It makes for a good story when the celebrity everyone wants to hear talks of how difficult things were in the beginning. It wasn’t different with Obama.
The keynote speaker at the UMass/ Boston graduation yesterday, Senator Barack Obama, D-IL, was indeed inspiring when he asked the graduating class to consider taking risks, thinking globally and cultivating empathy.
The son of an immigrant from Kenya and an American woman from Kansas, Obama received an honorary degree “Doctor of Laws” before he gave the keynote address.
A growing political figure some call our future president, he was a big hit at the Democratic Convention in 2004, in Boston, but he said he wasn’t even allowed to be part of the previous convention in Los Angeles in 2000, shortly after he was defeated in his first run for Congress.
“I was beaten badly, I was a little broke, and my wife was mad at me,” he said.
The downward spiral continued when he arrived in L.A. and had two cards rejected while trying to rent a car. Things didn’t get any better at the convention where he wasn’t allowed to be where the meaningful political presences were.
Still, the proverbial American dream didn’t let him down. Four years later, he was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Democratic Convention in Boston.
He reminded the graduates that America is indeed, a different place and that “no matter where you’re born, how much your parents have, what you look like, you can rise to achieve what you want.”
He said his father came here as a young man because he had a sense that he could go farther.
Obama recounted the beginnings of this country with its dream of freedom, but didn’t forget to mention the shortcomings over the years, including the mistreatment of the native people and the subjugation of women. Still, he said, there were successes because of ordinary men and women who were willing to sacrifice for their ideals.
“There may be some who doubt that things have changed,” he said, but to those he offered that all we need is to look around. At UMass Boston, 50 percent of the graduating class is comprised of people who are the first to graduate from college in their families. And the students come from more than 100 countries. All this, he said, in the same city where there were once signs that read “Irish needn’t apply” or where 30 years ago people threw rocks at buses with Black students.
“I do not pretend to have all the answers, but a few suggestions,” Obama told the graduates.
As he said “take risk,” he recounted his interest in becoming a community organizer when he was at the brink of graduating. His parents wanted him to go to law school but he wrote more than 200 letters to institutions asking for a chance to be a community organizer. He got an answer from a small church in New York. Half-way between New York and Chicago, however, at a small hotel, “an old guy doing crossword puzzles” told him he should try to go into television instead.
“He made some sense,” he pondered, but Obama said he stayed true to his goal and hoped they would remember this: “Don’t let people talk you out of what you’ve been thinking.”
As to his advice to “Stay global,” he contended that “we can try to build walls, look inward, take it up with those folks who don’t look like us, but that’s not what we’re about.
“We should welcome immigrants to our shores, but we should also be teaching our children to speak Spanish and Mandarin,” he said.
Finally, as he suggested “cultivating empathy,” he said: “Put yourself in other people’s shoes.”
These are indeed times of bad news and it would be easy to ignore them, he said, especially when hearing from others that people who live on the streets are lazy or that immigrants don’t contribute, that children who go to dilapidated schools can’t learn and that people being slaughtered across the world are somebody else’s problem.
“I hope you will do what is hard,” Obama said, like the children who watched the Civil Rights movement on TV, saw the dogs, knew that it was safer to be home, but in their hearts knew that those were their brothers and sisters and got on the buses, he said.
Throughout his speech, Obama echoed the sentiment of graduating student Catherine Reyes, of Colombia, who graduated with a perfect 4.0 score after coming here at age 16 with her family to escape the violence and poverty in her small town.
Reyes, who received the John F. Kennedy Award for Academic Excellence said she was fortunate to come here legally with the support of relatives, but she feels for other immigrants.
“Many are not as fortunate,” she said. “I sympathize with their plight.”
Este artigo foi originalmente publicado no Metrowest Daily News, em junho de 2008.