Administrator Gina McCarthy’s 2015 UMass Boston Commencement Address

Gina McCarthy '76, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency | May 29, 2015
Administrator Gina McCarthy’s 2015 UMass Boston Commencement Address

For 39 years, when people ask me where I went to school, you know what I say? UMass Boston.

Thank you for this honor Chancellor Motley, and thank you to President Caret, honored guests, trustees, faculty—and of course—the outstanding class of 2015! Congrats to every one of you and your parents, partners, children, and friends – who’ve put up with your sleep deprivation and GPA anxiety. I know this is a time to celebrate for all of you – and me too!

Because UMass Boston is my family, figuratively and literally. My father went to Boston State before it became UMass Boston. My husband Ken and I met at UMass during a French class with Professor Rose Abenstern back in 1972—36 years of marital bliss. Right honey? My sister, my daughter Julie and her soon-to-be-husband Josh Perrotton, are all proud UMass Boston grads. Where are you Joshie? So proud of you in your cap and gown. I know I said I wouldn’t embarrass you; but I lied. Love you Josh.

For 39 years, when people ask me where I went to school, you know what I say? UMass Boston. I never leave the Boston out—and you can’t leave Boston out, either.

For 50 years—UMass Boston has celebrated students of all ages, backgrounds, incomes, and interests. Diversity defines our school; with 140 countries and over 90 languages on campus—it’s amazing how many ways this class could diss the Yankees; maybe we should make multilingual tee shirts and sell them in Kenmore square.

For 50 years—UMass Boston has attracted students whose passion for learning is matched only by their passion for service. 90,000 UMass Boston alumni have gone on to serve the commonwealth. I was one of them. Public service isn’t a path to get rich; but it is a path to a rich life—I promise you that.

This class is the culminating virtue of those 50 years of progress and passion, 50 years of embracing diversity and service. If anyone dares question the value of our beloved institution—stand up tall, and say with beacon pride—yes: this is the only public research university in Boston; yes: we do have a fantastic new integrated sciences complex, to go along with three new schools; and yes: Kanye west did do a concert here, once! At least that’s what I am told.

I know it’s my turn to give you some “life-changing advice;” but I’m not sure I’m the best person for the job—because I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Apparently, my body ages but my brain remains fixated on being 25. I’ve always gone with my gut and grabbed opportunities that’ve come my way—and I’ve enjoyed almost every minute of it. Yes, life has thrown me a curveball or two—and I’ve found myself having to choose between sitting on the bench or stepping up to the plate.

Look—you can’t work for 6 governors, including Dukakis and Romney, and now President Obama, without having to adapt and make some tough decisions. It’s an inevitable part of life’s game, and that’s the message I want to share with you today: Life doesn’t follow anyone’s plans or expectations. So be open to change—to new situations, new ideas, and new possibilities. Be prepared for curveballs, and when they come your way, step up to the plate—and swing. Otherwise, you’ll sell yourself short, and leave life’s best adventures unexplored.

How you respond to change is so important. You could stick you head in the sand and pretend change isn’t happening; you wouldn’t be alone, that’s for sure. Half the people working in the Washington do that on a daily basis. You could run away from change and leave opportunities to everyone else, while you rant on Facebook about how unfair is. Or maybe, just maybe, you could take charge, embrace change and make it your own.

So when change happens and life throws you curveballs—dare to dive in head first. Be comfortable being uncomfortable, so you can bend change into opportunity.

I know, a lot of you are thinking—“ok, so things change. Big deal.” But believe me—over 50 years, we’ve seen transformation once impossible to imagine in our wildest dreams.

50 years ago, there was no Columbia Point campus. In fact there was no campus. You have a “harbor walk;” I had a walk on the wild side: my freshman math class was in the combat zone above a strip joint—no joke. It was the only math class I ever took that wasn’t incredibly boring.

50 years ago, we pumped toxic leaded gas into our cars; people smoked on planes; and we used land lines in phone booths to talk to each to each other. I bet there are lots of you sitting out there today who can explain to me how snap-chat works—but have absolutely no idea what a “phone booth” looks like.

50 years ago, the average price of a new car was $2,500 bucks; today, that’s a down payment on an Apple watch. And you can’t even get one of those—yet. I bet in no time at all, you’ll be telling it to “beam me up scotty” and away you will go, where no man has gone before.” Yes, we did have Star Trek almost 50 years ago.

And 50 years ago, as a kid, our big day was in the summer when we’d picnic at Tenean beach—right up the road. But when we got out of the water, we’d have to peel blotches of oil and tar off of our skin.

Today our world is very different: Our phones, cameras, and computers are crammed into a little piece of metal and glass, with more power in our pockets than NASA used to put Americans on the moon. The international space station can print spare parts on a 3D printer—and, oh yeah, we have an international space station, people! The fastest growing sector for jobs in American is the solar industry, adding over 26,600 jobs last year alone. That’s about one new job every 20 minutes. (If I learned my combat zone math correctly). And last but not least, just this week Ireland became the first country to legalize gay marriage by referendum. Talk about change! It’s a proud day for the Irish.

The blue water that now surrounds Columbia Point; the breath of fresh air you just took; lead-free gasoline; smoke-free airplanes and campuses, federal and state environmental laws; and an EPA that is on the job protecting your health and your children’s’ future. That is the power of 50 years of embracing, and leading change.

But there’s still a lot to do. So all of us up here are counting on all of you, because if you want to know who’s been on the front lines of leading change—at any point in history—look in the mirror. It’s been young people like you--passionate, caring, and optimistic, unafraid of uncertainty, standing up for what was right, speaking out for what was fair—in classrooms, city halls, and streets across the country. Young people who welcomed risk and let science be their guide– especially when it was “inconvenient.” And who took on the critics who said it couldn’t be done, by simply making it happen.

Young people like you were the drivers of the environmental, information, and communication revolution; from photovoltaic cells, to cell phones, to space stations, to Facebook and google putting the world at our fingertips. The past 50 years of UMass grads didn’t deny change, let others dictate change, or wait for change—we grabbed it. We shaped it. Just about what you could put in motion today that will pave the path of opportunity for the next hundred graduating classes.

So here’s my advice. Be comfortable being uncomfortable—why not? Look around you—you’ve proven you can do great things. When you get a UMass Boston grad, you get someone who’s done much more than “check a box.” You get a graduate who was not handed a diploma, you get someone who worked hard for it; who had to take the long road, fitting classes into a life filled with family and financial responsibilities, because that was the only option. You get a graduate for whom passion and drive aren’t extra credit, but core curriculum, because you’ve been living and working in social circumstances that students at other colleges just read about.

The tenacity it takes to be a UMass Boston graduate—that is the prize of this education. That is the secret sauce—the ability, ambition, and attitude it took to get where you are now. Do not lose that when you walk away from here today; that’s the most important lesson to take with you. I know all about UMass Boston grads; I am one.

When I graduated, I never thought about doing environmental work; I just wanted to be a social anthropologist. But the Boston Globe didn’t have any job postings for one of those (and I needed to eat). So I began an unplanned, roundabout journey that took me into community health work—and the blossoming world of environmental protection. I learned, I learned, and I learned some more. I had to, because the only science class I took at UMass Boston was called “science for survival” And I took it pass/fail! Just goes to show you—you never know what the future holds.

As it turns out—I still put my knowledge of “primitive societies” to good use – after all, I have been dealing with state legislatures and congress for years and they have the most archaic and complex culture, seemingly designed to absolutely never get anything done. As you leave UMass Boston, and decide what to do next, think about what a hero of mine, Eleanor Roosevelt, once said: “you must do the thing you think you cannot do … [because] you gain strength, courage, and confidence [every time] you stop to look fear in the face.” So go for the job that “you think you cannot do.” Go for the job that may not be what you studied or may not be what you planned to do. Stretch yourself – and you will uncover new interests and new opportunities.

I know you can this, because there are countless grads here today who can proudly hold their diploma in hand as first in their family to do so.

UMass Boston produces so many living inspirations—unconventional, but unwilling to give up. Let me tell you about one of those students—Daniel Doucette. For 15 years, in service to his city and community—Dan worked full time for Chelsea public schools, doing custodial work and landscaping by day.

He took classes part time and studied at night, alongside 15 different sets of students, watching 15 different graduating classes cross the finish line. But Dan didn’t give up. And when he accidentally ended up in an environmental science class that he never planned to take, he fell in love with it, and now hopes to pursue a career in science. Dan, that’s what embracing change is all about. And frankly EPA could really use your help, so keep it going. It's people like you that make me so proud to call myself a fellow UMass Boston grad.

You’ve all fought so hard for these diplomas, and have earned every drop of ink on them—so never forget that your opportunities are limitless. I know they are; because here I am—the daughter of a lifelong Boston public school teacher, and a part-time waitress, with no political ties or aspiration, from no wealth or influence, from smoking Winston’s in the back of French class, to sitting in the Cabinet Room in the West Wing just a few seats away from the President of the United States. And you know what made it possible? UMass Boston. This school was the enabler. It leveled the field. It gave me a chance—and it will give you that chance, too. All you have to do it take it.

As I said, I’ve been thrown a few curveballs in my day and it hasn’t always been an easy journey—but it has been the honor of a lifetime to serve the American people for 35 years. I’ve worked hard to embrace the responsibilities I’ve been given—and deliver on the promises I’ve made, while always keeping in mind that my husband and three children are the reason why I do what I do, and are the greatest gifts of my life.

For all those reasons, right now, I cannot think of anywhere I would rather be than where I am now, at the U.S. EPA, working with more than 15,000 people who have dedicated their lives to the health and wellbeing of you and your children. For nearly 45 years, EPA has found ways to dramatically reduce pollution in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land on which we live, work and play—all while our economy has tripled in size.

In America, environmental protection is not window dressing. It’s the foundation of a strong, opportunity-rich economy and good paying, middle class jobs. Just look at what a clean Boston Harbor has done for this city—as Mayor Menino said to me many times: this city is world class because of this Harbor; it’s our economic engine.

The beautiful thing about EPA is that we are the proud result of democracy in action. We were born from popular pressure. We are an answer to millions of voices calling for landmark laws to secure our right to a healthy environment. And today—we need your voices more than ever. Because nothing threatens our health, our economy, our safety, and our national security more than the challenge of climate change.

We need you to speak up for the science – to shout out the inevitability of a low carbon future, and to embrace the products, technologies, and jobs that will get us there. That’s how we will we bend the challenge of climate change into opportunity for all. So as you leave UMass today—choose to embrace your power to lead change, to get engaged, to take a stance, to play an active part in shaping your world.

When it comes to fighting climate change—class of 2015—this is our planet’s “Boston Harbor” moment and I need you to embrace that challenge. I need you to transform it into an opportunity for this country to do what it has always done – innovate our way to a safer, healthier, more sustainable future.

I for one am truly optimistic about the future because I have an unwavering faith in all of you, this 50th class of UMass Boston grads. A faith that you’ll take this education, experience, diversity, and discipline, and shield it from a world of weaponized cynicism. A faith that you’ll believe in something, anything, and fight like hell for it—because you know the worst you could do in life is spectate. A faith that you’ll refuse complacency. Scoff at risk. And if you misstep or run into roadblocks—you’ll pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and stand up—Boston strong.

UMass Boston class of 2015—you may be wrong at times. You may get rejected at times. You may even be ridiculed at times. But you must refuse to relinquish your right, your responsibility to embrace change, to do the thing you think you can’t, and to be that beacon of light to a brighter future.

I do love this school. Thank you. And congratulations.

Tags: alumni , commencement , environment , gina mccarthy , graduates

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