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Hispanic College Fund
8th Annual Scholarship Awards Banquet

Remarks prepared for delivery by
Secretary Mel Martinez

Washington, DC
Thursday, October 18, 2001

Good evening. You have made me feel very welcome. Dario, I appreciate your generous words of introduction.

Me siento honrado de estar aquí para ayudar con la celebración de los logros del Fondo Universitario Hispano.

Let me pay my respects to our good friends, Ambassador Hugo Noé Pino from Honduras and Panamanian Ambassador Alfredo Boyd. We are honored by your presence here this evening. I am also very glad to see several of our friends from Congress: Rubén Hinojosa, Ed Pastor, and Robert Underwood.

I want to offer a special greeting to the corporate sponsors and other scholarship supporters who are here tonight. Your generosity makes the good work of the Hispanic College Fund possible. There is no better way to give back to our communities than to support the future leaders of America.

Most especially, I want to welcome and congratulate the student scholarship award winners who have joined us this evening. You have distinguished yourselves through your studies, and have brought tremendous credit to your families and your schools.

This is a night for celebrating, and of course we are focused on the great accomplishments of the Hispanic College Fund. But I cannot think of a more appropriate moment to celebrate the spirit in which all Americans - whether we are Americans by choice or Americans by birth - have come together in weeks since September 11th.

With a passion none of us could have imagined before, we are comforting loved ones... and supporting complete strangers through financial donations and prayers. Our children are even mailing their dollar bills to the White House, to help families devastated by poverty in Afghanistan.

I tell you this: I have never been more proud to be an American than I am today. I have never been more proud to serve my country than I am today. I have never been more proud to serve President George W. Bush than I am today.

If the terrorists thought that they could rob this country of its hope and its heart, the terrorists have failed.

Someone asked me the other day what it means to me to be an American during this challenging time. Is not easy for anyone to put words to the emotions we are feeling, and we all have tried. But I tend to think about freedom. Freedom is most cherished when it is challenged... and make no mistake, the freedoms that we enjoy in our country are precisely what enrage America's attackers.

The young men and women sitting here tonight will eventually make their way into the world, free to travel their own path. They will pursue their own careers, vote for leaders they feel passionately about, speak their mind when challenged, and worship as they choose.

To the people who hate America, such freedom is unthinkable. To those of us who love America, freedom is the very thing that defines us. Our freedom is what allows us to pursue what is known around the world as "el sueño americano"... the American Dream.

And of course, this includes the freedom to pursue a college education. Empowered with a diploma from the college or university of their choice, a young person heads out into a world of opportunities.

I salute the Hispanic College Fund for helping to uplift the next generation of great Americans: the business leaders of the future who will keep our families and communities strong by creating new jobs and new economic opportunities. Through your scholarships, the Hispanic College Fund is making a higher education an achievable education. And you are giving new strength to a population that is already growing stronger every year.

More than 30 million Americans - or about one in every eight - claim Hispanic heritage. Some were born here. Others came here as immigrants... or like myself, as refugees. We are now the nation's largest ethnic population, and a powerful consumer block. Hispanic-owned businesses continue to grow in size and number.

We are all citizens of this great nation, no matter how or when we became a part of the American melting pot. Being an American is not determined by who our ancestors were. It is not a matter of family or bloodlines. To be an American means above all, to believe in an idea - an eternal and precious idea.

As Abraham Lincoln put it, those who came to our shores after the revolution were not related by ancestry to the brave men who had fought for America's freedom in 1776. But they did read the Declaration of Independence, which said: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

They believed in that "self-evident truth" about equal rights and human dignity. And then, said Mr. Lincoln, those immigrants felt that by their faith in the truth of equal freedom, they were one with those who fought in the revolution.

They felt "that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are."

In other words, all Americans form a united community, almost a single family, in a bond that is much stronger than flesh and blood.

We are connected to one another through our shared faith in the noblest, most enduring idea that ever gave shape to a nation: the idea of equal rights... the God-given dignity of each person. And so our nation is more than just a collection of diverse and beautiful cultures. America is a living foundation on which many cultures can flourish in freedom.

Yes, Americans sometimes fail to live up to their own high standards... but America is at its best when it strives to make this ideal a reality, teaching by words and actions that every man and woman on Earth is entitled to the same tolerance, respect, and love.

The American idea also represents a purpose for the whole world.

The streams of immigrants and the way our political institutions are imitated in other countries show that the American idea of equal rights is not just for us. It is the world's eternal idea. Providence has given us the honor and the burden of keeping it aloft as a light to which men and women everywhere may aspire.

President Bush is deeply committed to improving the quality of life of Hispanics in this country. He lived and worked closely with the Hispanic people as governor of Texas, and has surrounded himself with Hispanics in this Administration.

I serve in the Administration alongside Alberto Gonzales, the President's chief lawyer... Hector Barreto, head of the Small Business Administration... U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin... while Gaddi Vasquez will soon be nominated to serve as Director of the Peace Corps. And fellow Cuban American, Ambassador Otto Reich, is a distinguished diplomat whose nomination as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs languishes in the Senate, awaiting action.

Nearly ten percent of President Bush's appointments are Hispanic, far more than in any previous Administration. And there are more to come.

I have heard the President say many times that the Hispanic influence enriches every aspect of American culture... from the arts, to our foods, to our faith. The Hispanic community exemplifies commitment to family, love of country, and respect for others - traits that are shared by so many Americans.

Hispanics should be a powerful force in our schools, too. But somehow, with all the good we accomplish, we are letting too many of our young people down.

More than 40 percent of all Hispanic students never graduate high school. Less than 10 percent of us graduate from college... and even more troubling, the number of Hispanics entering college is actually dropping. Students say that a key reason is the fact that a higher education is becoming an ever-more-costly education.

I share these statistics to remind us that we face a challenge that we must work together to rise above. For that reason, the Hispanic College Fund is a desperately needed resource.

For its part, the Bush Administration is committed opening the doors of this nation's universities and colleges to more Hispanic students. In fact, the President plans to increase funding for Hispanic-Serving Institutions by 30 percent over the next four years.

As an example of the faith this Administration has in the ability of Hispanic-Serving Institutions to lift up not only individuals but entire communities, I am proud to announce that HUD is awarding more than $4.5 million in grants this month to Hispanic-Serving Institutions of higher education in six states.

The grant dollars will be used to prevent and eliminate slums and blight... help low- and moderate-income families buy homes... and meet other urgent development needs in the communities surrounding these colleges and universities. For example, in Arizona, the funds will help renovate a local food bank. The grant in Miami will fund the construction of a Community Center. In Texas, they plan to renovate an existing building and turn it into a job-training center.

The cornerstone of the Administration's higher education policy is the additional $1 billion we have proposed for Pell Grants. This will increase the maximum award, to provide more grant aid to low-income college students. Expanding Pell Grants will never replace what you doing through the Hispanic College Fund, but it is another way to complement your work and encourage access to higher education.

To give our children the education they deserve, we are going to have to close the achievement gap among all students. This must start early on in their schooling. The President is committed to accomplishing this through the education blueprint he calls "No Child Left Behind" that will improve schools and boost the performance of students.

At an event last week celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month, President Bush announced the creation of the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. I am honored that he appointed me to serve as one of its members. The Commission will study ways that we can help Hispanics benefit from federal education programs.

Our mandate is to ensure a high-quality education for every Hispanic child.

By the way, the Department of Education has a great leader in Secretary Rod Paige. He comes from the Houston School District, where the student population is nearly 90 percent Hispanic. So he brings to the job a strong background into the needs of schools and institutions that serve the Hispanic population.

Let me close with a message to the young people who are with us tonight. The fact that you are here shows that you are dedicated to your studies. If you ever become a little frustrated by your classes, however, and begin wondering whether the diploma is worth all the work, I want you to remember this story.

I came to this country as a 15-year-old immigrant from Cuba. I had no family in the United States. I did not speak the language or know the customs. When I left the refugee camp to head to my new home in Orlando, I traveled by Greyhound bus.

Now imagine this. Almost 40 years later, in March of this year, I returned to Orlando... this time in the company of the President of the United States as a member of his Cabinet. And I traveled not by Greyhound bus, but aboard Air Force One.

Only in America!

The wonder of America is that if you dare to dream, your dreams can and will come true. In this country, the land of opportunity, all things are possible - if you work hard, play by the rules, and have faith in God.

Thank you.

Content Archived: March 16, 2010

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