It is wonderful to be with you all today. It is great to be back to a place filled with so many memories. My mind has been racing back to places and spaces on this campus; to so many lessons learned, and to so many people who made a difference in my life. My time here as a student stretched me, strengthened me and positioned me to recognize opportunities so I can rise to my full potential.
One of those amazing faculty members who challenged me to rise was Peter Flint. He was our teacher and sadly, he passed away far too soon –but he is forever a part of my life and the lives of those who were blessed by his vision and direction. Peter had a motto for those of us in musical theater. He had us memorize it – but more importantly he challenged us to live it.
The motto said, "I am an artist. These are my emotions and I own them. And I like them. My talent comes from something other than myself, but I alone am responsible for it. I will dare to be bad, so that I may be good. I am an artist. I am that I am."
Peter continually challenged us to rise. He gave us the courage to know it was ok to be bad in the beginning and that working through the bad was the only way to rise to the good and ultimately to the best we had within us. Above all, Peter expected us to take responsibility and ownership for our talents and gifts.
Winston Churchill said it this way, “To each there comes… a special moment when we are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do something very special , unique to our talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds us unwilling, unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.” The great question you will face in the days and years ahead is this, “Am I prepared to rise in such moments?” I hope you consider today, graduation day, the first step to accepting taps on the shoulder that will lead you to a lifetime of fine hours as you rise to the full measure of your potential.
Two things for you to keep in mind as you get ready to rise.
First your ability to rise will be bolstered or shackled by your ability to engage in elevated dialogue. It may seem crazy for a member of congress to be talking about elevated dialogue – but I believe it is the key to all of our finest hours. As a nation, as individuals and as communities we must get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. We cannot rise if we are constantly spewing divisive and demonizing rhetoric. It is so tempting to melt-down someone’s twitter feed or blow up their FaceBook page with anger-filled words of frustration. Someone wisely said, “Speak in anger and you will give the best speech you ever live to regret.” Even if it’s sharing a virtual speech on social media – the result is the same. Remember this, moments captured are forever and friends keep friends off YouTube. The solution to any problem begins when someone says, “Let’s talk about it.” We have a long way to go as country – but it starts with each of us individually being willing to have an elevated conversation about the challenges of our day. It is impossible to rise without being comfortable and confident in higher dialogue.
Second, remember that your goal is to rise with, not over, others. There is an old Scottish saying, “Thee lift me and I’ll lift thee and together we’ll ascend.” Sadly our society tells us more and more that we should just look out for number one and not worry about anyone else.
My dad came to this country with $10 in his pocket in an attempt to rise above the poverty and strife of his native Haiti. Through grit and determination he and my mom provided me, and my siblings, the opportunity to rise in pursuit of our own version of the American dream.
I will always remember the day my dad dropped me off here on campus on orientation day. He was so excited and giddy as if he were the one ready to start the adventure on campus, away from home. At one point he became serious as he looked me in the eye and said, “Mia, your mom and I have worked hard to get us to this point today. You will not be a burden to society, You will give back. You will contribute. You will make a difference for others.” What he was telling me is that it was part of my responsibility not only to rise myself, but to bring others along with me. Just as he had done with me.
I will confess that stepping onto this campus that day the thought of being a mayor, a mother or a member of congress were not remotely in my mind. But when I stepped off of this campus, as each of you will today, I was ready to rise to new roles, responsibilities and opportunities. Each of those roles has given me an opportunity to learn, to engage in elevated dialogue and help others rise to their potential.
You are the rising generation. You are the leaders, not just for tomorrow, but for today.
Today I challenge you to raise your sight, not just your status, as you enter the workforce and a world desperately in need of your energy, talent and commitment.
Remember the second half of Churchill’s statement about those taps on the shoulder and those opportunities to rise. There is one more quote I’d like to share, by a man named John Greenleaf Whittier. He wrote, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’”
Guys, we cannot accept “what might have been.” It is a haunting horrible phrase. Fifty years from now you will have far more regrets about the opportunities you didn’t take, the mountains you did not climb and the adventures you did not pursue than you will EVER have for opportunities you took – even when you tried and failed.
When we fail to continuously learn – we will be left to live with what might have been.
When we fail to engage in elevated dialogue in our homes, communities and places of employment – we will be left to live with what might have been.
When we fail to lift others as we ourselves rise– we will be left to live with what might have been.
A few years ago my family and I were at an event in our community. There was a large hot-air balloon there as part of the fun. An opportunity arose for me to go up in the balloon. As I approached they told me to bring one of my children along for the ride. I called to my son Peyton, who was 7 years old, to come jump in the basket with me. He hesitated and resisted. The balloon was ready to launch and we couldn’t wait for Peyton to decide so I called to my daughter Abi who jumped in and off we went. After rising in the crisp, cool air and enjoying the amazing view of my district in Utah we started our return to the ground. As we began to descend the winds picked up and let’s just say the landing was a bit of an adventure. Payton had watched all the fun from the ground. As we got out of the basket he came running over shouting that he was ready for his turn. Unfortunately with the now windy conditions, the balloon had to stay on the ground. The opportunity to rise and soar in the sky came and was gone.
I took Peyton aside and told him to remember this experience. Because in life, especially here in America, if you don’t take an opportunity - it quickly passes and you never know if it will come back. Presented with opportunity – we must rise to the occasion.
Graduates – your experiences on campus have given you a view from higher up. Remember those experiences – remember what it felt like to gain that new perspective, understand that new knowledge, ace that test, master that new skill or maximize your talent. So that when life knocks you down – and surely it will – you will get back up because you know what it takes to rise.
So my challenge to each of you is the same one I make to my colleagues in congress – create opportunities every day for yourself, for those you love and for good people everywhere to rise.
To you graduates I say – You got this. This is your tap on the shoulder. This is your time. These are your days – Rise!