The Nation’s Challenge: Education Opportunity for All. Keynote address by Dean Gerardo Gonzalez to Ivy Tech Bloomington Commencement

Complete remarks delivered on May 11, 2012

Sunday, May 13, 2012

President Snyder, Chancellor Whikehart, Trustees, members of the graduating class, honored guests, ladies and gentlemen. I was privileged and deeply honored to serve as the Ivy Tech-Bloomington commencement speaker for the class of 2007. Today, I am doubly honored to not only be invited back to address the 2012 class, but also to be the recipient of an honorary associate of science degree from this distinguished institution. I will treasure this occasion.

I was asked specifically to recount my story about how education helped transform the life of a poor, immigrant boy from a working class family to become dean of one of the nation’s premiere education schools at a world-class university. It is a story I have shared many times with multiple audiences in various settings, and I’m happy to do so again with the 2012 graduating class. But before I do, let me reflect for a moment on some of the major events that have transpired in the world over the last five years. It has been anything but a quiet, predictable period.

Starting soon after the 2007 commencement, the world fell precipitously into what has become known as the great recession. Unprecedented numbers of men and women throughout this country lost their jobs, their homes, retirement savings, and even their confidence in the future. Practically every family in America has been affected, and the country is still struggling to pull out of that period of economic devastation. Amidst a deepening recession and a world transformed by accelerating globalization, Americans elected their first African-American President, Barack Obama, in 2008. In one of his earliest speeches as President, Obama said “So let there be no doubt: the future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens.”

Indeed there is no doubt that in a 21st century global economy, education, more than ever before, is the key to the future. Every life is precious and all students – white or black, Latino or European, rich or poor, immigrant or native – deserve an opportunity for a quality education. But in America today, Latinos, who are the fastest growing segment of the population, also are the most educationally underserved. In 2010, the Latino population in the United States surpassed the 50 million mark for the first time. Made up of legal and illegal immigrants as well as descendants of immigrants, Latinos now are the largest minority group in America.

If as a nation we fail to achieve educational equity for Latino students, we will create a structural underclass of people who by their sheer numbers will threaten the very foundations of our democratic society. Speaking at the IU commencement ceremonies last week, President Michael McRobbie called attention to the inseparable connection between liberty and learning. Quoting from a letter written by the third President of the United States and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, to James Madison in 1787, President McRobbie said that a well-informed citizenry was, “the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

That was true at the founding of this nation and it is still true today. In America, a nation of immigrants, education still is the great equalizer. And that’s where my story begins. I came to this country in the early 1960s as a Cuban refugee. Like many other immigrant families in those days and today, my parents gave up everything they knew and everything they had so that my sister and I could have a chance for a better life. My parents are not educated people; my father is an auto mechanic and my mother, in the Cuban tradition of the day, was a stay-at-home mother and wife. After arriving in Miami with just the clothes we wore and a few personal items, out of necessity my mother went to work in the leather factories of South Florida while my father borrowed money to buy a few tools he needed for work. He started by putting the tools in the trunk of a car he also bought with borrowed money so he could start by fixing cars of friends and acquaintances.

College seemed incredibly far from my grasp when my family and I first arrived in this country. I was one of many in the large Latino student population that had moved into the Miami-Dade County Public Schools System in South Florida. The overwhelmed schools weren’t particularly friendly or supportive of kids who were different. Unfortunately, as it is increasingly the case today, there was a great deal of cultural insensitivity and resentment about the new arrivals in those days. The teachers struggled because they didn’t understand children with cultural and language differences. Efforts to teach English and help Latino students adjust to the school system were done by trial-and-error with students like me, not with any well thought-out, evidenced-based strategy for addressing the special needs of what was even then a rapidly growing minority population.

First the schools put us into immersion programs, the sink or swim type of approach to educational acculturation and language acquisition. When that didn’t work they put us into pull-out, transitional programs where we were supposed to learn English and then seamlessly move into regular classrooms. The last method they tried with us was bi-lingual programs where all the Spanish-speaking students would be in separate, special classes taught mostly in Spanish. That is where I had an experience that transformed my early education.

School administrators envisioned a classroom where Latino students would learn subject matter in their native language while at the same time learning about the expectations for student behavior in American classrooms. But they didn’t realize that when you put a group of Latino students together, in addition to the language differences, they bring a combination of learning styles and behaviors that do not conform neatly to American educational norms. The result is a very different climate than what you would typically find in a traditional, middle class American classroom. We were the class the administrators thought of as “the troublemakers.”

So one day, the vice-principal came to set us straight. He was a rather intimidating person and in general displayed a style of behavior we weren’t used to. He stood in front of the class and banged his fist on the desk while pointing at the students. Of course, I had no idea what he was saying because I didn’t speak any English. But I could tell by the sound of his voice and the way he acted that he was quite serious. I turned to one of my classmates who spoke better English than I and said – José, que dice ese hombre? Or José, what’s that man saying?

At that point the principal rushed up to me, grabbed me by my arm, pulled me out of my seat and walked me to the front of the class. While still holding my arm, he went on to tell the class “See, this is what I mean, you don’t respect authority. You’re going to have to learn that when an adult is speaking you need to be quiet. You must respect authority; after all, this is America and you better start behaving like Americans.” I didn’t understand anything that was happening, but the principal took me down to the office and summarily suspended me from school. He was making an example out of me.

When my parents heard I had been suspended they were very upset. They didn’t know what I had done because they didn’t speak English and couldn’t communicate with school officials. Plus, even if they did, they wouldn’t have known what questions to ask. They assumed I must have misbehaved terribly to earn a suspension and were deeply disappointed. From their perspective, I was letting them down. After all, they had sacrificed everything that was dear to them - including their home country - so that my sister and I could have a better future. And though they were not educated themselves, they knew education was the key to their children’s success.

So in addition to the school suspension I was severely punished at home. I learned a very important lesson that day - I learned to keep my mouth shut! From that day on, I never participated in class activities, never raised my hand to ask a question, never initiated class discussion or in any other way engaged the learning process. I didn’t make trouble. I wasn’t a truant. I just sat in class and quietly let time go by. Pretty soon, the system forgot about me. I became invisible.

Teachers then steered me into vocational education, with the intention being that I could at least learn a skill and get a job after high school. Vocational education in those days was not what it is today—then there was no technology, cutting-edge preparation for new industries, or any other serious attempt at workforce development. So I enrolled in a co-op program where I went to school half-day, and then worked part-time at a job in a clothing store. I figured I was set. After graduation, I would work there full-time, and live happily ever after.

But then the unthinkable happened. Although not so unthinkable these days, an economic recession hit the country right after the school year ended. The store closed. I felt both shock and despair. I wasn’t prepared to do much of anything and I had no idea what I would do with my life.

That summer, a friend of mine then studying at the University of Puerto Rico mentioned a word I literally didn’t understand: college. He explained that college is a place of ideas. I could learn about math and the arts, about science and the great thinkers that have shaped human history. He told me I would come in contact with people from places I’d never heard of and grow to appreciate diverse perspectives on questions of faith, values, race, and other issues inherent in the human condition. I still didn’t fully understand all he was saying, but it sounded good to me. It certainly sounded more promising than my other options—I had no skill for meaningful employment and I had nowhere else to turn.

Fortunately, Miami-Dade Community College with its open-door policy offered classes for any student with a high school diploma or a GED. And my family was so poor in those days that I immediately qualified for federal financial aid. I had to take remedial education classes to start, but in those classes I started to appreciate the importance of effective oral and written communication, as well as the ability to think critically and solve problems. All of the sudden, I was learning about the great existential philosophies of Soren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus. I was reading the great books by Cervantes and Dostoyevsky. I was debating the meaning of the “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, learning about the theory of relativity and analyzing the mysteries of natural selection. My worldview was being completely transformed through education and I simply could not get enough of it!

Although I was literally learning about college while in college, with that exposure I quickly realized I wanted to be a lifelong learner. I didn’t imagine where it would lead. But I did know that education had awakened in me a desire for knowledge, the depth of which I had never known. After Miami Dade, as you heard during the introduction, I transferred to the University of Florida in Gainesville, where I earned a bachelors, masters, and doctorate degree. The university invited me to stay on as a member of the faculty. I earned tenure as a full professor, later chaired the department from which I graduated, became associate dean of the College of Education, and then finally dean, before leaving to take on the position I currently hold as University Dean of Education at Indiana University. I don’t say this to brag about my accomplishments; rather, I want you to understand that the fact I had been tracked into vocational education in high school had nothing to do with my actual academic ability. Once offered a chance at education with dignity and respect, I excelled.

Education has taken me on a tremendous journey from the humblest of beginnings. Fortunately my parents had a vision of a better life for my sister and me, one I couldn’t begin to foresee. My parents are still around and, in 2008, they were proud to see me receive an honor at the place where my love for education blossomed. I was honored to be inducted into the Miami-Dade College Hall of Fame. I joined a remarkable list of people who started there, many with a similar story of starting from scratch after leaving Cuba. Among them are the Havana-born actor Andy Garcia, whose parents also brought him to Miami in the 1960s, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, who came in 1970. Each of them undoubtedly saw the possibility of what could be once they became exposed to the power of education.

I know my parents would be equally proud if they could be here tonight to see me receive an honorary degree from Ivy Tech. I certainly have had a chance to succeed because of the opportunities afforded me through education. The right people at the right times have helped me climb from being that “invisible” student in the Miami public schools to being a highly visible leader among schools of education deans in the United States. And maybe the best motivation I received came from my father—who at age 86 still does occasional work on cars that need it. My father would remind me about the need to work and study hard by holding up his hands. If you have ever seen the hands of a mechanic who has worked on engines for more than 40 years, you know they take on a very distinctive look. Forty years of getting burned on hot engines, cut with fan belts, soaked in grease and gasoline, and exposed to a myriad of other harsh conditions made it clear that my father’s hands were the result of a life of hard labor. He would put his hands in front of me and say, “Look Gera, look at my hands. I want you to get an education, because I don’t want your hands to look like mine when you’re my age.”

So I hope that each of you will remember that you have in your hands the ability to transform and enrich your life and that of others because of your accomplishments celebrated here tonight. Education is truly the great equalizer in our society—allowing all, immigrants or native Hoosiers, the chance to excel through hard work and perseverance.

Another major international development since my remarks to the Ivy-Tech graduating class of 2007 occurred just last year, when a group of courageous Navy Seals brought about the demise of the world’s most wanted terrorist. But the greatest threat to freedom everywhere is not foreign terrorism, it is hopelessness. The terrorists involved in the London bombings were homegrown terrorists. They were not jihadist infiltrated from other countries to attack the British. They were people who for one reason or another had lost faith and hope for the future.

That’s why I’m an advocate for the federal DREAM Act which provides undocumented immigrant children a path to American citizenship by attending college or joining the military. For every child like me, and like many of you here tonight, who gets a second chance to succeed, there are literally millions who don’t get that second chance. Freedom depends on having a fair and just society where everyone is afforded a meaningful opportunity to pursue his or her dreams. As a nation, we simply cannot afford to deny opportunities to those willing to work hard to achieve their goals. You certainly are among that group and I commend you on your achievement. As you go forward into the workforce or in pursuit of further education, remember your roots and those who through their sacrifice, love, guidance and support have made it possible for you to celebrate your graduation today.

Each of us who have had the opportunity to become educated has a special responsibility to not only do the best we can at whatever we choose, but also to inspire and help others reach their full potential. As it is said, to whom much is given, much is expected. In the words of the British writer Gilbert K. Chesterton, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” It is now your time to pass it on!

Thank you and congratulations from the bottom of my heart.