Remarks by Vice President Harris at the Tennessee State University 2022 Spring Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Good morning. Good morning. Good morning. Jada, thank you for that introduction and for your 4.0. How about that?
Greetings, Tigers. Greetings to all of you. (Applause.)
And to the members of the board, distinguished faculty, and staff, thank you for this tremendous honor.
I cannot say enough about the president of this university, Dr. Glenda Glover. (Applause.) Dr. Glover, you have been a tremendous friend to me for many years, and I thank you for your leadership. And Tennessee State is extremely fortunate to have you as its leader.
To the class of 2022: Congratulations to all of you. (Applause.)
And we are, of course, joined today by your professors and your coaches and university staff who have been by your side for every step of this journey. Let’s give them another round of applause. (Applause.)
And to all of the families and the loved ones who are here — the parents and the grandparents, the aunties and the uncles, the godparents: I thank you. I thank you.
I know over these last years, it has been you who have delivered the care packages, who have offered up a place to do laundry. You spent money when they called you and said, “I need a little bit for books or maybe my sorority dues.” (Applause.)
And through it all, you were just a phone call or a text away.
And to all of you — to all of you in these stands: These graduates are your legacy. When they walk across this stage today and receive their diploma, you will walk with them. And I recognize the pride in your eyes. I can see it from here.
Graduates, I know it has been a long, hard road, but you all made it. You made it.
And right now, I’m going to ask you to take a moment. Take a moment and look to your left and look to your right. And take a good look at the folks sitting around you right now. These are the folks who have been by your side, literally and virtually, since your first day as a Tiger.
Together, you all have been through $10 Tuesdays
at Slim & Husky’s. (Laughter.)
Together, you all have been through last-minute scrambles to memorize a speech for freshman Public Speaking.
Together, you have been through the return to campus and, just as importantly, through the return to in-person homecoming.
You made it through together.
I speak from personal experience when I say — hear me now — there are future members of your wedding party in this class. Someone sitting near you will ask you to be godparent to their child.
Over the years, you will reach out to some of the people around you when you’ve had a bad day or a great one, and they will reach out to you, too.
And many of them might be present for your swearing-in after your election to public office.
Class of 2022, you made it through.
And it cannot be denied also that your class has traveled a stony road — a pandemic that took away so much of the college experience that you once imagined.
And the world that you graduate into is unsettled. It is a world where long-established principles now rest on shaky ground.
We see this in Ukraine, where Russia’s invasion threatens international rules and norms that have provided unprecedented peace and security in Europe since World War Two.
We believed that the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity had, for the most part, prevailed — that democracy had prevailed. But now, the certainty of fundamental principles is being called into question, including the principles of equality and fairness.
Inequality has always, sadly, existed in our world. The gaps between the rich and the poor, men and women, the global north and global south have existed throughout our history.
And through this pandemic, the gaps have become much larger. Globally, extreme poverty is on the rise, as is extreme wealth.
You graduate into an unsettled world, both abroad and here at home.
In the United States, we are once again forced to defend fundamental principles that we hoped were long-settled: principles like the freedom to vote, the rights of women to make decisions about their own bodies — (applause) — even what constitutes the truth, especially in an era when anyone can post anything online and claim it is a fact.
We must also grapple with the urgent issues that have not been settled. Some of them have been accelerated during your lifetime, like the need to address the climate crisis.
Some we have been struggling with since the founding of our nation: disparities in who has access to healthcare, disparities in how people are treated by the criminal justice system, disparities in wealth and who has access to the capital required to succeed and thrive.
And, graduates, I look at this unsettled world and, yes, I then see the challenges, but I’m here to tell you, I also see the opportunities. The opportunities for your leadership. The future of our country and our world will be shaped by you.
And when I speak about “you,” I am talking about you as the class of 2022, as graduates of TSU. You as individuals, each with your own lived experience.
Each of these pieces of who you are comes with very special attributes, its own approach — these attributes — to tackling the biggest challenges of today.
As the class of 2022, you bring possibility to the table. You are a generation that grew up online and survived a pandemic. You are familiar with a world that, for many of us, feels a bit strange and new. You have been engaged with this world since you were little.
And yet, of course, you do still have some prove to do.
Most importantly, you have the ability to see what can be, unburdened by what has been. To look at the challenges facing us and find solutions that generations before could have never imagined.
You are, of course, more than just the class of 2022. You are also a product of the education you received here on this campus. And as soon-to-be graduates of Tennessee State, you are fueled by self-determination, fueled by big ambitions.
Students from all over the world come here because they have big dreams.
Now, I didn’t attend Tennessee State, but I am a fellow HBCU graduate. (Applause.) And I’d like to share a little story with you. A story about the first time I flew on the vice presidential helicopter, which is called “Marine Two.”
Now this day — it was not long after I was sworn in, and we were flying from Andrews Air Force Base to the official residence of the Vice President. And one of the Marines asked me to look out the window.
As it turns out, they had a surprise for me. The helicopter was circling around Howard University, my alma mater. I looked out the window of that helicopter, Marine Two, and I saw that we were over The Yard, which is Howard’s version of The Courtyard.
As I looked down out of the window, I saw myself at 17 years old walking across campus with a big stack of books tucked under my arms at a place just like this. That reinforced that I could be anything, do anything even if it had never been done before. (Applause.) Like you. Like you and full of hope, full of dreams, with a future full of possibility just like you.
I stand before you today as the Vice President of the United States of America and as a proud graduate of an HBCU to say: There is no limit to your capacity for greatness — (applause) — and there is no obstacle you cannot overcome, and there is no barrier you cannot break. (Applause.)
Your time at Tennessee State has unlocked unimaginable opportunities for your future, because you see, HBCUs like this — well, they are cathedrals of education. And the value of this education is that it teaches you something very special: That, yes, you can be anything and do anything.
And this brings me to the third reason why I know that you will play an essential role in shaping our nation’s future. Each of you has your own story, your own way of looking at the world, shaped by every moment that brought you to this point.
I was around your age when I decided that I wanted to take on systemic problems from the inside of the system, that I would look for solutions through the lens of my own experience and perspectives, and that I wanted and needed to be in the rooms where the decisions were being made.
Graduates, you stand on the brink of a new frontier where we are building the platforms for the next phase of technology, where we are conducting the research that will lead to the next great medical breakthrough — maybe even the cures for cancer or lupus or lifesaving reforms to maternal healthcare — where we are defining the fundamental principles that will underpin the 21st century. And we need you in the room helping to make these decisions.
As Vice President, I spend a lot of time in these rooms. I preside over debates in the United States Senate. I consult with experts at the Goddard Space Flight Center as the Chair of the National Space Council. I host bilateral meetings with heads of state at the White House.
These are the rooms where decisions are being made. And these are the rooms that I was taught early on by my family, my mentors, and professors, who always believed that I should know that I could be and should be in those rooms, just as I believe you should be in these rooms. (Applause.)
Graduates, we need you. We need you to run companies and make decisions about who has access to capital.
We need you to serve at the highest levels of government and determine our country’s standing in the world.
We need you to work in our hospitals and in our courtrooms and in our schools.
We need you to shape the future of technology.
We need you because your perspective — the sum total of your intellect and your lived experience — will make our country stronger.
And so, when you are in those rooms, my advice to you is to be true to yourself. Hold close the values that your grandparents, your parents, your pastors, and your neighbors instilled in you. Have the courage and conviction to follow your moral compass.
And with that, there is one last message I will leave you with today. I want you all — each and every one of you — to always remember that you are not alone, that you come from people, that you come with people.
Because I promise you: There will be a time when you will walk into a boardroom or a courtroom or maybe even the Situation Room, and you will walk into the room and find you are the only person in that room who looks like you or has had your life experience. (Applause.)
And at that moment, you must remember you are not in that room alone. Always know that you carry the voices of everyone here and those upon whose shoulders you stand.
I started this address talking about how today also belongs to your family, and so I will end by talking about my own mother.
She was the first person to tell me that my thoughts and my experiences mattered. My mother would often say to me, “Kamala, you may be the first to do many things. Make sure you are not the last.”
I have been many firsts in my lifetime. And as I look out at all of you today, I know I will not be the last. (Applause.)
I cannot wait to see the future you will create.
Your country is so proud of you.
Congratulations on this tremendous achievement.
May God bless you. And may God bless America. Thank you all. (Applause.)