2007 Spring Commencement Address
Chancellor Gene I. Awakuni
University of Hawai‘i – West O‘ahu
Congratulations again graduates. You’ve made it. You’ve achieved your goal. Although I’m sure you have many other goals, you deserve this special moment of recognition for all the hard work you’ve put in. But I also want you to remember that although this may appear the end of an extremely long and arduous journey, it is simply the beginning of a new phase of your life. That’s why we call this a commencement ceremony not a completion ceremony.
I hope what I share with you this morning will be of value as you continue to make your way in the world.
Don’t worry, I am fully aware that you want this ceremony to be over soon so you can get the leis and well wishes from family and friends you so richly deserve.
I’m going to talk about something a little different from what you usually hear at these commencement ceremonies. I’m sure you’ve been told that learning is a lifelong process and this is simply one more milestone that you’ve achieved. But more than the individual gains that a university education provides, like the thinking, computational, and communication skills you’ve acquired, what you now have accomplished can benefit the community in immeasurable ways. Whether you realize it or not, and whether you like it or not, you’ve become a role model: Someone who can make a difference in the lives of our young folks, not only in the Leeward and Central O‘ahu areas but anywhere that you choose to settle. The need is great no matter where you go in the country. The drop out rates everywhere continue to go up, meth use is at an epidemic level, and crimes related to drug use is rising quickly too. And we keep building more prisons than schools.
I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up in Palolo Valley a long time ago, the only role models I had were the ones who were doing bad things. No one went to college in my neighborhood. I come from a family where no one from my parents’ generation had gone to college either. In fact, neither of my parents went beyond the 8th grade. My mother was a seamstress for over 30 years and my father worked in construction for almost 40 years as a mason.
Growing up I was a kolohe kid. The usual kind stuff: suspended from school for cutting class and gambling and fighting. I did not spend a lot of time in school. My pidgin was so “tick,” my teachers would tell me they couldn’t understand what I was saying. They thought I was speaking a foreign language. I’m not proud of everything I did back then, but that’s who I was. After high school – I barely made it by the way – I worked in construction for awhile, got tired of that then went into the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam. Later I drove a cement truck, worked as an airline ticket agent, a house mover, and as a produce clerk in a large supermarket.
What got me started on the higher education path was this place right here, Leeward Community College. I was tired of minimum wage jobs so I started at Leeward and eventually got to Manoa and then went on to obtain my doctorate from Harvard University. Only because of the help of mentors who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself was I able to get on the right path.
So my own life story is a prime example of what happens when no one is around to provide guidance and direction, and then when people do care enough to spend the time to involve themselves as they did in my life, things can definitely turn around.
This is where you come in. You have the ability, the power like the mentors in my life to make a difference in a young person’s life.
Yes, I know many of you have made it here despite having to cope with tremendous adversity without help from anyone except your family and friends. Many of you have overcome huge obstacles on the strength of your tenacity and belief in yourself. That’s good.
My challenge to you is beyond striving to achieve success in your job, beyond making a good living for yourself and your family. Please show your compassion, your love for the kids coming along who need a role model: Someone they can look up to, someone who has beaten the odds and made it out of the neighborhood and gone on to achieve a college degree.
You know that it used to be in the old days in Hawai‘i, wealth was not measured by the number of possessions you accumulated, but by the number of people you helped. Go forward and no matter what else you do, involve yourself in your community and be a role model and the supporter our young people so desperately need.
As long as you strive for success, remember to practice acts of kindness, even with people you don’t know. This too is important for us to combat the alienation and estrangement occurring in society today. For as one of our elders said, only when strangers are treated as neighbors will our communities be reinvigorated.
Community building, reaching across cultural, social and economic boundaries can occur anywhere and at anytime. One day when I was a vice president at Columbia University in New York City, where I oversaw a division of about 500 staff, I was walking across the campus and stopped to watch a groundskeeper who was steam-cleaning the famous fountains at Columbia. As I stood there watching him for a few minutes, I marveled at how meticulous and thorough he was. After awhile he noticed me and came over, took off his mask and gloves, extended his hand and said with a slight Spanish accent, “Hi, my name is Miguel Felix.” I told him how impressed I was with his work and he said with obvious pride, if you like this you should see what I did on the walkway next to Butler Library. He encouraged me to go take a look. So I did and sure enough, his work there was extraordinary. He had taken all the moss off the sidewalk that used to cause major slip-and-fall accidents, especially during the winter. A few days later, I’m walking across campus again and Miguel comes racing over to me calling my name. I stop and we chat. I told him how impressed I was with his work, and then he tells me, “Gene, this is not all that I do. I’m an artist and a standup comic and I write comedy for a Spanish language TV station.” I nodded my head, but was kind of skeptical, to say the least. He said, “In fact, I’m performing down in Midtown, come see me.” Which I did, and you know what? The guy was amazingly funny. This groundskeeper at Columbia had the audience in stitches. As our friendship grew, he’d bring his artwork to my office. I learned that he worked at Columbia, yes, because it helped support his family. But also, perhaps most importantly, because he could take art classes for free. Art was his passion. Eventually I encouraged him to display his work and helped to sponsor the first ever staff art show, which Miguel organized. It was a huge success. He and his fellow staff made lots of money selling their work.
I say all this because everyday of our lives, we walk or drive by people with our own sort of tunnel vision, not thinking about all that might be going on in their lives. Yes, we have lots going on in our lives, but sometimes making connections with people can be transformational. From groundskeepers to CEOs, everyone has a story and every story matters.
Believe me, people will respond to your efforts to connect as human beings and your acts of kindness in ways you least suspect.
A few years ago, a friend and I were at a gas station down the street where I lived in Long Beach, California. There was a guy there with a squeegee. If you ever lived in California, you’ve probably seen those squeegee guys around. He comes running over to my car and before I could say anything he started cleaning my windows. We started talking for a bit and I found out that he was a Vietnam vet, like me, had been married, fell on some hard times, and lost his job and everything. When he was done, I reached in my pocket and at the last minute, instead of giving him a dollar as I had intended, I pulled out a $5 bill and gave him that. My friend, as you might imagine, said how come you gave him so much money. I said to her that he seemed like a nice guy and he obviously could use the money.
The next week we were at the gas station again and the same fellow comes running across the lot to us. My friend is saying to me he’s coming again, don’t look. Well he starts to clean my windows as he had done before. When he got done, I reached in my pocket, this time for a dollar. But he waves me off and says, “No, no, don’t worry about it. You gave me enough last time. This time it’s on me.”
People will surprise you. Never underestimate the good in others. Some folks may be down on their luck, may be experiencing hard times, but they still have their dignity and self-respect.
I believe that we need to get people to understand that skin color or one’s status in life should not define the way we treat others or the way others treat us. Again, remember that everyone has a story and every story matters.
If we can get people to understand and accept each other as neighbors and friends, we’d be in much better shape of becoming a more civil, respectful and supportive society. As Martin Luther King said a few decades ago, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
We need to turn the collection of houses we call subdivisions into caring neighborhoods with a common spirit and a common purpose. I believe our very survival depends on it. Graduates, you can help us.
Your challenge as role models and change agents is to determine how you can make a difference in your community. How you can make all of our kids believe that college is for them too. How you can turn strangers into friends, how you can make people take care of each other the way they used to. This is your task. I know you can do it. After all, you soon will be University of Hawai‘i – West O‘ahu graduates. There’s no one better to take on these daunting challenges.
I wish you new insights and new understandings every day, and joy and prosperity throughout your life. You deserve it.
Thank you for listening.