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

Remarks for Secretary Hilda L. Solis
New Jersey City University Commencement
Izod Center
May 11, 2011

Thank you, New Jersey City University! And thank you Dr. Hernandez for that wonderful introduction.

To Dr. Hernandez, the board of trustees, the board of directors of the NJCU Foundation, vice presidents, deans, 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 today, on the 11th day of May in the 11th year of the new millennium, 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 a part of this commencement. Thank you for inviting me. And thank you for making me an honorary Gothic Knight! Go Green and Gold!

President Hernandez and I share a lot in common, including being the children of immigrants and the first member of our families to go to college. And I know the same is true for many of you here today.

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 or elderly parents 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.

So let's pause to give thanks to your proud mothers and fathers, your supportive brothers and sisters, your relieved husbands and wives. I even see some sons and daughters out there, smiling, sharing in the celebration.

NJCU is a special place. It's a school that welcomes learners of all ages. It's a university with students like Evelyn Malzberg. When Evelyn graduated from high school at the age of 16, her Mom told her to skip college, because no man would want to marry a woman that was smarter than he was! So she became a legal secretary, a wife and a mother. Then a grandmother, then a great grandmother!

Evelyn has been taking one class a semester at NJCU for 25 years now. Four years ago, she retired as a secretary in the Hudson County Prosecutor's office. Today, she becomes a college graduate at the age of 84.

There's an old saying, "The young student who works so hard to graduate wonders what the hurry was." Well, Evelyn, you paced yourself. And today, you show us that you are never too old to stop learning!

I'm so proud to speak today to a graduating class that looks like America. You are all fortunate to graduate from a school located in one of the most diverse counties in your state — a school that prepares its students for global leadership.

As NJCU students, you often walked past the Maya Lin sculpture by the visual arts building, and saw the word "art" written in 50 different languages. It was your daily reminder that you're citizens of a vast and changing world.

You have 37 countries represented in your student population. You rank in the top 100 universities nationally for graduating Latinos! You have learned with classmates of African American descent, Asian descent, Indian descent and whites. Some of you have gone to Peru, Korea, China and Taiwan to study.

Later this month, your alma mater will welcome women from Mumbai as part of an exchange program. They will cross an ocean to learn about the entrepreneurial spirit that makes our country great.

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 as a Teamsters shop steward in a battery recycling plant.

Like many families, my parents made many sacrifices so my six siblings and I could live up to our potential and 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 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 other counselor. He put the college application in my hand and told me to fill it out. So I did.

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.

Don't be a bystander. Hold us accountable. Hold Washington accountable. You've got a big stake in this fight.

President Barack Obama has a vision for America where everyone makes sacrifices but no one bears all of the burden. It's a vision where we provide security and a safety net for all of our citizens — including the most vulnerable — and opportunities for the next generation.

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.

NJCU has equipped you with the necessary tools to help America win that global race. You have studied national security, fine arts, music, nursing and business. You will be tomorrow's leaders in these fields, and we are counting on your contributions and success.

Fifty years ago, a speaker at another New Jersey university's commencement told the Princeton Class of 1961: "If you feel that you have both feet planted on level ground, then the university has failed you."

The English author, H.G. Wells, put it a little differently. He said, "Human history is a race between education and catastrophe."

It's true. Some have walked across this stage during easier times, times of economic prosperity and peace, times when jobs were easier to come by and would provide a steady paycheck.

Unfortunately, today we find ourselves under challenging circumstances. We are at a critical juncture in our nation's history once again. We are recovering from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The national unemployment rate is at 9 percent.

For Latino and African-American communities, it is even higher than that. The rate for Latinos is 11.8%. For African Americans, it is 16.1%. For teenagers, it's a whopping 25%.

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 characterized 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!

During moments of challenge and change, like the one we're living through now, the debate gets sharper. That's a good thing. But no matter what we argue or where we stand, we've always held certain beliefs as Americans.

We believe that in order to preserve our own freedoms and pursue our own happiness, we can't just think about ourselves. We have to think about the country that made those liberties possible. We have to think about our fellow citizens with whom we share a community. And we have to think about what's required to preserve the American Dream for future generations.

As the country's first Latina Labor Secretary — 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 are all so very proud.

Thank you for letting me share in this day. God bless you, NJCU graduates.

God bless your families. (Felicidades a ustedes y su familia.)

And God bless the United States of America.