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Gallaudet University 144th Commencement

Secretary Ray LaHood

"Remarks Prepared for Delivery"

Gallaudet University 144th Commencement

Washington, DC

Friday May 17, 2013

Hello Everyone. It’s truly an honor to be here with you today.

Let me begin by congratulating President Hurwitz on his appointment to the DC Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. As the first deaf member, I know you’ll bring an invaluable and fresh perspective to the chamber.

I also want to thank Natalie, Felicia and Concetta for their wonderful reflections.

Earning your college degree is an important milestone.

And today—this moment right here, right now—is going to be one of the best in your life.

It’s the feeling of accomplishment that you get only after working very hard towards a goal. I hope it is one of many in your long and accomplished lives.

You took your last exams.  You wrote your final papers.  And you’re done with the late night study sessions.

Congratulations Class of 2013—you did it!

Please join me in thanking the people who made it possible:

  • President Alan Hurwitz and First Lady Vicki,
  • Chairman Ben Soukup and the University Board of Trustees,
  • The professors, advisors and other faculty who guided you to the finish line,
  • Your parents, your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, your brothers and sisters,
  • Your coaches, tutors, church leaders, neighbors—and other important people.

All of them helped you to become the person you are today.

Let’s give them a round of applause. Let’s thank them for everything they’ve done to get you here.

Today—I want you to remember one thing: your potential is limitless.

For me, my degree became a key that unlocked countless doors.

Many of them were unexpected—as a teacher, as a public servant, as an elected official, and as a member of President Obama’s cabinet. 

I guarantee you, in December 1971, not one person – including myself – would have ever dreamed that I’d be a cabinet secretary. 

A lot of you are probably wondering why I’m your commencement speaker. When you heard I was coming—did you think to yourself: Ray La Who?

I was elected to Congress in 1994, and for 14 years, I represented the same congressional district in Illinois that President Abraham Lincoln represented when he was in Congress. I am very proud of this connection to Lincoln—and I often talk about his ability to see beyond the present.

Lincoln was a bold leader who had a vision for this country. He ignored the critics and naysayers—and took courageous steps to better our country.

One of his many accomplishments was the signing of the charter for Gallaudet.

With the stroke of a pen, he helped usher in the nation’s first college dedicated to deaf and hard of hearing students.

When I served in Congress, I worked with the Illinois School for the Deaf—the only school for deaf children in the state.

Through my work with that school, I saw first-hand the profound impact that a tailored education could have on a deaf student.

And in 1997, the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time, Newt Gingrich, appointed me to the Gallaudet University Board of Trustees. I served on the board for 12 years, and I was always proud to meet with Gallaudet students—especially those from Illinois.

Are any of you from Illinois? Raise your hand if you’re from Illinois.

As a member of the Board of Trustees, I also had the privilege of working with former President I. King Jordan. During that time, we became very good friends.

I. King Jordan was a bold leader. But more importantly, his leadership was the culmination of an important movement—one that impacted not just Gallaudet—but the deaf community at large.

This past March marked the 25th anniversary of the student-led Deaf President Now movement. I know this was a bit before your time—but let me tell you, this event was not just about Gallaudet.

It was about deaf people across America and around the world. When the students at Gallaudet succeeded at getting what they wanted—an equal voice—they ushered in a new era for deaf people everywhere.

The Deaf President Now movement was proof that big dreams and bold action led to success—no matter who you are.

When he was named president, I. King Jordan, said “Deaf people can do anything—but hear.”

I agree with him. Deaf people can do anything.

Today, I have a challenge for you—consider it a call to action.

Gallaudet is now getting ready to celebrate another milestone—150 years since the signing of the charter. In preparation for this milestone, your school has asked for nominations of visionary leaders—people who give back.

I’m going to take it a step further. I’m challenging each of you to be your own visionary leader.

I’m challenging each of you to dream big—to be bold.

I know that this may seem like an impossible challenge—and exactly the kind of task you might expect to hear at a commencement ceremony.   

Right now, you’re not thinking about changing the world.

You’re thinking about getting your first job out of school.

You’re wondering where you are going to live after graduation.

You’re thinking about where you’ll eat dinner tonight.

Don’t worry—you will figure it out. And as far as today goes, your parents will probably buy you dinner.

You may be scared—wondering what life has in store for you beyond the gates of Florida Ave.

You may think to yourself—sure, I can dream. But I’m not bold.

I want you to let go of those fears right now.

Think of your biggest, wildest dreams—and make a promise to go after them.

Boldness is in your blood.

It’s been there all along—helping you through every challenge.

When the other kids treated you differently…

When a clerk at a store was unable to help you because they couldn’t sign….

When other people dismissed your dreams because they misunderstood your abilities….  

Boldness helped you to overcome the challenges and to keep dreaming big.

Boldness has been pushing you along as you came to Gallaudet—taking classes on subjects you knew little about.

Boldness encouraged you to pursue that dream internship of working for a congressman or small business.

Boldness inspired you to study abroad in a foreign country.

And as you leave this campus, boldness is going to help you become a leader.

Gallaudet has long been a place where big dreams and bold action come together.

The boldness of Gallaudet started with Amos Kendall, Edward Gallaudet, and President Lincoln.

It was evident in the fierce courage and forward thinking of the students who protested for a deaf president.

It spread around the world as Gallaudet students joined the Peace Corps—ensuring that deaf children in developing countries had access to education.

And it’s all around us in Washington.

Members of the Gallaudet community have given back in countless ways.

Alumnus Robert Davilla, who later became Gallaudet’s 9th President, was appointed by President George H. W. Bush as Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services under the Department of Education.

Your baseball coach, Curtis Pride, serves on President Obama’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.

And at the Department of Transportation, we benefit from the skills of Gallaudet Alumni every day and across all modes.

For instance, Marilouise Burgess, class of 1972, works as a mathematical statistician at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And she’s been with the Department for over 30 years.

And most recently, we recruited Anthony and Jillian from the class of 2010.

Anthony graduated with a degree in Computer Information Systems and now works for the Federal Highway Administration. Jillian got her degree in Accounting and now works for the Maritime Administration as a Financial Analyst.

All three are great examples of how Gallaudet alumni contribute to the Department of Transportation.

Some of you may have met Kristen or Eleni at one of the career fairs here on campus.

Both are Gallaudet Alumni—and they help us recruit bright, talented people from Gallaudet.

They help us spread the message that at the Department of Transportation and across the federal government, we are committed to hiring a diverse workforce.

In fact, President Obama set a goal of hiring 100,000 people with disabilities.

To help meet this goal, we have accommodations and technologies to help deaf and hard of hearing employees do their job.

We have videophones, captioned telephones, instant messaging and interpreters among many other resources.

The point is this. Being deaf will not keep you from a life of public service. We need your skills. We need your passion.

Tomorrow, go take a look at www.usajobs.gov and see if there is something that interests you.

Talk to your career center and get connected to a recruiter.

The world beyond Gallaudet is yours for the taking.

Let me end this with some advice that I’ve learned over the course of many years in Washington.

I’ve been a Republican all my life: when I served in the Illinois legislature, when I worked for members of Congress, and when I served in Congress.  

And I understand that we find ourselves in an age of dysfunction—an era of paralyzing partisan bickering.

People sometimes ask me, “Why would you -- a life-long Republican -- sign up to be part of a Democratic administration?”

Well, I’ll tell you why:  Because I’m an American.  I believe in America. 

And I believed that the opportunity to serve in this administration would help serve the American people. 

When I accepted President Obama’s invitation to serve our country, I looked beyond our differences.

The things we shared: like a deep passion to get big things done for the American people. That’s what mattered.

As Secretary of Transportation, I run a department that builds massive transportation projects, like bridges, highways and light-rail systems.

Each of these projects makes a big difference for our communities—and piece by piece, we are transforming our country into something better.

Like all big ideas, every one of these projects requires us to be bold.  

And when I say bold—I don’t mean that one person takes all the credit.

Being bold requires us to work together.  It requires civility. It requires compromise.

In reflecting on your experience here at Gallaudet, I think you’ll draw the same conclusions.

I think you’ll see that because you studied together, because you volunteered together, and because you figured out who you are together.

You came to know each other beyond your differences.  You understand that in order to get big things done—we must work together.

Many of you are already giving back. You’re interning in the government. You’re helping those in need. You’re preparing yourselves for a lifetime of service.

You are strong. You are bold. You are leaders.

And with the potential of today’s technologies—nothing is holding you back.

I know most of you don’t remember what it was like before twitter and texting—but these communication tools have revolutionized the world for deaf people.  They’ve broken down one more barrier.

From this day forward, I want you to take a page out of Lincoln’s book.

Don’t ever listen to the naysayers. Don’t focus on your differences. Focus on what you bring to the table.

You are here right now because you have the right stuff.

Gallaudet gave you the tools you need to be a leader.  Now it’s your job to dream big and to be bold.

Thank you so much for inviting me here today.

Good luck and God Speed.

Updated: Tuesday, June 4, 2013