up those around you, to help others realize that learning can transform their lives just as it has transformed yours. And use the opportunity to apply the lessons you have learned at ASU to solve problems in your community, in our nation and around the world. 

Like me, you have been lucky. And like me, you have found yourselves at a magical place known by three initials. ASU has helped you develop new skills. It has helped you gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the world. And it has prepared you for the successes that I know will follow if you continue to learn, work hard and persevere.

The problems we face in society today – and the ones we will face tomorrow and the day after that – are not someone else’s problems to figure out, even if you did not create them. They are ours: They are mine, and they are yours. I know that you are up to the task, because for all of our minor differences, we are united by a responsibility to humanity. 

There is important work ahead of us, and it won’t be easy. But together I believe we will invent a future of access, fairness and progress for all. 

Thank you for this wonderful honor and for the special opportunity to celebrate with you this evening. From all of us at the third-most innovative university in the country: Congratulations to the Great ASU Class of 2018!

Thank you!