Commencement Address -- William Patterson University's Class of 2012

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Wayne, New Jersey
May 22, 2012

(As prepared for delivery)

Good morning, and congratulations graduates! This is the day you have been waiting for – and as soon as you finish listening to this commencement speech you will receive that long yearned for piece of parchment – your diploma. Your teachers, your friends your families join in marking and sharing publically your moment of transition, one of the most important accomplishments in your life. It’s a defining moment. It’s a big deal.

And that is why it is such a privilege for me to be here at William Patterson University and be part of this momentous event – standing on this stage at a school that upholds values of academic excellence, creative expression, diversity, and active citizenship. I want to thank you all – the Board of trustees, the faculty – for inviting me to be here today, and especially my dear friend and longtime colleague, President Kathy Waldron, who is an exceptional public servant and wonderful leader of this university.

And I also want to give a shout out to the parents – and the grandparents – and all the relatives who have helped you get to this day. My congratulations to you for your important contribution to the graduate in your family.

As you’ve heard, I’m Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at the U.S. Department of State. But my own journey started many miles from Washington DC. I am originally from La Paz, Bolivia and immigrated to the United States with my family when I was twelve. I had to learn English as a second language, so for those of you who had to learn English, I understand!

It is a special honor to stand in front of you – a group of motivated, talented men and women – as we celebrate this threshold you are crossing, marking the end of one chapter in your life and the beginning of another. So you have made it! What lies ahead? Many of you know what your next steps will be: for some there are jobs or graduate school. For others, plans may not be so clear

What you will do, however, is never as important as who you are. To discover this, after all, is why those who love you always hoped you wouldn’t just earn a degree but you would get an education;

  • not just learn how to behave, but act in ways that enhance you self-dignity;
  • not just be smart and self-confident but understand the need to listen to and be open to others .

And so I am here to tell you that the degree is part of it, no doubt: it will open doors. It’s society’s way of certifying, recognizing; it gives you status. And indeed, the degree makes you among the most privileged people on the planet.

But degrees don’t certify us as human beings. The courage to act flows from the integrity of the person you are. So today I leave you with a few added assignments before you burst into the world with your newly minted degree.

First, as each of you sets out in your career, the best advice I can give you is to take a moment: a month, a year - however long it takes- to identify, to define, to articulate your core values – the principles, the beliefs that will define who you are and what makes you tick – the values that you always want to be present in your interaction with other human beings – not just your family and friends, but your workplace colleagues, your boss, and later, those you supervise. Defining your values will force you to ask yourself tough questions:

  • What contribution do I want to make to the world?
  • Is what work I do more important than how much money I make?
  • How will I define my own success and fulfillment?
  • What work-life balance will I seek?
  • And last but certainly not least, where do integrity and compassion for others fit into my journey?

As President Eisenhower once said, “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible.”

Your values will be the real mark of your leadership in the world. Defining them is a personal journey. Identify them early and live your life to uphold them. If you don’t, they will be identified for you, and you will be defined by others.

But none of use needs to embark on that journey alone – A mentor can help guide you throughout your life and career. Find a mentor! Or two! Anyone you know or meet that can help guide you on your way – recruit them to be your mentor. Assign them with responsibilities. You have no idea how much people appreciate being asked. Don’t do it alone.

Second, seek inspiration – even in the most unexpected places and from the most unexpected people. Inspiration reminds us of what is possible, stretches us beyond our comfort zone, and enables us to lead and soar.

Let me give you an example. At ACCION International – where I worked for 25 years, the last ten as CEO – we built banks for the poor. Many of the people ACCION wanted to help lived in sprawling cities with no education, few skills, limited connections, and a negligible support system. Or they lived off of the land in rural areas with little infrastructure. Having no jobs, they resorted to building their own tiny businesses – from the corner kiosk in the village, to banging old metal into pots and pans, to cooking and selling meals on a sidewalk.

ACCION found a way to make small loans to people who had no collateral. ACCION saw poor people not as helpless or needing a handout, but instead as resourceful. And creative. And determined. The only thing they needed was access to capital that could help them grow a business. A couple hundred dollars – sometimes even less – to invest in an idea and make it happen. And ACCION used their character as a guarantee that they would pay back their loans. Which they did, millions of them.

One time, I took a delegation of business professors to Guatemala to visit micro entrepreneurs – in a very poor neighborhood, with no running water , we entered the one room dirt floor house of a woman named Esperanza, a tiny Maya woman with a third grade education who was a shoemaker – her shop was set up in one corner of her one room home and she proudly displayed the 3 dozen pairs of shoes she made every week. Her two young daughters stood by her welcoming these visitors from afar into their home.

One of the business professors, a tall man who barely fit in the house, looked at the business, picked up a shoe and inspected it and then turned to me – I was translating – and said “Maria, can you ask her what her unit cost of production is?” I looked at Esperanza and responded, “No, professor, I can’t ask her that, she won’t know and I will embarrass her in front of her children. He insisted and finally I relented and turned to Esperanza and said, “Disculpe, but this gringo wants to know…what is your unit cost of production?” She looked up at him and with a very assertive voice said, “of course I know my unit cost of production, it’s 18 queztales per pair, and come with me – and she took him by the sleeve – and I will show how much it is at each step of the production.”

The lesson for me was profound. I was deeply inspired by this humble woman who I thought I was helping her grow her microenterprise. She was teaching me a lesson: that each person is capable of fulfilling their potential with the right tools: that there is nothing micro about the human spirit; that she valued her sense of dignity, and she could be a model – to her daughters, to me.

Looking out at this group of graduates, I know that you, too, as you cross this threshold full of potential to do great things – and I challenge you to find inspiration, not just from celebrities or big names, but even the most humble people around you.

Seeking inspiration is meaningless if you don’t combine it with maintaining awareness – not only of yourself, or those directly around you, but of the greater world. Which brings me to my third point, each of you is a global citizen.

I speak from experience when I say that it is easy to get swept away in your job or your family. The universe can easily shrink to the size of those in your immediate vicinity. But the truth is that each of us is a single voice in a chorus of billions – and it’s important that we inform ourselves about the world – the events happening around us, even if they don’t seem to directly affects us.

As university graduates, remember that you are among the world’s most privileged. Each of you is an agent of change for the benefit of others – and you have the power within you to create positive impact and make a difference. It doesn’t need to be grandiose or groundbreaking. You don’t need to alleviate poverty overnight, or negotiate world peace.

But each of us was born to live up to our potential. We stand on this earth with able mind and spirit. With diploma in hand and awareness and commitment in your spirit, you are in a unique position to do enormous good for the world.

An inspired and aware William Paterson graduate with clear values can go yet another step – she or he can dare to embrace risk and be innovative. Dare to break through standards and tradition. Break out of your comfort zone. Don’t lead a boring life.

There are three billion people under the age of 30 in the world. Your generation inspires us in your ability to come up with new ideas and solutions. You are also the most connected generation in the history of the world – you cross thousands of miles by using Twitter and Facebook. In fact I bet what is happening right now is already posted on your Facebook pages!

Those connections bring enormous opportunity to share ideas and foster innovation across communities, states, and countries. Use those connections and your vision to be a global citizen. Embrace your own power as an active citizen. Whether you are volunteering at a community level, at a church, at a school, whether your job give you reach at the local level, or the state, or country, or whole world, remember that you are unique and your creativity and energy are the most valuable commodities in your career.

My guess is that the Class of 2012 will be known more for the innovations that it comes up with than for the traditions it relies on. But it will be risky. Change is never easy, especially when the “adults” in the room are so comfortable with status quo. But the speed of change is happening at an accelerated rate. Twenty years ago, a Polish trade union took a decade to dislodge a government. In Tunisia, with the help of social media on the ground and satellite television in the air, it took just 30 days. Viral videos and citizen protests are affecting national discourse on a daily basis. It is a tremendous global shift, and I encourage each of you to use it as an opportunity for innovative, active citizenship.

So in summary, this is my message to you:

First, congratulations. Celebrate your tremendous achievement! 

Second, as you consider your next steps, take time to identify the values that will define your identity in the world. 

Third, allow yourself to be inspired and combine it with being an aware, global citizen. Take risks, be innovative, and be active. And I almost forgot ... find a way to relax, to renew yourself to rebuild your energy. For me that is dancing. Find your way! 

Graduates of William Paterson University, your time is now. Embrace it!