Hrabowski: “Know Your Story and Your Family’s Story”

Editorial StaffMay 22, 202213min
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Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the commencement speaker at Wesleyan’s 190th Commencement ceremony, chatted with a few members of the highly accomplished Class of 2022 in preparation for his remarks. By knowing your own story and telling it, by being bold and plotting your path, and most importantly, Hrabowski said, never giving up, the Class of 2022 can become leaders.

Hrabowski is a writer and passionate advocate for underrepresented groups studying in STEM fields; he has served as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County since 1992. His research and publications focus on science and math education, with special emphasis on minority participation and success. He serves as a consultant to the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Academies, and universities and school systems nationally. TIME magazine named Hrabowski one the “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2012.

Hrabowski made the following remarks during Wesleyan’s 190th Commencement Ceremony on May 22:

Thank you very much to the board and platform guests, to the faculty and to our families, to the alumni, and to the amazing Class of 2022—Congratulations!

I am deeply honored today. But I want to begin by making a statement as I get ready to retire from my beloved UMBC. The older I get the more I realize that there’s nothing in our lives more important than our families and our friends. And so graduates, I want you to stand and applaud all the families that are all around and let them know how much you love them. Give them a round of applause!

I recently had the privilege of talking to four of your classmates. I want them to stand—this is Ben and Anna and Cesar and Fatima. Get up and let them see who you are, please. This is my kitchen cabinet. And they helped me prepare my speech.

Ben is completing a major in social studies, on his way to Colorado Springs for a fellowship in leadership development. Anna, majoring in social studies and economics, is going to Beijing to complete a master’s in global affairs as a Schwarzman scholar. Cesar, double-majoring in chemistry and physics, is going to the University of Chicago in molecular engineering. And Fatima is a part of that fabulous program, WesMASS. She’s completing her degree in neuroscience and biology and will be staying here as a Silverberg Shapiro scholar working on a master’s in biology. Big round of applause for all four of them!

I begin with words from poetry…

William Carlos Williams once said it’s difficult to find news in poetry, and yet men and women die miserably every day because of what’s lacking there.

I begin with words from our beloved and late Maya Angelou, who spoke to this country 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.

Graduates, I want you to know your classmates said we’re going into a world of turmoil. And both of the other speakers, Dr. Fins and my beloved Gloria Steinem talked about the fact of what will be for you. And President Roth, who spoke the truth.

And what the students said was connect our next stage to what we have been studying for the past four years. How do the values that we have acquired that were supported from family and through this institution relate to what we will experience? Somebody said and make sure you say something funny so they won’t be bored. So I’ll try to figure that one out. But here is the point: Each of them in his or her way was saying to me that every one of you has a story.

And as I talk today about my own story, I want you to think about your story and your family story and who helped you get here. (I loved it when the senior class speaker talked about that umbrella. Very special.)

So I’m sitting in jail as a 12-year-old. I’m there because I was inspired by Dr. King, who said we as children needed to understand that tomorrow can be better than today if we make it so. And he challenged us to march in the Children’s Crusade in 1963. I wanted to go because I was tired of the hand-me-down books and I wanted to see what it was like to be in a school that had more resources. And we’re sitting in the jail being treated like slaves, like animals. Not enough bathrooms, all on the floor, and I look out the window as he’s talking to us with our parents and I think to myself, Will I be OK?

And years later, I’m sitting at graduation like you, at my beloved Hampton. Getting ready to go off to the University of Illinois, and I just asked my best friend, my rock, my girlfriend, to marry me. And I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, Oh my God, will I make a good husband? Did I make a mistake?

She was worthy, but was I worthy? Fifty years later—I heard Gloria talking about those statistics—50 years later, she is still with me and I’m with her. Fifty years later, we are so blessed to be together and I did the best thing by getting a picture of me and Gloria Steinem last night, so I’m in good shape. I’m in very good shape.

But my journey is your journey and the message to you today is that you will be OK.

The lessons that you learned here about being bold, about that practical idealism that everybody talks about. You know what that means. About speaking your truth, about being generous of spirit, about thinking critically and communicating effectively and not being arrogant, caring about people less fortunate.

The Wesleyan University faculty are to be applauded with the president for selecting all three of us because we talked about the rights of other people. The human rights at a time when we are being fought with and everybody around is questioning the right to vote, the rights of women, the rights of people of color, the rights of LGBTQ, all of these challenges. Your studying history allows you to know this is not the first time we’ve been in this shape. There have been other periods—the 1960s, the 1860s.

And what I want you to think about is this: I am so honored to be standing here, where my hero, Dr. King, spoke to your fellow alumni 60 years ago. He said: “We can move through the darkness of the hour to the brightness of a new day. I have faith because somehow I believe that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Many have thought about that arc. And what I say to you today is what I believe so desperately in my heart. That the only way the arc moves towards justice is with us, that we must pull that long arc towards justice.

You are among the most privileged people in the world. You’ve got families who love you and faculty who love you. You are brilliant. You’ve been taught to think critically and to speak your truth, and you become the generation. Just as Dr. King looked at me as a child and said, You must change the world, I say to you, you have the chance when you touch any one person to change the world. When I went to University of Illinois and never saw anybody looking like me in math and science, I said, I want to devote my life to producing kids of color and women because there was only one woman faculty out of a hundred at that time. There were no Blacks.

I’ve devoted the last 50 years to What can I do to help more kids exceed and excel in science, but also love the humanities? And so I give you as a final example, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a young woman whom I recruited to my university when she was 17 from a rural town. She comes, she gets a degree, she goes to Chapel Hill, she gets her PhD, she works at NIH, and with Dr. Barney Graham, she created that vaccine that you have in your arm—the first Black woman in the world!

For every little girl of every race there is the message you can do far more, far more than you think. And so I leave you with this thought: When Dr. King spoke on this campus because of Professor Maguire four times in the ’60s when he couldn’t have spoken in my state, to a group like this, one student said he looked into his eyes and he reached his soul.

I want you to be so authentic that when you look at others, you begin to reach the souls of people. I challenge you to be bold, to plot your own path. Don’t let anybody else define who you are, to keep hope alive, and to never, never, never give up. God bless you all. And congratulations to the Class of 2022.