Congressman Seth Moulton Delivers Commencement Address at University of Massachusetts Boston
May 27th, 2016
Boston, MA – Today, Congressman Seth Moulton (D-MA) delivered the commencement address at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The speech was delivered before 4,262 graduates as well as their families and friends. Below are Moulton’s remarks as prepared for delivery.
Congressman Seth Moulton Commencement Address
University of Massachusetts Boston
Remarks as prepared for delivery
May 27, 2016
Thank you President Meehan, Chancellor Motley, Trustees, Faculty, Staff, Families and Guests. And most importantly, congratulations to the Class of 2016!
The University of Massachusetts Boston has a proud tradition of excellence and a strong commitment to public service. I’m truly honored to be here with you today.
As some of you may know, in preparation for today, I tweeted asking for suggestions about what to talk about, and my “favorite” response came from @Brisokol: “Bring your A game!,” he said. “Obama spoke in 06. Was upstaged by the valedictorian. And he’s a pretty good speaker.” Thanks man – no pressure!
You have a lot to be proud of today, and also a lot of people to thank for helping you get here. But what you do next, how you live your life, is all up to you. So I’m going to take the next few minutes—I promise to be brief—to talk about just one thing that will be important for you to succeed in the journey ahead, and that is courage.
See, all the things you typically hear in commencement speeches—follow your dreams; make a life, not just a living; get back on the horse when you fall off—I don’t believe any of them are possible without courage.
My case to you is this: Courage is rare. Courage matters – much more than we appreciate today. And if you live your life with courage, you will inspire others to do the same.
Courage is not being fearless—courage is doing the right thing in spite of your fears. One of my heroes from the Iraq war was Cpl. James Hassell, a Marine in my platoon from Alabama. James was a big guy, a football player in high school, so carrying another Marine on his back was easy for James. But when Ryan in our platoon was hit by a grenade in a fierce firefight, James carried Ryan to safety, not across a sunny football field, but through a treacherous alley of grenades and machine gun fire. James wasn’t fearless; he saved Ryan’s life in spite of his fears.
Second, courage is taking a stand for others, not for yourself. Take my friend Ahmad, a ten-year old Syrian refugee who lost three of his siblings and both of his arms in an airstrike on his refugee camp. Ahmad has seen more hardship in ten years than anyone deserves in a lifetime, yet instead of only focusing on his own recovery, he has become an advocate for others. Last January, Ahmad joined me for President Obama’s final State of the Union address, and he brought a letter to the President advocating for the other Syrian children still suffering in that war torn country, and Ahmad is focused on becoming a doctor so he can help kids the way the Boston doctors are helping him.
Finally, courage is the willingness to fail. We all know about the opioid crisis. As Gloucester’s Police Chief, Leonard Campanello has confronted it firsthand, and he even spent eight years on the street as a counter-narcotics officer before becoming chief. But he had the courage to admit that his old approach wasn’t working, that we can’t arrest our way out of this problem, and so he took a risk by trying something completely different, an innovative program called the Angel Initiative to help get addicts off the street and into treatment programs. That’s a big risk for a police chief charged to fight crime, and it could have been a total failure, but instead his bold idea has inspired communities around the country to do the same.
James, Ahmad, and Chief Campanello are ordinary people who did extraordinary things in spite of their fears, when it wasn’t in their own interest, and with the great risk of failing terribly. Their stories show that courage is not easy. But we don’t need courage because it is easy. We need courage because it is tough. I always tell my team that we will be measured not by how well we do when things are going well, when we’re up in the polls, when public opinion is on our side. We’ll be measured by how we do when it’s hard, when we stand up for what is right but unpopular. It’s doing well under stress, performing when it’s difficult—that matters, not just in a tough final exam or under pressure on the basketball court or soccer field—but out there in life as well.
E.E. Cummings, one of the great American poets of the 20th century, tells us, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” When I graduated from college in June of 2001, I had to make a big decision about who I wanted to grow up and become. I chose to join the Marine Corps–but it wasn’t because I was particularly courageous. Rather, I joined because I was inspired by the 18 and 19 year-old men and women who serve on the front lines of our military.
A few months after I graduated and committed to the Marines, 9/11 happened. And a year and a half later, I found myself leading a platoon in combat in Iraq — something that seemed unimaginable when I first joined. From the front lines in Iraq, I could see the effects of bad decisions made in Washington—often politically-convenient decisions that were bad for our troops—and the effects those decisions had on those of us serving.
For example, we had to patch together steel cutout doors for our HMMWVs for crude protection against IEDs because politicians weren’t willing to take the political risk of raising taxes to get the troops what we needed—and the Iraq War became the first war in our history where we didn’t all contribute to paying for it. We still see those effects today.
Going into the Marines, I had no plans to go into politics; I didn’t grow up in a political family; nor had I even volunteered on a campaign. But I remember one time, at the end of a long day, when one of my Marines looked up at me and said, “Sir, you ought to run for Congress someday so that this stuff doesn’t happen again.” Now, he used a Marine term for “stuff,” but you get what I mean. It seemed like a crazy idea at the time to someone who was—and still is—paying his college loans, but those words stuck with me. I couldn’t just complain about what was happening. I had to do something about it myself.
The courageous leaders I worked with in the military, like Cpl. Hassell, and met as a Congressman, like Ahmad and Chief Campanello, remind me that individuals have the power to make a difference — but you need to find the courage to try. You know, a lot of people ask me, “Seth, why is Congress so stupid? Why are folks in Congress so stupid that they don’t believe in climate change or whatever else…?” Well, my observation after a year on the job is that most of my colleagues are pretty smart. What’s lacking in Congress isn’t intelligence—it’s courage. It’s the courage to vote for what you know is right, even if it might be unpopular with your political party or some of your voters back home. That takes courage, and there’s not enough of it in Washington today.
So when you see a politician who plays into our worst fears, rather than confronts them. Who stands up for himself, rather than for our values. Who thinks it’s being tough to discriminate. Who has never risked his life for anything, and never will. That person is not courageous. He is not “telling it like it is.” He is a coward.
But, Class of 2016 I have good news: When you graduate today, you are leaving a place that has allowed – even encouraged – you to be courageous. You took classes that challenged you intellectually, debated issues that challenged you morally, and probably had some relationships that challenged you emotionally. Many of you are the first in your families to graduate college. And hundreds of you sitting before me are veterans who have already put their lives on the line for our country.
Be proud of getting here today not because it was easy, but because it was hard. And plan to succeed tomorrow, not because life is always easy, but because you can find the courage to meet its challenges. And if you live your life with courage, you will look back on it with pride.
Congratulations Class of 2016!