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Supposed to inspire them, but they inspired me instead

My morning at Bronx Community College as commencement speaker last Friday was filled with surprises. (speech @ ) Beginning with the size of the place. It is spread across 26 buildings on 52 acres of the South Bronx. It was NYU’s Bronx campus until 1973.

There were also more dignitaries than I expected. Former Mayor David Dinkins, and current New York Senator Chuck Schumer also both spoke. As did the Chancellor of the City University of New York Matt Goldstein. As we were waiting to begin someone told of a favorite commencement speech by a children’s book author who told a ghost story which “was terrific because after all no one really ever remembers a word of the commencement speech.”

On a glorious sun drenched morning we looked out on 900 graduates and more than 5000 members of their families. The graduating class was about 60% Latino and 35% African American. Many if not most are the first in their families to attend college. Several spoke of eloquently of the steep challenges they’d faced as a result of poverty, single parent homes, poor health care, lack of quality education, and sometimes their own bad choices.

As is custom at such ceremonies, my job as commencement speaker was to impart wisdom and provide inspiration. But the challenge I faced was to not be redundant. There was nothing I could say as inspirational as the lives they’d lived, the obstacles they’d overcome, and the achievements represented by their diploma. Unlike students at more elite colleges, they don’t necessarily have new jobs waiting for them as a reward for all of their hard work. But still they could not have been more excited or proud.

I don’t know if they left inspired. But I did.

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