Elizabeth Warren to Grads: ‘Fight for the Kind of World You Want to Live In’

15 minute read

Thank you. Thank you. I am deeply honored to be here today, and I am deeply humbled by this award. I appreciate the invitation to join you here today. Thank you, President McKenna, thank you. I really am.

You know, I can’t think of a better place to be celebrating education than at Suffolk University, a school founded in 1906 for the best possible reason, a deep belief that, because higher education matters, it should be available not just for the wealthy few, but for everyone. Exactly right, Suffolk. Exactly right. One hundred and ten years ago, Gleason Archer decided that the legal profession shouldn’t be limited only to students who could afford to go to school full time. He dedicated the money, the energy and the passion to make an evening law school available to working students in Boston. Suffolk would grow in many ways that Mr. Archer could never have dreamed, becoming a world-class university and a cornerstone for the city of Boston. Now it is big and vibrant. But Suffolk has never strayed from its original vision of being an excellent school that sends smart, tough, capable, hardworking people out into the world to make a real difference. Congratulations to Suffolk. We share your success.

And now, for the graduates, this is your day. After years of hard work and perseverance, your long wait is almost over. You’ve done it. You can now proudly take a zillion selfies wearing a cardboard hat. Stylin’. But seriously, Class of 2016, congratulations. You did it. You did it.

Fabulous. And to the parents and grandparents, to the families and friends, to the teachers and advisors, to Talia Sanchez and to her big brother, Ricardo, who works for me and dared me to embarrass her at this graduation, for all of you, this is a pretty amazing day. Without you, this day would not have been possible, so congratulations to all of you. Congratulations.

Now, graduation speakers have a lot of important responsibilities, but the main one is to give advice, ideally based on personal experience and, if we all get lucky, the advice will not be a big thumping cliché. That is actually a high bar. And I just want you all to know I did my homework on this. You can always tell the professor. I did my homework, and I considered a lot of possibilities here. I started with don’t live your life based on what other people think. Excellent advice. But Suffolk University runs one of the best public opinion polls in the country, so it seemed off-message. By the way, President McKenna, how’s this speech polling so far? Higher or lower than Donald Trump’s unfavorable numbers with women?

O.K., O.K. Advice. Lots of people turn to Robert Frost, who spent much of his life in Massachusetts. Take the road less traveled. I always liked that advice. But Jerry Seinfeld once pointed out: Sometimes, the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason. Hmm, good rebuttal. O.K., or how about: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Important lesson on being resilient. But when it comes to lemonade, could I really add anything to Beyoncé?

Now seriously, I know that graduation speakers are supposed to inspire, to offer good life advice, but I’ll be honest. My own journey here feels so unexpected—so full of mistakes and twists and turns. On the day of my graduation, I never imagined the most important things that were going to happen in my life. I never imagined I would be a law professor. I never imagined I would be a United States Senator. I never imagined I would be a blonde, but here I am. And I can tell you, it is life-changing to be a blonde. So my message to all the graduates this year is simple. Get ready because, even if you think you’ve got everything figured out, trust me, the most exciting parts of your life aren’t even on your radar screen.

From the time I was in second grade, I wanted to be a teacher, but that meant college. My family had no money for college, and besides—my mother didn’t think I should go to college. I should just find a nice man to marry and let him take care of me. That’s what she said. But I had a different plan. I was a high school debater, as was noted earlier. I got a full scholarship to college, and off I went. And I knew at that moment my path was set for life. And then I turned 19.

There were some details left out of the earlier story. I married the first boy I had ever dated who had parachuted back into my life, and in the blink of an eye, I took my mother’s advice. I said yes to the marriage proposal, gave up my scholarship, dropped out of school. I was really smart at 19. But the dream of being a teacher did not go away, so I found another school. I scraped together enough credits to graduate, and then I got the job of my dreams, teaching special-needs kids. And now I knew for sure that my path was set for life.

Except not exactly. Surprise, surprise, I was going to have a baby. And in those days, there were actually some pretty harsh rules about pregnant teachers. So good bye, beloved teaching job. I was at home with a little baby. I did all the usual stuff, and I watched a lot of television. And then I was inspired—all those lawyer shows. I figured, “How hard could that be?” Warren for the defense. So I decided to go to law school at a nearby public university, and then I was sure I was set on my path for life.

But surprise, surprise caught up with me again. I graduated from law school nine months pregnant. You will notice a pattern to this. That was at a time when employers were pretty iffy on the idea of a woman lawyer. And the idea of a pregnant, already the mother of a toddler woman lawyer was just plain old impossible. Nobody wanted me, and I mean that literally. Nobody would hire me.

But just as that plan went out the window, I got another call. Would I like to go back to teaching, this time teaching law? I started with night school, just like the original Suffolk Law, and I loved it. I truly loved it. In fact, I spent 30 years teaching at different schools about bankruptcy and contracts and finance law. I studied why working families were going broke and how big banks were raking in gigantic profits by cheating people. I wrote books and gave speeches and headed up commissions and did everything I could to try to get the law changed to help hardworking people. And I knew that this was the work I wanted to do forever. Now for sure I was set on my path for life.

And then, in 2008, a huge financial crash rocked this country. One day, truly out of the blue, I’m in my kitchen and the phone rings and it’s Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader of the Senate. And he calls and he says that Congress is putting together a panel about how the Treasury Department was handling the Wall Street bailout. And he asked if I’d come to Washington to try to bring some accountability to it. Now I was still a professor and I really had no idea why Senator Reid had called me and why he thought I was the right person for this job. But our country was in trouble.

I went to Washington, and I just did my best. The big problem at the heart of the crash was that Wall Street had made zillions of dollars in profits by ripping people off and there was no one with the power and the backbone to stop them. So I put together an idea for a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose only job would be to protect consumers from tricks and traps on credit cards and mortgages and student loans. Now, no surprise, the big banks and the credit cards hated this idea. Can we underline hated and put like little fiery things around it, little zaps coming out from it? They hated it. They spent more than a million dollars a day fighting against these financial reforms. They did that for over a year. And what did we have on our side? We didn’t have any money on our side. But we scrambled and we scratched and we fought back.

It was truly David taking on Goliath, 21st century style. But here’s the thing about it. We won, and that little Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is now the law. It is the law. Now, before you go home and say to yourself, “Good grief, I just clapped for a government agency at my graduation. Maybe graduating from college means I’m turning into a nerd.” Let me just point out to you that that little consumer agency has been up and running for nearly five years, and it has already forced the biggest financial institutions in this country to return more than $11 billion directly to the people they cheated. Now that’s government that works for the people. That’s what I like.

Read more: Tom Wolf to Grads: ‘Self-Actualization Does Not Occur in a Social Vacuum’

A few years later, my world turned upside down again. Running for office had not been on my bucket list, my shopping list or any other list. But there I was in 2012, busting my tail to be the first woman to be elected senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Now I know that’s all a long story and today it truly is all about you, but there is a point to that story. Actually, like most graduation speeches, there are three points to that story.

First, all the planning in the world can’t prepare you for the twists that are coming your way. You can’t predict it all. People will tell you to plan, to focus. They will tell you that if you want to succeed, you must stubbornly stay on your path no matter what. And they will be right. But they will also be wrong. So there’s my first point. I never planned to get married when I did, and I sure didn’t plan to get divorced. I never planned to become a lawyer or a law professor. No amount of focus when I was 20 would have envisioned me as a United States Senator standing on this stage. So there’s my first piece of advice for you. Don’t be so focused in your plans that you are unwilling to consider the unexpected.

My second piece of advice is that you have to figure out who you are. I grew up in a family that was barely hanging on to the ragged edge of the middle class. And that experience shaped who I am, not just on the surface, but deep down, down in my gut. It made me passionate about helping working families, families that were a lot like mine. Families whose kids may have all the potential in the world but don’t really have much of a chance to build a future. Families that have the system rigged against them. I figured out what I’m fighting for and no matter where I’ve gone and what I’ve done it has helped guide my life. And you have to do the same. You have to figure out who you are, and who you are isn’t about what job you have or what kind of car you drive. You have to think hard about what really matters to you.

What makes your heart flutter and your stomach clench? What makes you wake up ready to go, and what makes you grind your teeth? I’m not saying it’s easy. One of the hardest things to do in a world of Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat is to carve out time for yourself and not just the time you carve out following Selena Gomez on Instagram. I mean making it a priority to know yourself, to know what defines you, totally separate from what anybody else thinks. But here’s the thing: If you figure that out, nothing will be more valuable. Because knowing who you are is the compass that will help guide you to unexpected opportunity or when a setback blows your way. Knowing who you are is the centerboard that will help steady you when you’re afraid you may capsize.

And knowing who you are is also helpful for another reason, and this is my third piece of advice. You have to be willing to fight for what you believe in. You have to be willing to fight for what you want.

It is a tough world out there, and you’re going to encounter roadblocks and setbacks and even people who want you to fail. I couldn’t get a job when I graduated from law school. There were almost no women law professors when I started out. When I proposed a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, people told me I shouldn’t even try, that I should lower my sights.

And now that I’m in the Senate, I can tell you that Washington is full of people who say, “No, no, no,” and who are saying it in nastier and nastier and nastier ways. But knowing who you are will help you when it’s time to fight. Fight for the job you want, fight for the people who mean the most to you and fight for the kind of world you want to live in. It will help when people say that’s impossible or you can’t do that. Look, if you take the unexpected opportunities when they come up, if you know yourself, and if you fight for what you believe in, I can promise that you will live a life that is rich with meaning. You’ll be on the road less traveled. You won’t care what the polling says. And you’ll find that lemonade is terrific. And besides, if you don’t like drinking lemonade, you can always listen to Beyoncé.

It has been a great honor to share this celebration with you. Congratulations again on a job well done. Now get ready for a lifetime of unexpected adventures. Thank you.

Read more 2016 commencement speeches:

Anne-Marie Slaughter: ‘Care Is as Important as Career’

Arianna Huffington to Grads: ‘Your Attention Is Truly the Most Valuable Currency’

Barack Obama: ‘Passion Is Vital, But You’ve Got to Have a Strategy’

Bill Moyers to Grads: ‘President Johnson Didn’t Think We’d Have a Black President Yet’

Condoleezza Rice to Grads: ‘Don’t Let Anyone Else Define Your Passion’

Cory Booker to Grads: ‘Tell Your Truth’

Darren Walker to Grads: ‘Stand For Something’

Earl Lewis: ‘Never Confuse The Attainement of an Education with What It Means to Be Educated’

Eboo Patel to Wake Forest Grads: ‘The Only Shame Is in Stagnation’

Hank Azaria to Grads: Ignore Your Instincts ‘at Your Own Peril’

Hoda Kotb: ‘You’re the Sum Total of the Five People You Spend the Most Time With’

J.K. Simmons to Grads: ‘Live in the Moment’

Jane Goodall to Grads: ‘Remember to Live to Your True Human Potential’

Jill Bolte Taylor: ‘We Have the Power to Choose Who We Want to Be’

Lin-Manuel Miranda to Grads: ‘Your Stories Are Essential’

Madeleine Albright: ‘Everyone Must Participate in Solving Shared Problems’

Mahershala Ali to Grads: ‘We Are All Co-Creators of Our Respective Destinies’

Michael Bloomberg: ‘An Open Mind Is the Most Valuable Asset You Can Possess’

Michelle Obama to Grads: ‘Excellence Is the Most Powerful Answer You Can Give’

Obama to Grads: Building Walls Is ‘A Betrayal of Who We Are’

Rita Dove to Grads: ‘Instead of Advice, I Will Give You Wishes’

Russell Wilson: ‘Go Make It Happen’

Samantha Power to Grads: ‘Invest Yourself Fully. Get Close’

Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Finding Gratitude and Appreciation Is Key to Resilience’

Vivek Murthy: ‘Live a Connected Life’

William Foege to Grads: ‘Every Day We Edit Our Obituaries’

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