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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks by Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Labor
University of Texas at Brownsville and
Texas Southmost College Commencement
Brownsville, Texas
Saturday, May 21, 2011

Buenos dias, UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost! Thank you President Garcia for that wonderful introduction.

To Dr. Garcia, trustees, deans, vice presidents, faculty, parents, families and friends...

And most of all to the Class of 2011: The work has been hard; the wait has been long; the path, even uncertain at times.

But on this gorgeous May morning, you are just a few speeches and a short walk away from holding that degree. ¡Felicidades! Congratulations!

Did you think this day would ever come? Of course you did!

I'm so privileged to be part of your commencement. Thanks for inviting me. You know, President Garcia and I share something in common. She was the first Mexican-American to become a university President in this country. I was the first Latina to become Secretary of Labor in this country.

Thank you, President Obama! Who says America isn't the land of opportunity?

Graduates, we have something in common, too. Most of you are the first in your family to go to college. So was I.

This is no ordinary graduating class. Many of you earned your degree while working full-time; going to school full-time; and being caregivers for your children, parents or grandparents full-time.

When it didn't seem like there were enough hours in the day, you found them. When it didn't seem like you had the strength to get out of bed in the morning after only a few hours of sleep, you summoned it. When it felt like the earth was moving under your feet and the pressures were too great, you steadied yourself. You took a deep breath, and you carried on.

You didn't do it alone. We celebrate your achievements today, but we also honor the family and friends who had your back every step of the way. This is their day, too. You're living the dream your parents had for you since the day you were born.

UTB/TSC is a special place, because it welcomes learners of all ages. Some of you will earn your high school diplomas today. Others of you will get your certificates. Most of you will get associates degrees or bachelor's degrees. Some of you will get your masters. And a few of you will become doctors.

A long time ago, a teenager at San Benito High School dropped out and moved to Michigan with her husband to raise two young kids. But Cynthia Wise Galvan knew education was the key to her future. I mean, her maiden name is Wise!

So she studied and got her GED. Then she got her bachelor's. Then, she became an amazing teacher. When Governor Richards called Cynthia to Austin to help lead this state, she answered.But she never forgot where she came from.

Today, Cynthia is back in the lower Valley, directing after-school programs in the Mercedes Independent School District. After commencement, she will go back to her students, look them in the eye, and say, "Anything is possible with an education."

Because once the day is done, she'll have gone from GED to doctoral degree. Congratulations, Doctor Galvan!

There's an old saying, "The young student who works so hard to graduate wonders what the hurry was." Well, Dr. Galvan, you paced yourself. And today, you show us that learning is a lifelong journey!

Class of 2011, you've shown this community there's nothing you can't do. UT-Brownsville ranks in the top 20 nationally for producing Latino undergraduates and the top 50 for Latinos earning their masters.

Your nursing students run immunization clinics. Your art students staff a campus daycare center to nurture young imaginations. Your counseling students go back out into the community to help their neighbors in need. Your jazz band played at Notre Dame. Your choir sang at the Vatican and St. Patrick's Cathedral. And your chess team made the Final Four.

Wow, what a chess team! It's kind of funny: America went searching for Bobby Fischer. But you know who we found? Max, Axel, Timur and Mauricio.

When the skeptics said a small Texas border school couldn't possibly compete with the big boys, you know what these grand masters said back? Checkmate! Yes, we can! Si se puede!

Now, I know that most, but not all, of today's graduates are of Latino heritage. Brothers and sisters, hermanos y hermanas, you are the ambassadors for our people. Your path to this stage was forged through the hardship of those who came before you.

The city of Brownsville has seen its trials. Your ancestors endured conflict and casualties: the Mexican-American War, the Brownsville Raid, the story of Pancho Villa, the battle of Brownsville.

In 1846, Zachary Taylor looked out across this land and saw a military post. As Fort Brown went up, guns fired across the Rio Grande. Neighbors became enemies. So many lives were lost. Two years later, they made "Old Rough and Ready" the 12th American President.

But 36 years later, a man less known — Lt. William Crawford Gorgas — walked along these very grounds. He peered out across the same land that Zachary Taylor had, but Dr. Gorgas saw something different. He saw a disease to cure.

He took up residence at the old post hospital at Fort Brown. First, he caught yellow fever. Then, he helped wipe out yellow fever. Through his research, so many lives were saved. For this, they made Dr. Gorgas the Army Surgeon General.

Today, the Fort Brown hospital is known by another name: Gorgas Hall. And when you walk beneath its arches, you are the heirs to his legacy. You've shown us that neither a border in your backyard — nor a fence through your campus — can dull your American spirit.

As President Obama recently said, "We didn't raise the Statue of Liberty with its back to the world. We raised it with its light to the world. Whether your ancestors came here on the Mayflower or a slave ship, whether they signed in at Ellis Island or they crossed the Rio Grande, we are one people and we need one another."

I understand this journey you are on. Because the road you are traveling is one I took, too. My mother immigrated to this country from Nicaragua to escape poverty. She stayed home for many years to raise my brothers, sisters and me. She later went to work in a toy factory to help my family make ends meet.

My father was from Mexico and worked as a farm worker, railroad worker and a Teamsters shop steward in a battery recycling plant. Like many families, my parents made many sacrifices so my six siblings and I could achieve whatever our talents would allow.

Though our family could not afford much, we always had each other. My parents knew that the only way for their children to have a better life was to get an education. Without their moral and spiritual support, I know I couldn't have achieved so much.

I grew up in a barrio outside of Los Angeles, and I was angered by the injustices I saw: the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle. We lived in a town called La Puente. I grew up in the shadows of polluted landfills and toxic dumps. My parents — and my friends' parents — went to work in conditions that were dirty and unsafe.

I was a good student in high school, but I didn't think about college. No one in my family ever had. One of my school's career counselors told me I wasn't college material. He told me I was best suited for office work and suggested that I become a secretary.

As it turns out, he was half right. I was suited to be a Secretary.

The Secretary of Labor.

Today, I remember three pieces of advice that made a lasting impact: one from my father, one from a counselor, and one from a President.

My father told me, "Hold your head up high. And remember to respect yourself and others. Be proud of your Latino heritage."

My high school career counselor, Robert Sanchez, told me to take my anger
and energy — and channel it to help other people in my community. He told me not to listen to the naysayers. He put the college application in my hand and told me to fill it out. So I did. Thank you, Mr. Sanchez!

My President and hero, John F. Kennedy, told me, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

For me, this advice led to a lifelong career in public service. I share it with you today because your country needs you. You don't have to run for office to make change happen. You can change your country by being an active citizen. You've got a big stake in this fight.

We need your voices in this immigration debate. I know the struggle to fix our broken system has been long and hard, but everything worth fighting for always is.

Justice Brandeis once said, "Most of the things worth doing in the world have been declared impossible before they were done."

Eleanor Roosevelt put it a little differently. She said, "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."

President Obama and I believe in the beauty of the DREAM Act!

Yesterday, I went to Hanna High School and met an extraordinary group of young people training to become tomorrow's leaders in our military, and in medicine.

Today, I congratulate the very first graduating class of the Math & Science Academy. Adelante!

When I say that we need to pass the DREAM Act, yes, I'm speaking as a Latina. But more than that, I'm speaking as your Labor Secretary. We need the talent of our young Latino leaders.

We can't afford to punish and exclude our best and brightest just because their parents crossed the border seeking a brighter future.

The American labor force has a critical shortage in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math. Immigrants who want to serve in the military or serve humanity — either by making breakthroughs or building businesses — should earn the chance to become citizens. It's time to bring 11 million immigrants out of the shadows in America!

The most important contest we face today is not between Democrats and Republicans. It's with competitors across the globe for new jobs and new industries.

Your school has equipped you with the necessary tools to help America win that global race. You will be tomorrow's leaders, and we are counting on your contributions and success.

It's true that some have walked across this stage during easier times ... times of prosperity and peace... times when jobs were easier to come by.

Unfortunately, today we find ourselves under challenging circumstances. We are recovering from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The national unemployment rate is 9 percent. And for Latinos, it's 11.8 percent.

But as you face these challenges, keep this in mind: Our nation has been defined by our courage in the face of unexpected challenges. From the Great Depression to 9/11, Americans know how to pull ourselves together and lift each other up during tough times. This time will be no different.

We must face these economic challenges with the same can-do — si, se puede — spirit that has defined our past. I have great faith we can overcome this challenge. The fact that I am here as the Labor Secretary is a testament that anything is possible in this great country!

So as someone who was told by others to aim low and think small, I have a message for you today: Nothing can stop you. Keep pushing. Keep striving. Never lose heart. If you get knocked down, get back up. Because this is your time.

I have faith in you, graduates. You've come this far, but your journey is just getting started. You are constrained only by the limits of your imagination. You are capable of anything you set your mind to. Class of 2011, you are the ones you've been waiting for. And your future is now!

So congratulations. You did it! And we're all so very proud. Thank you for letting me share in this day. God bless you, UT-Brownsville / Texas Southmost. God bless your families. And God bless the United States of America.