Remarks of HUD Secretary Julián Castro
York College Commencement
Jamaica, Queens
Friday, June 3, 2016

As prepared for delivery

Good morning everyone! Hello York College!

Congressman Meeks, thank you for that kind introduction, and for your great leadership in this community. To Senator Schumer, President Keizs, Chair Awadjie, the rest of the CUNY Board of Trustees, Vice Chancellor Silverblatt, and all the faculty, staff, and distinguished guests - it's a pleasure to join you for this wonderful occasion.

I'd also like to recognize all the family and friends here today. And I know there are many folks watching from all over the world, including the mother of today's Valedictorian, Eunice Udensi, who's tuning-in from Nigeria. Whether you're here in the audience or half-way across the globe, your love, your support, and your sacrifice have made today possible.

And of course, I want to commend the York College Class of 2016. You did it! Congratulations! All the hours you've spent studying, volunteering, interning, and working have finally paid off. At long last, you've reached the end of your York journey.

No more finishing your reading on a cramped bus or subway car. No more waiting for the campus Wi-Fi to load while you're getting ready for finals. And no more trudging up the stairs of the Academic Core Building with a full backpack cause the escalator is out-of-order once again.

But seriously, I'm sure that when you reflect back on your time at York, you'll think about more than all the hard work you've put in. You'll think about the memories you've made here. Memories you'll carry for the rest of your lives.

The lasting bonds you formed while eating lunch at the Jamaica Farmers Market, or cheering on the Cardinals during Spirit Week. Rehearsing for shows together at the Bassin Performing Arts Center, or producing a program on YC Radio.

And you can always cherish the sense of accomplishment you've earned as you walk across this stage to receive your degree. Thank you for the opportunity to celebrate with you as you complete this amazing chapter of your lives, and also, for the chance to share a few thoughts as you begin your next chapter.

I promise to follow the words of the ancient Roman poet Horace, who once wrote: "Whatever advice you give, be brief." Wisdom that rings as true today as it did 2,000 years ago.

Let me start with this: find a way to change the world for the better - in your own way, even if it's a small way.

I know commencements are days of great optimism, filled with excitement for all the potential that the future holds. But as time passes, it becomes a lot harder to live a life filled with hope, than one filled with cynicism. There are so many harsh realities in our world, so many injustices that we see or hear about, that it can sometimes make you want to throw your hands up and say: "You know what? I'm just going to worry about myself."

Ladies and gentlemen, don't give in. Rise about that sense of hopelessness and pessimism. Always remember that your acts of service, no matter how big or small, can make a difference for those around you. And if you ever lose faith in others, just remind yourself of how far we've already traveled as a nation, and as a people.

I know 2016 marks the 50th Anniversary of York College. And things are a lot different today than they were in 1966.

Back then, a landlord could refuse to rent a home to a family based simply on the color of their skin. Women were still expected to stay at home, and millions of Americans were forced to live in the shadows simply because of who they loved.

Today, thanks to generations of advocates and activists, our nation is freer and more tolerant than at any point in American history.

There's also more opportunity than ever before. Back in 1966, if you walked into a corporate boardroom and glanced at the faces around the table, chances are they'd resemble an episode of Mad Men. If you visited Capitol Hill, you'd find less than 20 people of color serving in Congress.

Today, that number stands at 91. African Americans now lead Fortune 500 companies like American Express and Xerox, and Latino CEOs run businesses like Sprint and United Airlines.

When we take stock of this progress, we have reason to hope.

This isn't to say that we live in a perfect world. We're all aware of the challenges still confronting our nation. Too many neighborhoods remain segregated by race and by income. Too many children still see their dreams limited by the zip code where they grow up. And in recent years, we've seen tremendous unrest in communities where folks feel like they're not given a fair chance in life.

These are problems deeply rooted in our history, and in the very fabric of our society. Problems that don't have easy answers. Solving them will take a lot of hard work. It will require matching your faith with knowledge and with action.

And that brings me to my second piece of advice. Don't just focus on the problems that you see around you - strive to create workable solutions for fixing them.

I know everyone here feels passionately about the issues that matter to you. But passion alone won't advance the cause of justice.

Passion without knowledge is like an engine without fuel - it can ignite the spark you need to get started, but it can't help you travel the long road to reach your final destination.

So keep pursuing knowledge, and use your knowledge to develop strategies for bold and decisive action. And keep in mind that many times you'll get a lot further through cooperation, rather than conflict.

This philosophy guided great leaders like Nelson Mandela, who built a post-Apartheid South Africa by working with many of the same people who unjustly imprisoned him for 27 years. He once said that: "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. And then, he becomes your partner."

Instead of giving in to anger, President Mandela chose the path of conciliation. He used this philosophy to steer his nation through a period of immense turbulence. And I'll hope you'll remember his example as you find your own way to make this world a better place.

And as you strive to fulfill the promise of our nation, and the potential that lies within you, I want you to remember this last piece of advice: to always believe in yourself.

To borrow a phrase from Langston Hughes, life won't always be a crystal stair. There'll be tacks, splinters, and torn-up boards along the way.

But in moments of adversity, you can find inspiration from those who came before you. From family members who've sacrificed so much to give you a better life. And from the powerful examples set by York alums.

People like Deborah Persaud, who immigrated to New York from Guyana at the age of 16.

Deborah grew up in Brooklyn, with a single mom who worked long hours as a nurse's aide to support her four children. Deborah wanted to be a doctor since she was a child, and she pursued her dream as a Chemistry Major here at York. As part of the Minority Biomedical Research program, she received invaluable mentorship from professors like the late Dr. Paul Young.

But things weren't easy for her. She commuted 4 hours a day, on 3 different subway lines, just to attend class, and at one point she worked as a babysitter to help make ends meet.

As a senior, Deborah applied to 18 medical schools, and received just a single acceptance letter. But it turns out that was where she was meant to be.

Deborah started at NYU just as researchers began identifying the first cases of HIV in the City. And when she saw infants suffering from the virus, she decided to devote her life toward saving other children from its devastating effects.

Today, Deborah is a Professor at the John Hopkins School of Medicine. And in 2013, she was named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People for her groundbreaking work in pediatric AIDS research.

Dr. Persaud credits these accomplishments to York's incredible faculty, to her mother's inspirational example, and to a Caribbean American upbringing that instilled a strong of service.

There are so many York graduates with similar stories to tell. Successful men and women who persevered through tough times, and who combined their proud heritage with the unexpected opportunities that life presented them. So as you take the next step in your journey, always have faith that your background and your education have empowered you with the skills you need to achieve your dreams.

Class of 2016 - I want you to look at the faces around you, and know that you embody the best of what America represents.

We're here today in Queens, one of the most diverse places on earth. And your graduating class is a proud testament to that diversity. You hail from 65 different nations, and you speak nearly 50 languages, from Spanish to Bengali, and from Creole to Chinese.

You all came to York College with the same purpose: to achieve your own piece of the American Dream. And if you live a life filled with hope, one that strives to tackle the great challenges of our time, you can reaffirm the fundamental truth that's made our nation the greatest in the world.

The United States isn't defined by the strength of our army, the bounty of our lands, or the wealth of our industry. It's defined by a set of ideals that bind us with every American. By our belief in equality, fairness, and opportunity for all.

These principles have led generations of men and women, from every corner of the globe, to arrive at our shores in search of a better life. And throughout our history they've pushed our nation steadily down a path of prosperity, and of progress.

Class of 2016, it's your turn to take the baton - and I can't wait to see what you'll achieve, and where you'll lead us.

And I know 50 years from now, when York celebrates its 100th anniversary, the Class of 2066 will be proud to walk in your footsteps.

Thank you very much! ¡Felicidades Class of 2016!


Content Archived: February 9, 2018