Colleges and Universities

We Create the Education and the Life We Seek

May 4, 2019  • Dan Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered the following remarks at the commencement ceremony for the Kendall and West Campuses of Miami Dade College, winner of the 2019 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, on May 4, 2019 in Miami, Florida. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.

Thank you for that warm introduction, and congratulations to the class of 2019.

I’m deeply honored to receive this recognition from Miami Dade College—which your president so rightly calls “democracy’s college.” This is one of America’s greatest institutions of higher learning. It inspires me, for example, that no college in America enrolls more African American and Latino students. You welcome 17,000 immigrants to class each year from 150 countries. You have an unrivaled reputation for preparing graduates for further education and for the workforce. And your fellow alums include the former presidents of Panama and Haiti.

For those reasons, among others, my organization, the Aspen Institute, just chose your institution from more than 1,000 community colleges as the co-winner of the 2019 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Congratulations.

I’m delighted to be here with Beverly Moore-Garcia, president of the Kendall and West campuses, known for her passion for learning and for students.

And it’s especially meaningful to take part in the final commencement of your remarkable leader, Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade since 1995.

Dr. Padrón is the Beyoncé of higher education. Everybody knows he’s the best, period.

He’s a tireless advocate for this school, for this city, for working families, for Latinos, for immigrants, and for all of his students. He’s an advisor to CEOs and governors, to city planners, and to presidents.

It’s no wonder, then, that President Obama recognized this passionate public servant with the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Please join me in thanking Dr. Padrón for all that he has done and will do.

Above all, I’m proud to help celebrate your learning and your futures. Because you have persevered and earned this degree, each one of you is a role model to countless people in your lives.

I know this firsthand. I was in sixth grade when my role model, my mom, a single mother in her 30s, earned her college degree while working full-time.

There were profound lessons in her experience. I remember seeing her working at the dining room table all weekend long. I remember all those nights when we had babysitters because she was at school. And I remember, on graduation day, all these distant relatives showing up for a party at our rowhouse. It was a big deal. She was the first in her family to go to college. That commencement day she took, like you, one very long step closer to the dream.

A wise man once wrote, “education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” College definitely lit a blaze in my mom. When I was in college, and she was in her mid-40s, she earned her Ph.D. in history and wrote a dissertation about prostitution in the American West and later more books about marginalized people in America.

My point is this: With access to an affordable high-quality public education, my mom was able to create the education she sought. This is an important lesson as you prepare for the next stages of your learning. Each of you has the power to create the education you seek. Education is not a gift or a product or a reward.

No one can give you an education. You can’t buy it on Amazon.

That’s its beauty: We’re in control. Sitting at our kitchen tables, or taking an online class, or picking up a pen like Frederick Douglass, we all can create the education we seek. That’s what I learned from my mom, who lived to the fullest because she never stopped learning.

Today we celebrate you for creating your education—and we know you’re not done. With your learning, you have so much to offer your families and our society.

And society really needs you. Technology is changing everyone’s jobs. Our retiree population is growing fast. Gorgeous places like Miami are imperiled by climate change. Our democracy may be cracking. There’s a leadership vacuum—and your generation can fill it.

This is the opportunity that education gives you—leadership in this city, state, country, and world. I hope you’ll claim it.

With that, I only have just two more thoughts. One is a challenge, and the other is an invitation.

My challenge is to use your Miami Dade degree in one particular way—to equalize access to high-quality education at every level, from Pre-K to the Ph.D.

Giving all of the people access to a great education is the vital investment we make in our democracy. We will not have a free, just, and equitable society without equity in education. And the huge gap between the haves and the have-nots in our schools and colleges makes it clear that we all have work to do.

It’s education that gives people the gift of their own talents. Education provides hope, health, goals, work, change, strength, joy, friendship, insight, purpose, love, and freedom. When all have access to these riches through education, society makes sense and we hang together.

In Game of Thrones, the malevolent character Littlefinger says, “chaos is a ladder.” I don’t think so. Education is the ladder, for the one and the many. Your challenge, our challenge together, the Miami Dade challenge, is to help make sure that all can climb.

My second thought, my invitation to you, is more personal. It’s to remember that just as you create your education, you also must create your life, the life you really want. No one can give your best life to you. You can’t buy that on Amazon, either.

Maybe you’re asking, “What if I don’t know my purpose or my passion? How am I supposed to create my life if I don’t know where I’m going?”

There’s actually an answer to this: Get busy developing what I call your “life resume,” and your purpose and passion will follow. Here’s what I mean:

You all have professional resumes, listing your high school and Miami Dade degrees, your jobs and internships, maybe some honors or skills. Great. Keep adding to them.

But you’re going to gain more self-knowledge from this second resume, the life resume.

Of course, none of you actually has a life resume right now, so this probably seems abstract.  Let’s imagine you’re starting to draft one, right now, on a single sheet of paper. You’ll need four sections, each headed by a question.

1. When did I grow?

2. When did I help someone else?

3. When did I deal well with fear or pain?

4. When did I feel joy or love?

Your first job is to fill in each section, and your second is to create relevant new experiences. Go create more growth. Do more to help people. When something bad happens, ask how you can put pain to productive use. Make the effort to have love and joy in your life.

Keep creating these kinds of experiences, keep making meaning in these ways, and soon you’ll find another section starts to appear on your life resume down at the bottom. That section, emerging out of your most meaningful choices and actions, will be called “Purpose.” And as the years pass and you keep adding to your life resume, that section will start to migrate to the top. Most of us find our purpose not by abstract reasoning but by actually doing the things that give life meaning. But it’s not a race, and you have to trust the process.

What’s also important about the life resume is that it keeps us real. We’re more than our jobs. We’re more than our achievements and skills and awards. Life is about learning, growth, service, love, and dealing well with hardship. Education contributes to all that, which is why today, indeed, with well-earned Miami Dade degrees in hand, you are one step closer to the dream.

Congratulations and job well done.