Commencement Address by the First Lady at Los Angeles City College in Los Angeles, California
[As prepared for delivery.]
Thank you, Mayor Garcetti. It's wonderful to be with you again.
In 2016, the mayor and I visited LACC. The energy was incredible that day. And it's because the city of Los Angeles was making a commitment to invest in community college students—in all of you—through the College Promise program.
As all of you know, when we make community college affordable, it opens up a world of possibilities. And it tells students the same thing I said that day: "We believe in you."
So, I'm excited to be back with you, Eric—six years later—to see that promise fulfilled in so many students here.
Thank you to Dr. Gallagher and your entire leadership for allowing me to be a part of this celebration. And I want to say a special hello to all of my colleagues and fellow educators here today.
So, where are you from? When we ask that, we're not really asking about cities or states or countries, are we?
What we really mean is, what's your story? Tell me about the journey that brought you to this moment.
As many of you may know, I'm a community college professor. I teach English, and for my first lesson of the year, I use the poem, "Where I'm From," by George Ella Lyon.
Its verses tell the story of the author's hometown, not in locations, but in sensations and experiences and memories. Then I ask my students to think about their own lives: Where does their inner strength come from? What made them who they are?
So, here's who I am: I grew up the oldest of five girls in a quiet neighborhood of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania—just outside of Philadelphia and across the river from my Italian grandparents.
Yes, I'm from Philly. But where I'm really from is ribbons of pasta, drying on the linoleum counter in my grandfather's Italian kitchen, tomato sauce bubbling on the stove.
I'm from five sisters, glued together—messy rooms and borrowed jeans and standing up to bullies who lived on our block.
I'm from running through the yellow streetlights on hot July nights, feeling like summer would never end. That's what made me who I am today.
For the rest of your life, people will ask you to define yourself. You'll write a resume that lists the black and white details of your past—including LACC—in neat, bulleted lines.
But your story is so much more than a place you grew up, or your degree.
Those things don't define you—and neither does your hometown. But it is a part of your story.
And my message to you today is this: Never forget where you come from.
So, where is that? To answer, let me tell you the stories I've heard about you and your classmates.
I just met Ilya Monroe. Ilya, where are you sitting?
Ilya wanted to be a teacher when she was little, but life took her on a different path. She worked for 25 years as a graphic designer, until she lost her job during the pandemic.
That's when Ilya realized that she had an opportunity to reach for a dream that was still inside of her.
So, she enrolled in the early childhood education program here to become a teacher.
And though it hasn't been easy, she said her love for this work makes every challenge worth it.
Today, when she walks across this stage at the age of 46, she will start a new chapter and bring an old dream to life.
And, Ilya, let me say: I will be proud to call you my colleague.
Are there any other future educators in the audience?
I also met Marie Angee Ahoba. Marie, where are you?
Marie came from the Ivory Coast five years ago, and built a life here with her husband and two children. But during the pandemic, they had to spend their entire life savings supporting their family. Marie wanted to be able to help financially rebuild, so she enrolled here at LACC.
In her last semester, pregnant with her third child, she went into labor—during her final exam.
Now, we all know students who would ask to be excused from a test for a runny nose. But not Marie.
Through her contractions—praying that her baby would stay put just a little bit longer—she finished her test and then later, delivered a healthy baby boy.
That's how much finishing her degree mattered to her.
How many of you graduates are moms or dads—balancing parenting with school?
There are so many times in our lives—especially when we're trying to reinvent ourselves or create something new—when we just have to push through the pain. Though it's not usually so literal. And when we get to the other side, we realize that we are stronger than we ever knew.
Marie, congratulations on both the birth of your son and the new life you're starting today.
And finally, I met Steve Kim.
Steve grew up in Chicago. In high school he felt like he didn't have direction, and he wanted to give back to the country that had welcomed his family from Korea—so he joined the Marines, serving for five years.
After a deployment in Afghanistan, he was diagnosed with PTSD. But he didn't let that define him.
And, Steve didn't give up either. He found treatment, enrolled here at LACC, and connected with the Veteran Resource Center. The center helped him find the right classes and encouraged him when he was struggling.
Steve, as you graduate today, I hope you know that we are all cheering you on.
Do we have any other veterans or military graduates here today? And, where are your families?
Thank you for your service and your sacrifice.
These stories—your stories—of perseverance and resilience are inspiring.
They're the journey that brought you here today. They are all the lessons that you need to face the challenges ahead. They give you strength to find joy, and fulfillment, and a sense of purpose in the future you are about to create.
So where are you from?
Well, I thought I'd give it a try: You're from the smell of bacon-wrapped hotdogs under an orange night sky—from the cool, smooth taste of fruit-vendor mango in the hot September sun.
You're from the swirling, dry dust of the Santa Anas, reminding you that everything changes, that you are changing too.
You're from trying to talk over too many people in the kitchen—or from sitting alone in your bedroom, wishing there was a way to feel the warmth of your mom's hug through the phone.
You're from sitting on the 101 with your AC broken and your windows down.
From fitting your whole life into a few bags and praying that the thing you're looking for is at the end of this journey.
You're from catching up on chapters in line at the grocery store, from flash cards on the bus across town, from the burn of blue light after too many hours on zoom.
You're from working late into the night and setting your alarm early so you can pour cereal for the kids.
You're from laughing when it hurts too much and crying when joy takes you by surprise.
You're from the strength you've found to start all over—to fail and get back up.
You're from the bravery it takes to believe in yourself when it seemed like no one else did.
You're from a community that carries you when you feel weak, that sees not just the best of who you are, but the beauty of who you are becoming.
Today, you are a college graduate.
I know who you are—and you astonish me with your grit and determination. This is why I love teaching community college.
And I know that you will go on from here—to find great jobs or attend another school, to explore the world and all it has in store for you.
There will be no shortage of incredible opportunities in your future—as well as challenges that will test you once again.
My charge to you is this: Never forget your path, the people who brought you here, or the lessons you've realized along the way.
Never forget where you came from. It doesn't have to define you, but it will always have something to teach you.
Never forget what made you who you are—and then, you will be ready for wherever you choose to go next.
On behalf of my husband, the President, and me: Congratulations, graduates!
Jill Biden, Commencement Address by the First Lady at Los Angeles City College in Los Angeles, California Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/356372