Congratulations! The day is here. Your day. A day for celebration. For hugs. For smiling. For pictures. For selfies. Yet my hope is that it’s also a day for reflection.
First, you should reflect on all you’ve accomplished to get here. The many challenges – some of which only you know about. The class projects. The homework. The exams. The days when you wanted to do anything other than go to school, but you showed up anyway.
And then take some time to reflect upon the joys. The friends you made. The skills you learned. How your world became bigger through learning. The teachers who, somewhere along the way, became more than teachers. They became mentors.
I hope you are proud of yourselves. Because Nancy and I are surely proud of each and every one of you. You are graduating from a school aptly named An Achievable Dream. And you’ve achieved so much.
I believe you could easily substitute the word “American” for “Achievable.” Because many of the things you have achieved, and many of the things you’ve yet to achieve, are possible – are achievable – because you live in America. And my wish – my advice for you – is that as you go forth in life, whatever path you choose to take, you also become an ambassador for the American Dream.
The American Dream. It’s a term that’s often written about, debated about, and one that is referenced to in lyrics that date back to Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry right up to Madonna and Jay-Z.
So what is the American Dream? For some, the American Dream is defined simply by the trappings of wealth and fame. But I don’t see it that way at all. Others declare it to be unachievable – a dream that’s been corrupted. But I strongly disagree with this view. I believe the American Dream is alive and well.
I say this for many reasons, and 54 of those reasons are seated in front of me today. Yes, that’s you – the class of 2014.
The term “American Dream” was coined in a 1931 book by American author James Truslow Adams called The Epic of America. His definition of the American Dream was “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” Note that word “achievement.”
For me, the American Dream is the opportunity to achieve your potential no matter where you came from. And for me, the path from growing up in an orange grove in Florida to watching you receive your diploma tonight is what separates America from anywhere else on earth. The American Dream is something you achieve. It is not something you receive. And you know better than most that achievement is hard work. Hard work does pay off. Hard work creates new options for your future and allows you to change your destiny.
My American Dream was first defined by education. Education created options for me. Education gave me a way to define what success might mean for me. Education helped me find work that I love. It helped me figure out what I wanted to spend my time doing – showing the world what was important to me.
And then I realized that there was more to the American Dream than personal achievement. The founder of An Achievable Dream, Walter Segaloff, figured that out about the American Dream a long time ago. He recognized that for some children to even have a shot at it – because of circumstances far beyond their control – it would take more than hard work. It would take people spending time on them, showing them that they were important. It would take teachers. Administrators. Community members. City and state leaders. People who each day live their American Dream by helping others achieve it.
So I ask you, the Class of 2014, how will you define the American Dream? How will you live the American Dream? How will you choose to spend your time? What do you want people to know is important to you? Will your American Dream be defined by money? By fame? Through a title? Or will it be defined by how you affect other people’s lives? And by creating options for yourself?
I mentioned Jay-Z earlier. You’ve probably heard of him. He’s also known as Shawn Carter. Or Beyonce’s husband. He's a hip-hop recording artist and a very successful music industry businessman.
Now I know this will surprise everyone here, but I am not exactly an expert on the hip-hop music scene. Yes, I know you’re shocked. The film director Ron Howard – the faculty and administration here may remember him as Opie from “Andy Griffith” – did a documentary film last year on Jay-Z’s “Made in America” music festival. The film is titled, “The American Dream.” And yes, it’s about hip-hop, but it’s also about the American Dream.
Jay-Z certainly is living what some could define as the American Dream. And I say this not because of his fame or wealth, but because he found something he loved, something that inspired him to work hard. His hard work enabled him to change his destiny, to change the path he was on, living a very tough life in the Marcy projects in Brooklyn.
And most importantly, his hard work creates options, not just for him, but for his community as he fosters new talent and runs his foundation, The Shawn Carter Foundation, aimed at helping underprivileged youth. In fact, he organized the “Made in America” music festival to raise money for the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.
Jay-Z is quoted in the documentary as saying, “I believe that every human being has genius-level talent,” adding that hard work and finding your particular area to shine are keys to success. He adds, “There are no chosen ones.” Sounds to me like a modern-day definition of the American Dream.
Now Jay-Z is a very well-known example of someone who achieved the American Dream. Yet most lead much quieter lives. They are in every industry, in every walk of life. And I would suggest many are here tonight. Teachers. Administrators. Community Leaders. They’ve achieved their American Dream. And they continue to define that dream by helping others. And like me, they still believe in the American Dream.
So, Class of 2014, I am asking you to join us. Show the world that hard work does pay off. Not just for you, but for those around you. Show the world that options can be created and destinies changed. Not just for you, but for those around you. Keep the American Dream alive. Not just for you, but for those around you.
Congratulations, Godspeed and best wishes on a wonderful life full of dreams come true!