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Freeman Hrabowski’s Speech


Freeman Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), delivers Hamilton’s 2019 Commencement address on May 26.

Thank you very, very much. I promised my students that wherever I would go for the next several years I would mention that two years ago we made history by being the number 16 seed who beat the number one seed, UVA — UMBC, in basketball, a nerdy campus. Give us a round of applause. Thank you. And if you knew how nerdy I am you’d appreciate how this is a big deal — I’m doing what I promised my students I would do.

I begin by thanking this wonderful college, the platform guests, our trustees, Mr. President –  David, all of you, the faculty and the staff, the families, and that fabulous class of 2019. Give them a round of applause. That fabulous class of 2019.

And I also begin with poetry. William Carlos Williams said it’s difficult to find news in poetry, and yet men and women die miserably every day because of a lack of what’s found there. So I begin with words from our beloved and now late Maya Angelou, who looked into the face of America decades ago and said, “Lift up your eyes upon this day breaking for you. Give birth again to the dream. Women, children, men, take it, this dream, into the palms of your hands. Mold it into the image of your most public self. Sculpt it into the shape of your most private need. Here on the pulse of this new day you may have the grace to look up and out and into your sister’s eyes, and into your brother’s face, and say simply, very simply with hope, Good Morning.” Give poetry and Maya a round of applause for the poetry.

I have a fundamental point today which is that the way we think about ourselves, the class of 2019 as Hamilton College, as a country, as humankind, the language that we use in interacting with each other, the values that we hold will be so important we become like whatever it is that really we love, our dreams and our values shape not only who we are today but who we will be in the future.

I had the privilege of talking to several of your classmates and I call them my kitchen cabinet. I’m going to ask Megan and Josh and Johnny and Helen and Jon to stand for a minute and I want you to give them a round of applause. They have been — wherever they are please stand, and give them a round of applause. I had this amazing conversation, and I do this because, quite frankly, what I want you to know is that whatever a speaker could say up here is really something you probably already know, that what we do at most is to take a moment to celebrate your success and to reflect and to ask the question who are we, who are you as individuals, who are we as a college, who are we as an American democracy. But I find that listening to the voices of people graduating can give the speaker, can give me a chance to understand what you believe about yourselves.

And I said so what’s important to you? And this is, first of all Megan, who is in economics, will be going on to finance and investment management; Josh, who is a government major is pursuing a career in music business and actually will be the floor manager for the country musician Luke Bryant. Give him a round of applause, it’s a nice idea. It’s great, right? And Johnny, an economics major, is going to New York to work in finance; and Helen, who’s completing her degree in chemistry will be going to do research at Mass General; and finally Jon, you’ve heard already, will be going back to Pittsburgh and that’s for actuarial science. And they come from different majors and they had several messages for you that resonated with things I wanted to say, and that said them in language that was so clear they said number one, what’s special about Hamilton? It would be the people. It’s what you’ve heard all day, what Jon said earlier, it’s the people. It was so interesting when Megan said it sounds like a cliché but we really develop these friendships, these relationships that people help each other in times of need, in editing a paper or being a counselor or being supportive of others that we work together in service projects. And so they said it’s a special community with all kinds of academic interests and other interests, and then they said this that was so significant: that amazingly there’s a tradition you have here, you have a number of traditions but I want to see if this is true. They say that nobody walks on the map until you graduate. Is that true? It is true? So you do it after this or have you already don’t it? After. Okay. So I got that it is the case, number two.

And number three what they said was that you have powerful voices. And this is on a very serious level, that you have worked to drive change when you’ve seen the need for change, that you speak truth to power, that you want to encourage each other to continue speaking truth, that you want to encourage using your voices not only to help yourselves, but to help other people, and that you are not one-dimensional, that you have all kinds of interests. It was interesting hearing Helen say that yes she’s a chemist, but she also enjoyed her courses in ethics and women’s studies, and that she was speaking both as a scientist and a student athlete. And each of them could talk about the variety of things that you do, and that you are 1,800 strong, and you are very proud to be in that position.

Each of you has a story. You heard Mr. Donovan yesterday telling you to know yourselves. I add to that to know your stories. To know your stories. It’s so interesting. Anybody you meet, you may know one thing about the person, you may have no idea the person’s background. Learn the stories of others but know your own story, how you got here today, your parents, your grandparents and others, and use those stories. When Rich Bernstein introduced me, we’ve known each other for years, he’s a big guy in finance but I hadn’t heard his story until I was here. And when he said ‘my granddad ran a fruit stand in Newark,’ and then his dad got a chance to go to college on a scholarship and become a famous scientist. And he talked about those generations. Each of you has generations. Whether you’re from privilege or not, you go back far enough and there was less privilege. And somehow what you have in common are all of these stories. I thought about the fact that you are now about to enter another phase, and the question you might be asking yourself is this: will I be okay?

I’ll never forget 49 years ago, sitting in commencement and we had two amazing speakers for baccalaureate and for commencement at my beloved Hampton in Virginia, and we were in awe because we had as our baccalaureate speaker the famous Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman in Congress. And then we had another New Yorker, Adam Clayton Powell as a speaker. And they said the same thing. They said life is tough now, society is so divided you may see your futures as being at this level but you must dream big about the possibilities. I want you to know I could never have imagined as a child standing here representing a university with students from a hundred countries, speaking at one of the most admired colleges in the world, to people from all over the world.

I remember so well sitting in jail as a 12-year-old, looking out the window with my fellow children, and we are seeing our parents, and we’re seeing Dr. King and he said that statement about what would happen, that we were going to have an impact on what would happen. That we were empowered to think big about the possibilities. And the only thing we could think at that moment was that we were feeling like not just prisoners but animals. And yet the message to us was this: you do not let anyone else define who you are. Give me a round of applause for that idea. Don’t you let anyone else define who you are. That you must be elevated to believe it, that it is so important. You know? And I remember sitting there, and I remember them saying that and yet I was thinking will I be okay? I was about to go to grad school, I’d never been in class with white kids before, I didn’t know what it was going to be like coming out of a segregated south going to an HBCU, a black college, and here I was going to the big University of Illinois. I had no idea. And yet they said you’ll be okay. And amazingly I was. But you know that day I had just asked my girlfriend to be my fiancé. And she had said yes. And I was so scared. Will I be a good husband? Well I want you to know 49 years later we’re still the best of friends and the best of lovers. And give her that round of applause. You will be okay. You will be okay. You really will.

And I met wonderful parents and their son in the elevator at the hotel, and I could tell they were coming to commencement. Their other son was graduating. And I asked and I said, I said, “Do you remember when your son was born, parents?” And they gave themselves a look because of course, one of the best moments of our lives. It was so clear. And to you, parents, you remember when each of these young people was born. And you have these dreams for your children. And you have worked so hard to get them to this point. And I say to you today parents and families, well done. Students, give your parents a round of applause. Well done. Well done. They’ve done well. With the wonderful faculty and wonderful staff. Well done.

And so here is my message to you. I talked to the two flag bearers. And it was very interesting. One said, Normie and Helica, and they said, “Say something funny.” And I said, “I’m not a funny guy.” They said, “Everybody can say something funny, right?” So here we go. Wish me luck, all right? I’m going to tell you a quick story. My grandmamma had a way of wanting to make me feel supported, and my mom was always worried because I loved two things, food and math. I was getting fatter and smarter all the time. Doing my math, eating my M & Ms, the kind with the peanuts in them, you know, the good kind, right? Right? And my grandmother would make two blueberry pies. I tell this story all the time. One for the family and one for “Little Fat Freeman,” all right? And her daughter would be so upset, because my mother was trying to teach me to eat in a healthy way. But there would be a whole pie for me and I’d sit there and my mother would let me just eat the pie while I’m doing my math at the kitchen table, and I have pie all over my face. And my mother would be doing like this, just pathetic. And my grandmother would say, “Baby you eat that pie and you enjoy yourself.” All right? Now that was what I call savoring the moment. This is your blueberry pie moment folks. This is the moment for your families and your faculty to feel so good about. So take this moment and taste it. I want you to savor this moment because there will be times when you will be challenged and you will have to ask the question will I be okay. My message to you is you will be very okay.

And so I challenge you to ask the good questions. I. I. Rabi always, always said that his mother would say to him every day at school something different from what other mothers said in New York. Other mothers would say did you, did you learn anything in school today. He said, but not my Jewish mother. He said — I. I. Rabi, noble laureate in physics said, “My mother would say this, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’” And the practice of encouraging his curiosity made him the thinker he became. I want you to keep asking good questions number one. Keep asking the hard questions. Keep thinking of things we’ve not thought about as we think of our social justice, as we think about inequality, as we think about seeing the truth. And then number two, to never stop learning. We can never say that enough, that amazingly Becket, the Irish novelist who wrote in French had a character who studied the dance of the bees. When bees are dancing they’re actually communicating. And he said this, here is something I could study, this dancing of bees, all my life and never understand it. But he said it with great rapture because the more he studied the dancing of the bees, the more he began to understand how they were communicating. But the more he understood, the more he realized he had so much more to know. And that’s the significance of an education, of a liberal education, you’re constantly learning new things.

My wife and I decided to start studying French a couple of years ago. And my students gave me this strange look and they said, “Don’t you think you’re kind of old so start at this point?” And I said, “Bring it on, right?” Bring it on. So [speaks in French at 12:38] and so I quote for you the French poet Apollinaire who said “La joie venait toujours après la peine.” What does it mean? It means The joy comes after the struggle. You have worked hard here. On my campus we use the word grit. Our Chesapeake Bay Retriever is True Grit, we say we’re the house of ‘grit.’ Well you are that kind of place. You have worked so hard to get to this point, and today is that blueberry moment when you can just look at it and think this is what I will do for the rest of our lives, and it will make all the difference in the world.

And my final point involves something that Justice Brandeis said. He said that the most important office in the land is that of private citizen. You are becoming the most advantaged, the most privileged, educated citizens in the world. And of those who much is given, much is required. And that’s what your fellow graduates were saying to me. Challenge us to pay it forward. Challenge us to be asking the questions and to fight for the right things, for the right people, for all the people. And I want you, with that thought, to remember the words of Fred Lawrence, a Phi Beta Kappa, who said that the most important thing we can teach our students is to be able to present our arguments and back them up with facts, with evidence. Number two, to be willing to listen to other points of view and to evaluate the evidence. And number three to find the common ground, and to look for that common ground for the public good. You know? This is the 100th anniversary that Congress, when Congress approved that Nineteenth Amendment for women. It was ratified in ’20, but it was in June of 1919. Only 100 years ago that we, our great country, understand the importance that women should have the right to vote. Give me a round of applause for women and their future and respect and dignity.

My grandmamma, who made that pie, had to fight in Alabama and — they thought up something called the Alabama Literacy Test and they would — whites could cross there, put an X there if they couldn’t read. But blacks had to pass this test based on the Constitution. My grandmamma — a brilliant sixth grade educated grandmamma literally had several of her women friends and they went to that second time, they had failed it, and they took parts of the test and memorized them and brought them back and put it together to understand the parts of the constitution they were going to be tested on. And then my grandmamma would have my mama working with her as if she was a lawyer on the Constitution. And when she came in that house, in the early 1960s and she looked in my face with tears down her face she said, “I am now a voting citizen of America.” How dare we not vote? How dare we not vote? More now than ever, we must show that the American democracy is about all of us. Watch your thoughts, they become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny. Congratulations to the class of 2019. I am so proud of you. Congratulations to the class of 2019. I am so proud. God bless you all.

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