2010 Commencement Remarks by Argelia Rodriguez
President and CEO, D.C. College Access Program
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Thank you, President McGuire, for that wonderful introduction. And thank you for your outstanding leadership and dedication to Trinity Washington University.
I am honored to stand here today before Chairman Laura Phillips, my fellow members of the Board of Trustees, Provost Virginia Broaddus, deans, faculty and the entire Trinity community to receive this honorary degree from Trinity Washington University. I am humbled and I hope to live up to this incredible honor!
I am especially grateful to be standing here before the Class of 2010 on this joyous glorious occasion! I want to give a shout out to all the DC-CAP students and families. And also I have to recognize our own two very special members of the Class of 2010, Lisa Devlin who completed her master’s program in December and Amina Andersen Pringle who is marching here today. They are both currently full-time DC-CAP advisors, working every day to ensure that other students get the opportunity they have had to pursue their dreams of higher education.
We are so proud of them and we are all proud of you as you take this important next step in this amazing journey we call life! Thank you for inviting me here today.
President McGuire asked me to share a bit of my story, my work with DC-CAP and any nuggets of wisdom or life lessons I have learned that may help you succeed as you move forward into your careers and through life. I will do just that, and try to be brief because I know I’m the only thing standing between you, those diplomas and the serious partying that you all need to get to!
But before I do, I would like to ask the all the mothers, fathers, spouses, aunts, uncles, grandparents and family members of the graduates to stand up. Today we honor you as well. We thank you for the dedication, sacrifice and commitment that allowed your graduate to be sitting here today!
I am an immigrant. I was born in Havana, Cuba, and came to live in the United States when I was a toddler. My mother and father brought my brother and me over to escape the Communist regime and to give us the best chances in life – and that of course was in America. It was and still is the land of opportunity.
I was raised in Dallas, Texas. And as an Ursuline Academy graduate, I too am a product of a strong single-sex, Catholic education. So thank you to the Ursuline nuns and the Sisters of Notre Dame, whose vision has brought all of us here today.
Upon graduation, I enrolled at Stanford University, and graduated with a degree in industrial engineering and operations research. I began working as an engineer at IBM and Texas Instruments, and enjoyed it thoroughly. But I soon developed an interest in business. I ended up working for a big management consulting firm, Booz Allen and Hamilton, in New York City. I loved my time at Booz Allen – the variety of clients, the variety of industries and assignments and all the people I met. I learned everything I could; it was like being in school, but getting seriously paid! I then went on to get my MBA from the Harvard Business School and upon graduation returned to Booz Allen to pursue a career in management consulting.
Yet, upon my return to the firm, something in me began to change. While I loved the work, I found that I was not truly inspired by the work. I knew that for me, that for my life, there had to be something more, something different, something bigger than me.
So I left New York and moved down to Washington, D.C., where my mother was living. I started a consulting business that focused on trying to get more minorities into high tech and engineering businesses. It was challenging because I quickly found out that there were not a lot of college graduates coming out prepared to move into those science and technology fields, particularly during those years.
So I began working more with university clients, colleges and school systems. And it is through that work that I found my inspiration, my passion.
I realized that the problem of education is a business problem. And I realized that folks like me, with the kind of background and training I had, could really bring a new perspective to the issue of education. I was convinced that I could make a real difference in this world by focusing my life’s work on the business of educating our children.
The DC-CAP Story
Now fast forward to 1998. Unbeknownst to me, there was a group of D.C. area business men who were beginning to focus on the issue of education. Don Graham of the Washington Post, Lou Noto of Mobil, Vance Coffman of Lockheed Martin, Bill Marriott and others were growing increasingly concerned about how the lack of an educated workforce in D.C. was affecting their businesses, the community and contributing to the plague of drugs, crime and poverty on our city. At the time it was estimated that only 30 percent of D.C. public high school graduates went on to enroll in college and only 15 percent graduated from college within 10 years. These were absolutely abysmal statistics, not just for any city but especially for our nation’s capital.
These businessmen mobilized around the issue of college education. They rallied their colleagues and their competitors. They rallied Congress for the creation of the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program. And they committed themselves to increasing the number of D.C. students who are able to enroll and graduate from college.
In the spring of 1999 the stars aligned! I got a call from Don Graham, who said, “We need to fix this city. We need to give every student an opportunity to go to college. And I want your help to do it.” This was the challenge and the opportunity of a lifetime for me! I said, “yes”! Thus began the DC-College Access Program.
So what has DC-CAP been able to accomplish over the past 11 years?
As a result of the resources committed by the DC-CAP board members, corporations and foundations, as a result of our collaboration with dedicated teachers, counselors, principals, parents and families, and because of the hard work of the DC-CAP advisors and management staff, we have established DC-CAP as the organization that serves every D.C. public and charter high school student.
Now 62 percent of D.C. high school graduates enroll in college and 40 percent go on to graduate within five years. DC-CAP has helped more than 13,000 students to enroll in college and has awarded almost $20,000,000 in scholarships. We support 5,300 students enrolled in more than 500 colleges and universities around the country. And we are proud to celebrate the success of almost 3,000 college graduates.
More specifically, DC-CAP has helped almost 600 D.C. public and charter high school graduates to enroll at Trinity. We have awarded more than a million dollars in DC-CAP scholarships to Trinity students and are proud to celebrate the almost 200 DC-CAP students who graduated from Trinity. More than $4,000,000 in DC-TAG grants has been awarded to Trinity Washington University students making Trinity the largest private recipient of DC-CAP and DC-TAG private school monies in the country.
What are the important lessons I have learned in my life? I don’t really like putting it that way because, as far as I know, it’s not over yet. God willing, I am only about halfway through my journey, and I know I have lot more to learn! So let’s just say that I am going to share with you the three most important life lessons I have learned to date.
Life Lesson Number One: Be a lifelong, career learner.
When you’re young, when you’re in school, learning comes naturally. You’re like a sponge absorbing everything around you, but far too many of us, when we get of a certain age or we get “degreed,” we stop learning.
The degree which you are being awarded today is not so much a recognition of what you have learned as it is a “beacon” of what you will learn and where your life could take you.
Human beings, who have an infinite capacity for learning, are the only creatures on this planet that can make a decision to stop learning. In the animal kingdom, they have to keep learning as a matter of survival, while for humans it may not be a matter of survival. I guarantee you it is a matter of success, especially when you join the workforce and progress through your careers.
When you get to your workplace you have to commit yourself to learn from every situation you find yourself in. Learn from every success, every mistake and especially from the people around you. You need to get a real understanding of what other people do in that organization, because it will help you excel in your job.
Learn from your boss. Sometimes you will have great bosses who you admire and respect for their technical expertise, for their vision, for their ability to motivate their employees. Learn from them, learn what they know, anticipate their questions and be able to answer them, understand what his or her responsibilities are and support them. That is how you will distinguish yourself from your peers.
Sometimes you may have a boss who you think is a complete idiot, a complete doofus, who doesn’t seem to know how to walk and chew gum at the same time. Don’t waste your time moaning and groaning. Those people are in those positions for a reason. It may be that they are politically savvy. Maybe they are excellent writers. Maybe it is because they know how to manage up to make their superiors look good. Whatever it is, figure it out and learn from it.
Learn from your peers, learn from your industry colleagues, learn from your competitors.
If you studied communications and you aspire to be a TV broadcast journalist, study those people in the print media whom you admire: what about their writing compels you to read their articles? Study the syndicated radio hosts: what is it about their speaking style, their voice, their phrasing, that makes people from around the country tune in every day? Learn from them because it will help you become the best TV broadcast journalist you can be.
If you’re in criminal justice and you end up being a lawyer in the district attorney’s office as a prosecutor, the best lessons you will learn are from the great defense attorneys you come up against. Study them. Learn from them. Understanding their strategies will help you do your job better.
Stay current. Read articles, read technical journals. If you can, go to those industry conferences. Know what’s new in the industry. That will help distinguish you. You will become a valuable resource in your organization and help provide the vision to move your organization forward.
Learn from your subordinates.
If you are going into education, the best teachers, the best principals are the ones who understand that their success is completely contingent on how well they are able to serve their students. Listen to your students. Learn from your students; they will teach you more about education than anyone else can
I have learned more from my employees than I have from all the bosses I have ever had and I have had some great bosses. Like my chairman, [Donald Graham], who just happens to be sitting right here in the front row.
But I know he will agree with me. As an employer, with thousands of Washington Post employees of his own, as well as for those of you out there who have had the privilege of leading a group of talented individuals, you understand that your employees teach you more about being a strong leader, being a good supervisor, being a good motivator, about doing your job, than anyone else.
The point is that almost everyone you will encounter, not just in your workplace but in life, will have something of value to teach you – if you keep your eyes and your ears wide open, your ego in check and are willing to learn.
Being a lifelong, career learner is what will distinguish you and catapult you to the success you aspire.
Lesson Number Two: Find your inspiration, find your passion and follow it.
As you progress through your life, look for what truly inspires you. Look for where your passion lies. Because it is by pursuing that passion, by living an inspired life, that you will attain true success and fulfillment.
Most of us are not born knowing what we really, really want to do with our lives. Most of us are not Beethoven, or Isaac Newton or Stevie Wonder or Peyton Manning. For most of us, true inspiration comes later in life, along with a deeper understanding of ourselves, of our passions, of the world around us.
The key is to keep your heart and mind open and you will know it when it comes.
It may be something that you find yourself always thinking about. About how great it would be. About how good you would be at it. You want to be around and talk to other people who are doing it. You have great ideas about what you could do differently or better. It may be something that if you could afford it you would do it for free. It may be something that you can see yourself doing happily for the rest of your life, something that inspires you.
If you are going into nursing and you already know that deep down inside nursing is your true calling then go – go on to be the best nurse you can be.
But if, as your nursing career progresses, you come to realize that what you’re really good at, what really inspires you, is working with the elderly patients and you have lingering notions of how they could be served better, how you could teach others nurses to serve them better, then become the director of geriatric nursing, open that nursing or retirement home. Follow your passion!
If you studied international affairs and, as your career progresses, you realize that what you really love are foreign languages and how the nuances of language affect our ability to communicate with others around the world, then become a linguist, become a diplomatic communications officer. Start your own Rosetta Stone!
If you studied management, but you have always dreamed of owning your company, plan, prepare, be confident and go for it because that is what your degree from Trinity has prepared you to do. The important thing is that you find your inspiration and then have the courage to follow it.
So what inspires me? I am inspired by the mission of DC-CAP. I believe that college is the Great Equalizer. The haves and the have-nots in our country can be truly defined by those who are able to benefit from a college education and those who cannot.
I am inspired because, through my work and the work of the dedicated DC-CAP staff, of providing every student the opportunity for a college education, we have the power to help change lives fundamentally for the better and forever – that is what inspires me!
Which leads me to the last life lesson I would like to share with you.
Lesson Number Three: Be of service.
Albert Einstein, once said, “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.”
I would say it a little differently: Strive to be a success, and be of value, by being of service.
And I’m not saying that you all have to run out and become the CEO of a nonprofit. There are an infinite number of ways to serve, wherever your heart moves you. You can be a volunteer, start a scholarship drive, become a mentor, become a tutor or organize a food bank.
And as Trinity graduates, I would challenge you to do even more. Don’t just be of service – lead others to service. Don’t just be volunteer – start a volunteering programming with your peers. Don’t just be a tutor – start a network of tutors within your industry.
Become the advocate for community service within your organization. Rally a consortium of companies in your city around the cause you are supporting.
I challenge everyone here today to dig deep and to find that humanity that connects you to each other.
Be of service because you can be. Be of service because at the end of the day, at the end of your time on this earth, how do you really want to be remembered by your peers, by your community, by your friends, by your children? Do want to be remembered for what you took from this life or what you gave?
So, I implore you to spend the rest of your lives learning. To find your inspiration and have the courage to pursue your passion and to be of value by being of service. This is how you will find true fulfillment and success in life!
Finally, I want to leave you with the words from the great poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is a poem that speaks to my heart and I hope it speaks to yours. It is called “Success.”
To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children:
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and to endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived;
That is to have succeeded!
Thank you and congratulations to the Class of 2010. Go out and make us proud!
Download the audio version of the speech.