Remarks at the Miami Dade Honors Ceremony

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Miami, FL
April 14, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Wow, thank you so much. Thank you for a very, very generous welcome. Eric, thank you for an absolutely splendid, terrific introduction. I am enormously appreciative for it. And I have to tell you, the four of you were just absolutely spectacular. Congratulations to you. It’s just really wonderful. (Applause.)

I was listening to Eric’s introduction and he told me beforehand in back here that he kind of was thinking one day of going into politics. And I hope all of you will. (Laughter.) But as I listened to him, it reminded me – not because he was similar at all, but because he didn’t offer me any opportunity to do something similar. And I’ll tell you what I mean.

There was a – back in the day of William Howard Taft, the way you made your reputation in politics – there was no TV obviously – was by going out on the circuit and giving a stem-winding speech. And on one particular occasion, William Howard Taft was in upstate New York and Chauncey Depew was the senator from New York, and Chauncey was chosen to give the introduction. Big moment.

So the President of the United States is sitting at this big dais, and at that point in his life William Howard Taft was a man of considerable girth, so the closest he could get to the table was about two and a half feet, three feet away. (Laughter.) And he’s sitting there at the table, and Chauncey Depew is getting wound up into this incredible introduction, and he knows this is his moment. And he says: Ladies and gentlemen, look at the President of the United States sitting there – pregnant with hope, pregnant with courage. (Laughter.)

And he goes on and he says: Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States. So Taft gets up very deliberately, very slowly, and he kind of rubs his tummy as he walks up. (Laughter.) And he gets up there and he looks out and he says: Pregnant, eh? Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have news for you. If it is to be a boy, we will call it Courage; and if it is to be a girl, we will call it Hope. But if, as I suspect, it is merely gas – (laughter) – we will call it Chauncey DePew.

So that is what can happen to you if you’re not careful in an introduction. But Eric gave me nothing but a splendid introduction and no opportunity for repartee, and I am enormously grateful.

President Padron and Dean Charlot and faculty and staff and Dean Pascale of the Honors College, whose energy is enormous and palpable – and I can tell where all of you get your energy – distinguished guests, relieved parents and other family members, and above all members of the class of 2016, congratulations to you and good evening to you. (Applause.) It is a privilege to be here. As the reflections that we just heard from our student speakers make very, very clear, you are a very special group and this is a very special day. Gratitude is your theme, and I want you to know that I am very grateful to be a part of this very special ceremony.

And even though I’m from up north, I have really always felt at home here in Miami. And back in 2004, when I was the Democratic nominee for President, George W. Bush and I had our first debate here in this city. And that was in the distant era when candidates actually talked about real issues and in a language – (applause) – and, I might add, in a language that was suitable for children. (Laughter.) I might say, Christiana, you talked in – and Madie you talked about getting the vote out. I sort of sat there thinking maybe one of you ought to be running. (Laughter.) As it happened, that debate in Miami actually went quite well for me. The election, not so well. (Laughter.) But one-state difference, Ohio. Who’s counting, who remembers? (Laughter.) But I did carry Miami Dade, and I want to thank anyone here – I hope there are a few – who voted for me early and often. (Applause.)

Now, a speaker at a ceremony like this is often compared to the body at a wake. You’re definitely expected to show up, but you’re not expected to say much, and especially not anything that would hurt the mood.

Of course, I would love to tell you – but it would obviously be inappropriate after listening to the four spectacular speeches we just heard – I would love to tell you that lives are going to be completely trouble-free. But particularly listening to Jose and his superb underscoring of the importance of what you have gone through as an experience – and he particularly, but so many of you – in drawing from your parents, from your families, you know that that wouldn’t be true.

You already know, every one of you, that for most people life can be a struggle at times, whether it’s over a matter as straightforward as grades or tuition or over something far more complicated – something involving social relationships or illness or the loss of a loved one. No words of mine, no words of any speaker at an honors ceremony or graduation could ever eliminate that reality.

But I’m reminded of a Rolling Stones song that came out when I was roughly college age, which, as you can tell from the color of my hair, was just a little while ago. (Laughter.) The song included the famous line, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.” (Applause.)

Now, the students – all of you who we honor here today – are here because you have shown a willingness and a commitment to try to demand the best from yourselves and thereby to take that first giant step towards what you will need and, frankly, never stop working for what you want.

The academic recognition that you have earned will be a part of your identity for as long as you live, so this evening you should be – and I know you are – very, very proud. And the same might be said or should be said for this entire college.

Fifty-six years ago, Miami Dade started out with 1,400 students attending class in some converted chicken coops. Today it’s one of America’s largest institutions of highest learning, with a medical facility, a center for bilingual education, a cutting-edge approach to online learning, the best student newspaper in Florida, and one of the leading book fairs and top film festivals in our country. Extraordinary. (Applause.)

On community service, as we heard in the hours contributed, as Dean Pascal said, Miami Dade is all in, with students mentoring the young, visiting the old, offering free legal advice, and going abroad to help orphans in Nicaragua. Not only that, I’m told you guys love democracy so much that you held a vote last fall on what to name your mascot, and here – let’s be real – which is more “on fleek” – (laughter) – the University of Miami’s white ibis or Miami Dade’s Finn the Shark? Pretty clear. (Applause.)

On economic opportunity, this school is way ahead of the curve. As your visionary president Eduardo Padron has written, the ability to innovate isn’t a gift; it’s a learnable skill. And that’s what your new Idea Center is all about – helping young entrepreneurs to be able to seize the chances before them.

Personally, I can relate to this. Many years ago, walking around Boston late at night, I realized to my horror that there wasn’t a single place where I could buy a freshly baked, warm chocolate chip cookie. So I got together with a friend, invented a recipe so high in cholesterol you wouldn’t believe it, and opened a cookie shop. This is true. And if I hadn’t switched to a career in public service, I could have been the Steve Jobs of late night snacks. (Laughter.) And if I can turn my personal “hunger game” into a business that’s still there 40 years later; believe me, there is hope for anyone.

So here’s the bottom line, here’s the bottom line: You have every right to take pride in Miami Dade and in what you’ve accomplished. You’ve made it through an honors program that has tested you in a hundred different ways – and you deserve the chance to relax at least a little bit in the wake of a hard job well done.

But even as you accept congratulations, my guess is – in fact, it’s not a guess anymore because in the conversation I had with your four student speakers, it became very clear to me that each and every one of them knows exactly where they’re going. They’re already thinking ahead – we didn’t have time to get into it, but I suspect with some anxiety mixed with the high hopes – and that’s true whatever your major is or whether your future is a plan to live within or outside the 305. (Laughter.)

But nothing – it pays to run for president; you learn these things. (Laughter.) Nothing, nothing that I say, however, is likely to alleviate all your concerns, but I do have one request to make as you prepare for what lies ahead: Don’t let anyone undermine your faith in the American Dream.

Because make no mistake – that dream begins with diversity. The student body of this college is a living demonstration – (applause) – the student body of this college is a living demonstration of that principle. And a few minutes ago, Eduardo turned to me and told me that there are 88 languages spoken here and 199 country – 99 countries represented – absolutely extraordinary. That is a statement about this historic Freedom Tower – the Ellis Island of the South – where so many citizens and permanent residents were the first people to be welcomed to our shores. And among them was President Padron and many other members of the Miami-Dade community. Immigrants have contributed immensely to this country’s social, economic, and political prowess, and no one should denigrate that. (Applause.)

And that’s why it is – and that’s why I say to you unabashedly that it is so disturbing that, in recent months, we have been exhorted by some to view outsiders with suspicion, to label potential migrants as rapists and drug dealers, to close our doors to refugees, to castigate followers of one of the world’s great religions, and to adopt protectionist trade policies that, when tried earlier in the history of our great country, pushed the entire global economy over a cliff.

I urge you: Don’t be fooled. Don’t allow your hearts to be hardened or your minds to close. There isn’t a country on Earth that became great by turning inward. There isn’t a people anywhere who showed greatness by disparaging others because of their accents, their color, or creed. Mark my words, everyone in this hall, everyone in this community, everyone in this country has to be considered an equal shareholder in the American Dream. It’s that simple. (Applause.)

And to be clear, I am specifically including foreign students and families who are among us today. Because the American Dream is really a universal aspiration. Part of it is economic – the belief that if you work hard and play by the rules, you will be able to earn enough to be able to raise a family, buy a house, put money aside for retirement, live a decent, good life. Some people insist that – for the rising generation – the dream has become an illusion – because competition is too tough, wages haven’t kept pace, and technology is making whole professions obsolete.

And yes, these are real concerns. When I was your age, the biggest American company was General Motors, which employed 600,000 people; today the largest firm is Apple, with a workforce one-tenth that size. Back then, Kodak had a payroll of 145,000; but four years ago, when Facebook spent a billion dollars buying Instagram, that company had only 13 employees. Meanwhile, more people are being compelled to work as independent contractors, in temporary jobs, or through on-call arrangements – where pay is modest and fringe benefits almost non-existent.

Clearly, economic models are evolving – but the truth is there should be nothing surprising about that.

Dramatic change is not something new; it’s a constant. For generations, families have been moving from farms to cities. For centuries, whole categories of jobs have been replaced by others. Yes, turbulence can be scary; but life isn’t possible without change and neither, ultimately, is progress. Forget the science fiction, folks; you’re not all going to be replaced by robots. But you may well end up having careers in companies not yet founded, using devices not yet developed, based on ideas not yet conceived.

In the coming decades, billions of people across the globe will be moving from poverty to the middle class. And that will generate huge new markets and an unprecedented demand for services of all types. We can expect further breakthroughs in every single branch of medicine and growing need for managers, researchers, technicians, data crunchers, financial specialists, professionals of every single description. And yes, we will need experts on IT, but also biologists, veterinarians, artists, flute players, and even diplomats.

And we know there will be a stunning revolution in energy. In the next 20 years, something like $50 trillion is going to be invested in meeting the global demand for power. And the majority of that will be solar, wind, and other renewable technologies. And this is just scratching the surface of what the economy of the future is going to be like. So I absolutely encourage you to have faith in your ability to succeed.

But let me emphasize something that I think is important: The real American Dream is about a lot more than money and jobs. It’s also our responsibility to one another, which Jose talked about. That’s how pilgrims and pioneers survived. It’s also how Jose made it over a tough moment.

Over the years, more than 2 million students have attended Miami Dade.

Of them, how many were the first in their families to graduate from college?

How many had to learn a new language in a strange land and compete against students who always seemed more comfortable?

How many came this close to giving up but were persuaded by a parent or inspired by a teacher or encouraged by a friend to stick it out, and who later looked back and said that the aid that that one person gave made all the difference in their lives?

How many of you have actually benefited from that kind of help?

More importantly, how many of you in the future are prepared to give that kind of help?

Let me tell you, I have, grace to God, lived a fair amount of life. But I still have more questions than answers. But I am sure about one thing: It’s almost impossible to be angry when you’re focused on helping somebody else.

I’m not talking about a rosy scenario beyond human capacity; I’m not talking about always putting the needs of a stranger above your own. Most of us understand that’s probably not realistic. But I honestly believe there is no clearer path to a good life than devoting a significant part of your energy to causes that enrich the lives of others, whether near or far, whether you know them or not.

And what is true for each of us as an individual is true for whole countries as well, because what our nation does and stands for internationally is also part of the American Dream.

For generations, through two global conflicts, a Great Depression, and decades of Cold War rivalry, the United States has led in directions that the vast majority of the world’s people have wanted to go: toward liberty, towards justice, towards peace. And I emphasize tonight that we haven’t slowed down. In fact, we are more engaged in more places on more critical issues than ever before in American history.

As I speak, we are striving to find a diplomatic solution to the catastrophic civil war in Syria, leading an international coalition against terrorist groups based in the Middle East, and supporting our partners in Colombia as they seek to end the hemisphere’s longest-running internal conflict.

To protect future generations, we are leading the way in implementing the first-ever global agreement to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change – an issue of enormous urgency to coastal states like Florida and cities like Miami.

To ease suffering, we are engaged in an all-out effort to shield women in our country and overseas from the Zika virus, because we believe that pregnancy should be a time of expectation and hope, not a time of danger.

We are also launching a worldwide initiative to empower adolescent girls, because we have learned that when women have the power to make real choices about their lives, families are stronger, children are more likely to stay in school – (applause) – the cycle of poverty is broken, and more constructive values are likely to be handed down to the young.

Finally, to encourage freedom, the United States wants to help the people of Cuba begin a new chapter in their history. (Applause.) Last year, the United States and Cuba reopened embassies for the first time in 54 years. Some good, thoughtful people opposed this, saying that the Cuban Government had done nothing to deserve it. But in a way, that is precisely the point. The old policy wasn’t working. It’s hard to think of a weaker diplomatic tool than a closed embassy. That’s why even during the Cold War, the United States never broke relations with the Soviet Union. Presidents went to Moscow, had negotiations, signed agreements.

Cuba is a lot closer. We have millions of Cuban Americans helping to build prosperity in the United States, including many distinguished graduates of this school. We have interests that we share with Cuba in safe navigation and aviation, protecting the environment, curbing crime. We also have major differences with the Cuban Government that President Obama spoke to repeatedly during his recent trip to Havana.

It seems to me that there is a great value in seeing America’s leader and Cuba’s leader stand side by side before the whole world answering hard questions about human rights, political prisoners, and what freedom means.

It’s good when the chief executive of the United States sits down with the embattled leaders of Cuba’s civil society so they can share their ideas with him directly and he can tell them directly that we care.

It is right for American businessmen to inform Cuba’s leaders that lifting the embargo won’t matter if they fail to lift up and open their own economy, enable their citizens to go online, and allow their people the freedom to build a better life. (Applause.)

And it is healthy when Cuban Americans and Cubans are able to visit with each other, restore family ties, and build new friendships.

To be clear, we neither can – nor should – forget what happened in the past. No one is suggesting that. But as the scriptures remind us, to everything there is a season. And for the United States and Cuba, the time has come to replace yesterday’s gridlock with tomorrow’s agenda for change.

My friends, it’s an understatement to say that we face a lot of challenges in the world right now, but that is the case, in fact, with every generation. When I was about the age of many of you right now, the United States was deeply divided by an unpopular war in Southeast Asia that some – including veterans like myself – tried to stop, but in which 58,000 of our countrymen died.

At the same time, we went through a monumental struggle in the Congress, the courts, and the streets of America so that no Americans would ever again be denied basic civil rights because of the color of their skin.

We awakened to the limits of our natural environment, organized the very first Earth Day, pushed through landmark legislation to clean our air and our water. We awakened, as well, to the systematic discrimination and chauvinism that were denying any semblance of equality to women and girls in our own country.

Very soon, judging by the speeches we heard, tomorrow it will be your turn to bend history and to shape the future. To many, that prospect, with all of its risks, may appear daunting. But unless I miss my impression of you here tonight, for most of you these challenges are obviously welcome. Because you would not be here, participating in this Honors ceremony, if you lacked ambition or confidence.

You would not be here if you did not have within you the ability to lead and the desire to make a difference.

Now, I am not trying to place the weight of the world on your shoulders. That will always remain your parents’ job. (Laughter.) But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t invite you – as you make your career plans – to think about the possibility of public service when your days as a student are over.

Because your country really does need you – in all your diversity. And if there’s some stereotype in your mind about what someone representing the United States ought to look like, please forget it. You know, there’s this old image of America as Uncle Sam – a tall guy in a top hat with white whiskers. Well, with me today, introduced earlier, is Catherine Rodriguez, a native of Miami and our diplomat-in-residence here, and Arnie Chacon, who is the director general of the entire Foreign Service. And neither one looks much like Uncle Sam, but they both do a great job of representing the United States of America. (Applause.)

So let me be clear about what serving in the State Department means. It means having the chance to see the world close up and help transform it at the same time. It means being the face of America, even in distant countries where Americans are rarely seen.

It means sitting down with foreign officials to plan how our nations can help one another – whether it’s by stopping a conflict before it begins, halting an epidemic disease before it spreads, or confronting a violent extremist group before it puts down roots.

It means being the voice on the other end of a phone when Americans who are traveling get in trouble.

It means helping our businesspeople to establish contacts that can increase prosperity and create jobs here at home.

It means reaching out to foreign civil society organizations to offer support when journalists or human rights workers or democracy advocates or religious groups are persecuted.

The option is yours. All the options are yours. Most of you already have a leg up, frankly, because you are one of those people who speaks those 88 languages, including English. You can also take advantage of a variety of internships, fellowships, and training programs that we have created in order to help people get started. So I’m just saying to you plain and simply, if you’re interested, let us know.

After all, you’ve got a pretty simple choice: Do you want to spend the next 40 years complaining about the world or trying to improve it?

It’s a natural thing – and I know this because I’ve done it before – to ask what can any one person really do. Can you really make that difference? It’s daunting. So many people, so many challenges.

Years ago in 1968, I was very inspired by the words of the Senator Robert Kennedy, who traveled to South Africa and he visited Cape Town exactly a half century ago this year. At the time, Nelson Mandela was near the beginning of his nearly three decades in prison, and the cruel system of apartheid was dividing the local population and robbing the vast majority of their rights and their voice.

In that moment, where they weren’t sure they could make a difference and where there was not great hope, Robert Kennedy delivered a message to students that is as relevant today as it was then. He said: Each time a man or a woman stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope; and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression or resistance.

My friends, there is never a wrong time to stand up for an ideal or to pour every last measure of your energy and talent into a cause that matters, into a cause that is bigger than you as an individual person. And looking at you now, I know, and after listening to these speeches tonight and feeling the spirit of Dade Miami, I’ve got to tell you, I am certain that the ripples of hope you’re going to be sending in years to come are going to be felt by everyone around you and by people beyond you. It may look daunting, but remember what Nelson Mandela himself said: It always seems impossible until it is done. Remember that.

Congratulations to all of you. Make it happen. Get it done. Thank you. God bless. (Applause.)