The privilege to stand before this entire graduating class as Valedictorian is an immense one. With such an opportunity comes an equally immense responsibility or obligation. And it is these two conditions, privilege and obligation, which I desire to speak about today.
This commencement is the celebration of our achievements as students after years of dedication to our disciplines, and for that we should all feel a sense of incredible accomplishment.
I am certain that every member of this graduating class can look back on their studies and find moments of great personal trial and anguish, moments that may have seemed insurmountable at the time. Yet, here we all are, together as one graduating body, with each of us representing the rewards of persistence and an assiduous character. As each of you sits here today, I hope you can reflect on what a privilege this graduation also represents. When I sat down to write this speech, I had just such a reflection and it relates to my family’s story.
My father was the first member of his family to graduate from college, as both of his parents had immigrated to the Bronx from Northern Italy. For my paternal grandparents, education wasn’t even an option; it was something so far beyond their reach that it almost defies comprehension today. At the age of six, my grandmother had become an indentured servant as a shepherdess for a wealthy family simply because her own parents could not afford to feed her. At the age of sixteen, she had to be “purchased” out of this service by her brothers, who had been working in America to save the necessary money. My grandparents were not ignorant people, they just didn’t have access to an education and as a result of their experiences education became their primary concern for their children.
Although my father, for the first time in his family’s history, had access to a public education, it would not be without its own struggles. During his first week of grade school he was moved to a “special education” class because the teachers confused his inability to speak English with a more serious mental condition. Yet, whatever the hardship, my grandparents bore it to ensure their son had an education. When my father was accepted to Manhattan College in New York City as an undergraduate and was then offered scholarships to Notre Dame and Marquette for his graduate degree, my grandfather broke down in tears of joy; his years of working eighteen hour shifts in New York restaurants had succeeded in creating privilege in his son’s life.
Just as my father’s family provided me with an example of the rewards of sacrifice, my mother’s family demonstrated the importance of public service. Much of my mother’s family lived an affluent lifestyle, most were highly educated, and one was a Supreme Court lawyer. It was a very different existence than that of my father’s family. Yet they provided me with another important lesson about the relationship between privilege and obligation. While their positions in society could have allowed them to indulge in whatever pursuits they desired, they actively used their privilege to improve the lives of others. As part of her Jewish heritage, my great-grandmother was an active Zionist who raised millions of dollars for various Jewish causes and ultimately left her life of material comfort in New York City to move to Palestine to assist in founding the State of Israel. What all my ancestors had in common was that their sacrifices and service have made it possible for me to stand before you today.
While I can say with all sincerity that I worked as hard as I could every day I was here, I am still the product of privilege, and it is that obligation that motivated me to be unrelenting in my studies. Nor do I believe I am the only one in this graduating class with such a story. Some of you may be in the same position as I am, and some of you may be like my father, the first in your family to graduate from an institution of higher learning. Each of our University experiences was necessarily different. Some of us had the financial support of family. Others had to work to pay our own way through college. Some had scholarships and grants. And some, like myself, had a mixture of the three. However, all of us, every single graduate in this room, had the financial support of the citizens of this State. In that sense we are all the products of privilege, and we are all now under an immense obligation.
Whatever your story, don’t be content only in the accomplishments of your own merit. Honor the memory and sacrifices of your ancestors by continuing to move your own family’s history forward. But understand that with this privilege comes an obligation to become an active participant in improving both your own life, and others’ as well. As a student of Political Science and History, I take away one great lesson from this University: no human system is self-sustaining; all need the stable hand of a steward. No University, no community and no Republic can survive if the commitment of its people is lost. As graduates, it is now our obligation to perpetuate the knowledge we gained during our time here and to maintain this institution, which has given all of us a greater chance at life. Furthermore, it is now our obligation to take the benefits we will derive from our education and serve our communities who supported us as students. Most of all, it is our obligation to continue to create privilege for our own children, and to teach them the costs and responsibilities that come with it.
In closing, I offer to this graduating class my family’s dictum, Sempre Avanti, which means “always forward.” As you move into the next phases of your life, I hope you will strive to continue the proud traditions of this University and that when you have finished your work in your discipline, it will be in a greater condition than before you arrived. Finally, I hope that you will use your privileged place in society to better the very system which sustains you. I congratulate you, and those that have supported you, on your incredible accomplishments. May you never lose the love of knowledge that you once found in the hallways of this great University. Sempre Avanti.