Good morning, Tulane! Hello Class of 2012!
It is my honor to be with you this morning. As I am the first alum of Tulane University to ever speak at the new, unified commencement ceremony, and as a native New Orleanian, all I can say is "Green Wave, where y'at? And how's your momma and dem?" Seriously, it makes me very happy to be the first commencement speaker to be able to congratulate all of you as my fellow graduates of this wonderful university. I’m glad to see all of you here – and impressed that you look so awake. I know some of you probably didn’t finish up the Wave Goodbye until a few hours ago. For those of you suffering right now, Mothers is just down the street. I'm going to speak for 10 minutes. Ask somebody to hold your seat and go get some grits and debris.
Today I actually have the chance to fulfill two lifelong dreams. First, speaking to a graduating class at Tulane. Second, there’s something I’ve always wanted to say over the loudspeaker at the Superdome, and it’s this:
“HI MOM! WHO DAT!”
I just gave my mom a shout out and we know this would not have been possible without the families and classmates and professors and mentors and friends over the years.
We owe them much more than a round of applause – but it’s a good start. Please join me in thanking them.
Now, when it comes to Tulane, there are plenty of things I brag about as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Tulane has made environmental studies a priority – and almost every school in the university offers an environmental major or focus. The school has also taken the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment to help develop solutions to climate change.
But as important as those things are, I’m mostly glad to be here because this is my home.
I grew up in New Orleans’ 9th ward In Pontchartrain Park. It was a wonderful place . Wendell Pierce and Terrence Blanchard were my neighbors. My dad was a mail man, and used to take me to visit folks on his route through the French Quarter.
I started school here, 7 years after Ruby Bridges' historic walk. After I graduated from St. Mary’s Dominican I crossed Claiborne Ave and headed down Broadway to Tulane. The first time I came to Tulane was to do a summer program on engineering here in high school.
Today, I work in the cabinet of the nation’s first African American president. I’m the mother of two teenage sons about to enter into their own college years. I’ve seen firsthand life’s rewards and challenges.
So I’d like to make a couple of observations today.
So what do I tell you? Now I knew I can't get by with the usual stuff, “the real world,” "follow your dreams," "do not be afraid to fail," and to "never give up."
But honestly, that stuff is a little played out.
Those words don’t measure up to what you’ve accomplished, or do justice to what you already know.
President Cowen asked me to talk about me. Yeah - that'll thrill ya! Though the temptation is strong to bore you with stories of the Tulane I knew. Almost thirty years ago, I was where you are today. 1983. Very different times. (Don't get me started about the ORIGINAL Tylers Beer Garden).
You’ll see one day when you’re back here, boring your kids with stories about Domilises or the Jazz Fest or not telling them all the things you did in the Quarter.
I’ll spare you the flashback – except for one thing.
In my day, choosing Tulane was simple. It’s a great school with an incredible history and fantastic academic standards. That’s reputation is why – as you all know – people often refer to Harvard as the Tulane of the North.
Tulane is, undoubtedly, the finest school in the great state of Louisiana.
And of course, the city of New Orleans is unlike any city in the world. You will never find a place to match the food and music and culture here. No other place is as much fun as New Orleans.
I don’t think I’d be too far off in saying that some of the people I graduated with factored Bourbon Street into their college selection process. It’s not a hard choice when you realize you can come to New Orleans, have some big fun, and get a great education.
For me, making the choice to come to Tulane was simple.
But as the class of 2012, I know your choice was not so simple.
In the 30 years between my college years and yours, this city saw some of the hardest times in its long history.
I was here, in New Orleans, a few days before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. I was visiting to celebrate my mother’s birthday.
It was fortunate that I was around, because I drove her out of the city. My neighborhood in Pontchartrain Park was destroyed. Flooding ruined my mother’s home – the home where I grew up.
Once the waters receded, my mother went down to the house. She sat on the sidewalk, in her wheelchair, and watched as the Catholic Charities came and took everything item away. Every picture. All of her clothes. Every piece of furniture. Everything.
She told me, “I saw it go in. I need to see it going out.”
That storm closed this school for the first time since the Civil War.
Students dispersed to hundreds of college campuses across the country, and didn’t come back again until the next year.
Two years later – when most of you made your decision to come to Tulane – things were still very uncertain.
You knew you were coming into an era when there were still many challenges to face.
Some of you knew that because you grew up here, like me. For me it was an easy decision to go to the school that was just down the road from my home. It was the SAFE decision.
But for those of you who lived here in 2006, the safe decision was to go elsewhere for school.
Others of you had the courage and compassion to come here to help rebuild immediately after the storm – and the commitment to stay on by coming to this school.
Whatever your reasons, I know that all of you understood that choosing Tulane University would place demands on you that other schools would not. You knew it would challenge you to live up to the motto of this place: "not for one's self, but for one's own."
To be very honest – I know how hard a choice it was to come here, because I weighed a similar decision myself.
After the storm, I dreamed of building my mom a new home – one that was raised out of the floodplain and maybe even, energy efficient.
I thought hard about coming back – and considered what it would be like to spend the next years of my life in New Orleans. To bring MY kids here. I almost left my job with the State of New Jersey – but ultimately my mother encouraged me to stay in the field I loved so much and continue working in government.
Now a few months later, I was made Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Not too long after that, I received the call from President Obama to join his Cabinet as Administrator of the EPA. And my mom's house is being rebuilt by Wendell Pierce. How about that?
And two years ago, when the area was hit by another tragedy – the oil gusher in the Gulf – I was in a position to help. Given my very personal connection, President Obama named me to lead federal efforts to restore the region after the spill and decades of environmental abuse.
My choice turned out to be the right one for me. But you all made the choice I didn't. YOU CAME HERE.
While I ultimately didn’t, I know what it means that you did. I know what it means that you stepped up. And I’m proud to see what you have done with the choice you made.
You are part of what President Cowen calls the “new” Tulane, one that is active in rebuilding and reinvigorating New Orleans.
Today you receive a degree from the first national research institution to include public service in the requirements for graduation.
In the face of disaster, you came here to serve. You were a national beacon of service. That service - your service - now defines Tulane, and will for the rest of its history. You changed your world, this world - because YOU CAME.
It means so much to this school… so much to this city…and so much to me. If I can tell you one thing today, from this New Orleans girl and Tulane grad, it’s this: Thank you.
And – have no doubt that what you’ve done means a great deal to this country in a difficult time.
When people see that this city is able to get on its feet again; when they see that it can emerge stronger and with a sense of community and possibility, they see what it takes to rebuild.
When they see the school at the heart of New Orleans turning out a new generation of leaders and innovators and public servants – it shines a light on the road ahead of us.
This is why I won’t lecture you about the lessons you’ll learn in the so-called real world.
The truth is, the real world needs a lecture from you.
So go out there and give the world YOUR lecture. Don't be shy. You have so much to say.
You have the best preparation you can get. Know there was no more important thing you could have done than to COME HERE, no better place for you to have been, and no better time for you to have been here. No other college… no other city… no other moment in history… could have prepared you for YOUR lecture like this one.
The choice you made to come here says that you are someone who faces challenges, and does not run. And there is nothing we need more in these days than people who are ready to face challenges.
Let me close by saying that we will be right beside you. The people here who, through the course of your life, have always been there: Your teachers and mentors, your family and your friends, your fellow graduates.
I’m very happy to celebrate with you today, Class of 2012, and I look forward to seeing all that you’ll accomplish.
I wish you luck and so much more.
Thank you very much, and congratulations.