Commencement Address by Administrator Samantha Power at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore

Speeches Shim

Friday, May 20, 2022

University of Maryland, Eastern Shore
Princess Anne, MD

[As Prepared for Delivery]

View video of the UMES - 2022 Spring Commencement here.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you, Ayotomiwah, and congratulations on a successful tenure as SGA President. Hawk Pride!!

Good morning to President Anderson, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty and staff. And the epic Golden Hawks, who are gathered here. I could not be more personally honored to be a part of this incredibly special day for all of you.

Let me offer my personal congratulations to today’s honorary degree recipients. Ben and Alma Seidel, for their work creating jobs and boosting tourism in Maryland… and the one and only Starletta DuPois, a former Hawk herself, who honed her craft here at Eastern Shore and went on to star in many movies alongside Whitney Houston, Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington. Starletta, I know this recognition is long in coming. But it is so well deserved. Congratulations to you.

Welcome to the friends, families, and loved ones here on campus and watching at home. And most importantly, congratulations to the 2022 graduates of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore!

I want to give a big thanks, first and foremost, to some very important people—your parents and families. They’ve fed you, housed you, put up with your moods, and thanks to the last couple years of COVID closures, they have done way too many loads of your dirty laundry.

Let’s give these loving people in your lives the biggest round of applause imaginable.

I also want to acknowledge something up front that you may not all be familiar with—which is that there is a wonderful, long partnership between UMES and the Agency I am privileged to run—the U.S. Agency for International Development. We are the premiere development and economic development agency in the world, the premiere humanitarian relief actor in the world. And this campus for decades has worked in lockstep with the Agency I have the privilege to run—to take the best of your expertise, your faculty and researchers’ expertise—and use it in service of those in need around the world. I’m grateful for the chance to speak today as a gesture of appreciation and as a commitment to that continued and even deeper partnership.

Graduates, a lot has happened in the last four years. Despite interruptions from the pandemic, you found the Keep It On The Down Low parties. You went to block parties in the Clusters parking lot. You attended Rep Your Set battles and basketball games, Hawk Hysteria and Greek Life events, Homecoming parties and Spring Fest concerts.

And since your parents are sitting right here, you studied, too!

As I was preparing for this speech, I learned that sixty-five years ago, ten years before he would be nominated to the United States Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall addressed the graduates of the U.M.E.S. Class of 1957—then called Maryland State College.

That day, Marshall told the 1957 graduates that “the child that is born the Blackest, poorest, most underprivileged sharecropper in Mississippi, merely by drawing its first breath of democratic air, is automatically endowed with the same rights as John D. Rockefeller’s child.”

In 1954, three years before that commencement speech here, Marshall had of course argued successfully the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education—the case that struck down segregation in schools, a case that is less than 70 years old. Indeed, it turns out that we’ve had air conditioning in this country longer than we’ve had integrated schools.

Marshall knew better than anyone that even though education is a basic human right, having rights and being able to exercise those rights are two very distinct things. Too often, those rights are questioned.

In a small way, I’ve seen that questioning even within my own family. I’m an immigrant to this country from Ireland. I came in 1979 when I was nine years old. And a long time ago, my mother, the daughter of a policeman, grew up in a town called Cork, Ireland. She was one of six children—five girls and a boy—and she was the first girl in her family to go to college.

My mother, her whole life, ever since she was skinning her knees playing sports on the playground, had always dreamed of being a doctor. But her girls' high school hadn’t offered science classes. When she eventually got into the local university, she decided that didn’t matter. Her determination was so fierce to become a medical doctor that she registered for the medical program despite never having studied science.

But when her sister, my wonderful Aunt, found out what this much lengthier program would cost the family, she yelled at my mother and told her she should change her course of study.

My mother, in turn, reacted the way any respectable young Irish woman would—by dumping a full plate of bacon, cabbage, and mashed potatoes on her sister’s lap.

Unfortunately, because my mother felt angry and humiliated and probably a little bit ashamed of draining precious money from the family bank account, my mother did end up switching her major away from pre-med. But over the years, she couldn’t suppress this longing that she felt to be a doctor. And through a ton of hard work, a full thirteen years after feeling that pressure to change course and not follow her dreams, she would in fact become a medical doctor—which she remains today in New York City. She is a kidney doctor at Mt. Sinai in New York.

But the point of the story is a little bit different.

Unfortunately, her marriage to my father began breaking up, and she decided to move to the U.S. where she would be able to pursue advanced medical training in kidney nephrology—kidney transplants. She, of course, wanted custody of my nine-year-old self and my younger brother, and she went before a judge to try to get custody. Here she is, an MD—she also by then had a PhD in Biochemistry. She goes before the judge to try to get custody of me and my brother. And the judge actually asked of his colleagues on the bench: “What right has this woman to be so educated?”

A much more vile and restrictive version of that question was asked in the late 1800s, when two Methodist pastors in Maryland—one Black, one White—publicly called for a school for Black students in this area.

You all know this history much better than I ever could.

In the wake of the Civil War, the idea of educating freed slaves was still deeply controversial. But Joseph Waters and John Wilson, pastors of neighboring Methodist congregations in Maryland, were united in their belief that all God’s children had a right to an education. All God’s children.

Together, they won the support of their local Episcopal Methodist conference. And on September 13, 1886, the Delaware Conference Academy—what today is the University of Maryland Eastern Shore—opened its doors to its first nine students. By the end of the year, the school’s enrollment went from nine students to around three dozen.

And yet, despite the tremendous good the university was doing, it faced repeated questions about its value as a historically Black educational institution. In the 20th century, legislative bodies and commissions conducted repeated inquiries into the university, questioning not just its worth but its very existence.

Those questions were really different ways of asking that terrible kind of question: What right did Black students have to the same education as White students?

Today, that question is rarely asked so openly. But the racist sentiments behind it are alive and well, and too often they are manifested in poisonous acts of hate. Like when people phone in cowardly bomb threats at HBCUs, as we saw happen to 57 separate institutions at the start of the year.

Or when those who are sworn to protect use their power to harass, intimidate, unlawfully detain, frame, or even murder people of color. We are just five days away from the second anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, and yet in those two years the number of Black people killed by police has actually increased.

Or when a gunman, fueled by a hateful, White supremacist ideology, travels hundreds of miles to specifically target and terrorize a Black neighborhood. Each day since last week’s brutal attack in Buffalo, it seems we learn a new haunting detail—that one of the killer's ten victims was a 65-year-old grandmother who had survived brain cancer. That another was a father from out of town, who had gone to buy his three-year-old son a birthday cake. That the attacker considered targeting a Black elementary school instead. That he considered staging his attack right here in Maryland.

The Buffalo attack has cast a wide shadow over our nation, causing pain and fear, near and far.

But despite the fear that bigots may instill, despite the physical or psychic wounds they inflict, your rights to live free from fear, to love and experience joy, to learn and live up to your full potential, are, indeed, inalienable.

And this campus is full of dedicated people who have done all they can to help you exercise those rights. Housing staff who coordinated quarantine housing when COVID cases surged. Professors who helped you make up missed work when your sports teams had away games. Coaches and mentors who supported you through the deaths of loved ones, and helped you process the violence and injustice that Black Americans face in this country every single day. Your Hawk family.

Their commitment to your success is something we expect from any university. But given this institution’s history, it’s especially important. It’s especially inspiring. Because they taught you that when people ask that question—what right do you have?—there is only one correct answer: every right.

You have every right.

At U.M.E.S, you learned that the very nature of rights is that they should never be questioned, they should never be threatened, they should never be taken away. They belong to you, to me, to everyone.

And yet we know the real world doesn’t often respect these principles the way that it should.

You have brought that conviction, that perspective, that recognition that you must assert those rights and stand up for those rights—you’ve brought that into what you have done here at U.M.E.S.—and you will bring it to all that lies ahead and make this world better.

You’re breaking barriers as you study to be pilots, scientists, advocates, and politicians—fields where Black Americans are severely underrepresented. You’re attending protests and rallies to call out structural racism. And you’ll forever be a part of the Hawk family—able to help this school do for others what it has done for you.

More Americans need the awareness that you have learned here at U.M.E.S. Because today, you do graduate into a world that often treats rights as privileges, granted only to the few.

That’s true here in the United States—where your class or skin color can determine the quality of healthcare you get. Where your zip code might shave decades off your life expectancy.

But it’s true around the world, too. Where girls are shot for the crime of going to school. Where journalists are poisoned or imprisoned for speaking truth to power. Where young people are stoned to death because of who they love or who they are. Where citizens aren’t free to speak their minds, choose their leaders, or chart their own futures.

This fight—to defend our rights—doesn’t end at our shores. The fight for social justice, economic justice, environmental justice, racial justice—that fight has always been a global one.

In 1957, the same year that Thurgood Marshall emphasized the democratic rights of Black people living in America, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to West Africa to celebrate Ghana’s independence from Great Britain.

Almost half a million Ghanaians showed up to the ceremony. Half a million! And as the British flag was lowered and the new Ghanaian flag was being raised to the skies, Dr. King shed tears. He said afterwards that he was crying from joy, but also because, as he put it, he “knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment.”

Dr. King had long recognized the parallels between the American fight for civil rights and the global struggle against colonialism. He saw the link between the great unhoused populations living on the South Side of Chicago and the hundreds of thousands of Indians forced to sleep outdoors each night in Mumbai.

And just two years later, he, too, came here, and addressed the graduates of U.M.E.S. In his address, Dr. King declared the emergence of what he called a “new world order”—an order in which, again in his own words, “two billion, five hundred million people… exploited economically and humiliated, tramped by the feet of oppression, are rising up to protest injustice.”

Of course, you understand that your fates are inseparable from the fates of people around the globe. That a virus that emerges in a distant market, coal burned in countries you’ve never visited, a war that erupts an ocean away, can dramatically affect your lives as well. You’ve lived it, with the pandemic, so directly these past years.

And so does U.M.E.S. For decades, students and professors have partnered with USAID teams in Africa to help communities fight climate change… help cities respond effectively to natural disasters… and help farmers manage and control pest outbreaks, especially amid the food crisis gripping the planet right now.

And on top of that education, your class—the Class of 2022—understands perhaps better than any generation that repression and injustice of any kind are all a version of that familiar, terrible question:

What right do you have? What right to an education, what right to dignity, what right to representation, what right to freedom? Today, people and institutions around the world still ask those questions. And the rights that should be inalienable are questioned, threatened, stripped away.

I don’t tell you this to place the weight of the world on your shoulders on this joyful day. I don’t tell you this also to encourage you to drop everything and become an activist, or to come work for USAID—though I will say, we are hiring, we desperately need your skills and talent, and by working for us you would be embarking on a career that would demonstrate to the world the best of what America has to offer!

But I’m not putting that kind of pressure on you, I swear. I tell you this because when you leave this campus, you’ll find a world desperate for your talent, for your fire, for your resilience, and for the perspective you’ve gained here.

You graduate today from an institution born because basic rights were questioned. And because brave, courageous people fought the unjust forces of their time and demanded a new answer.

Here in America and around the world, basic rights are still being questioned. In whatever way you choose, on whichever path you take, through whichever career you pursue, it is now your turn to demand a new answer.

U.M.E.S Class of 2022, I wish you all a well-deserved congratulations!

Last updated: August 19, 2022

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