Durbin Delivers Commencement Address At Northeastern Illinois University, Awarded Honorary Doctorate Of Humane Letters
CHICAGO – U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) delivered the commencement address to Northeastern Illinois University’s (NEIU) Class of 2022 during a ceremony Sunday at the Credit Union 1 Arena in Chicago. Durbin was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. During his address, Durbin noted that, like many of the graduates, he is the child of an immigrant and he and his brothers were the first generation in their family to attend college. Durbin emphasized that one of the great tests of our time will be our nation’s response to immigrants and vowed to continue working in Congress for immigration reform that allows people to earn a path toward citizenship.
“My mother was brought to this country with her two siblings when she was just 2 years old. They came from Lithuania, a small country in Eastern Europe. At the time, Lithuania was occupied by czarist Russia. My family came to America for the same reason that families have come for centuries, and still come today. To escape oppression. To find new opportunities. And to give their children a better, more hopeful future,” Durbin said.
Durbin continued, “Your education will open many doors in your life. The real question is whether it will open your mind and open your heart… I know that NEIU takes the education of the heart seriously. This is the only public college in our state that has created a scholarship program for Afghan men and women who fled the horror of the Taliban and now live in Chicagoland.”
Durbin concluded, “So, the finals are over – finally… No more tests at least for a while. But the most important tests – the test of our humanity – never end. As you move forward into new jobs and new challenges, may you always remember to use the education in your head – and your heart. Congratulations, NEIU Class of 2022! We are proud of you.”
NEIU is ranked as one of the most diverse colleges in the Midwest, with 59 percent of its student body being minority. It is one of 13 colleges and universities in Illinois classified as a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), which means that it is an accredited, degree-granting, nonprofit college with a student body that is at least 25 percent Hispanic. In September, Durbin joined a resolution recognizing the importance of HSIs in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Durbin’s full remarks as prepared for delivery appear below:
Thank you, Mr. Garcia and President Gibson for your kind words.
I want to thank the NEIU community for honoring me with this degree. I have an idea of how hard an NEIU degree is to earn. I promise to do my best to be deserving of your faith in me.
I also want to acknowledge the Northeastern Illinois University faculty and staff – all except for one person.
Who decided that I should speak after Herminia Maldonado? That’s like a singer having Beyoncé as his opening act! Might as well drop the mic.
What an incredible woman. And what an amazing story.
What makes all of you so inspiring, NEIU Class of 2022, is that there are so many stories like Herminia’s among you.
You have all worked hard to make it to this point. You’ve juggled so many challenges and responsibilities to reach this day – families, children, jobs, money concerns, personal challenges, and, oh yes, a pandemic that turned the world upside down.
Clearly, the words “I give up” just aren’t in your vocabularies. You are resourceful … resilient … remarkable. And now you are, officially, college graduates. And you can take pride in that.
How about a round of applause for this incredible NEIU Class of 2022?
Of course, none of you made it here without the love and support of others.
How about another round of applause for the all the family members, friends, and guardian angels, who helped you carry the load when you needed a hand, and never let you give up.
I understand that we have a few first-generation college students in the Class of 2022. Is that right? Let’s hear it if you’re part of the first generation in your family to go to college.
How about immigrants? Any immigrants in the Class of 2022?
Any Dreamers and DACA recipients?
And how about children of immigrants? Raise your hand if you’re the child of an immigrant.
That’s my story. My mother was brought to this country with her two siblings when she was just 2 years old.
They came from Lithuania, a small country in Eastern Europe. At the time, Lithuania was occupied by czarist Russia.
My family came to America for the same reason that families have come for centuries, and still come today. To escape oppression. To find new opportunities. And to give their children a better, more hopeful future.
My grandfather came over first to find work – and my grandmother followed later with their three children.
When my grandmother got off the boat in Baltimore Harbor and walked down the street with her three little children in tow, I’m sure there were people who weren’t happy to see them.
I’m sure there were people who thought: “Not more of those foreigners with their strange language and their odd clothes.”
But like you, my grandmother refused to give up. Without knowing many words in English, she made it from Baltimore to her land of opportunity, East St. Louis, Illinois, where my grandfather had found a job.
That’s where I grew up. It’s also where President Gibson grew up.
Neither of my parents graduated from high school.
But my mother, especially, valued learning and education.
All three of her children – my two brothers and I – were pushed to go to college. I went on to law school.
I was able to go to college because the American people invested in me – through low-interest government loans and grants.
That is why I support Pell grants. And it’s why I support President Biden’s decision to forgive $10,000 in student loan debt – and $20,000 if you qualify for Pell grants.
And my family’s story is the reason that I first introduced the Dream Act in Congress more than 20 years ago. My mother was a Dreamer of her day.
It’s the reason that I’ve been pushing in Congress for 20 years forimmigration reform that allows people to come out of the shadows and earn their American citizenship.
And I will not give up until we get the job done! That is my promise to you.
I could cite all kinds of facts and figures about why immigration is America’s superpower. How immigrants boost our economy. How immigrants are disproportionately represented among America’s entrepreneurs, inventors, scientists, and Nobel Prize laureates.
But instead of statistics, let me tell you some stories.
John Lee’s family came from Korea and moved to Chicago when John was a little boy. Neither he nor his parents spoke English.
On his first day of school, his mother walked him to kindergarten. Along the way, she told him, “Your name is John now.” A good American name, she said.
And she told him, “Don’t worry, you will learn English in time.”
When John came home from school, he told his mother that his teacher asked him to bring a can of beans to school tomorrow.
She questioned him: A can of beans?
Yes. It’s for art class.
So the next day he brought the can of beans.
The teacher asked the students to open what they brought. As John looked around the room he saw that all of his classmates had brought boxes of cereal. He had misunderstood what the teacher had said.
As a wave of embarrassment started to come over him, the teacher quietly walked up behind him and replaced the can with a box of cereal.
Today, John Lee is a federal judge. Two weeks ago he was sworn in as the first Asian American ever to serve on the Seventh Circuit, the second highest level of the federal court system.
To this day, he remembers that teacher’s act of kindness and how it made a scared little boy feel safe in a new land.
More recently, we’ve seen scores of Venezuelan migrants bused to Chicago from southern states. They arrive with stories of hardship and determination.
A few months ago, I visited with some of them.
Carlos is the father of a 4-year-old girl and an infant. He and his family spent nine nights in a jungle in Panama. He thought his whole family would die there. A military group rescued them.
Maria is a college-educated young woman. She broke down in tears as she told us of the personal violence she endured during her trek through Mexico.
William is a natural politician. Within hours, he was known to everyone at the Salvation Army shelter.
I asked him: Do you have and family or friends in the United States?
He said: Te tengo a ti. I have you.
He reminded me – as did John Lee, as did my mother, that we live in the shelter of friends.
You’ve finished your final exams, thank goodness! But life continues to present us with tests.
The immigrant experience is one of the tests of our humanity.
When Mayor Sean McDermott announced that his town of Countryside would welcome immigrant families from Venezuela, some residents complained. More people turned out to help, volunteering clothes, food, and apartments.
How does one explain why some people care – while others turn away? Why do some people reach out a helping hand, while others raise a clenched fist?
As human animals we battle primal, tribal instincts to hold the stranger at a safe distance. To question and even to fear differences of religion, his language, skin color, customs, sexual orientation.
It’s a reason that Jews -- with their nomadic history, and different religious customs – often have been targets of irrational suspicion and hate throughout history—and are facing a troubling rise in antisemitism even today.
Education is not a reliable predictor of the heart or an antidote to hate. There are well-schooled bigots and highly educated haters.
History is filled with stories of men with heads full of facts, but hearts of stone.
Your education will open many doors in your life. The real question is whether it will open your mind and open your heart.
Will you quietly hand the immigrant boy a box of cereal to spare him embarrassment? Will you say a kind word or help Maria to make a life far from Caracas?
Will you, will I, be William’s amigo?
I know that NEIU takes the education of the heart seriously.
This is the only public college in our state that has created a scholarship program for Afghan men and women who fled the horror of the Taliban and now live in Chicagoland.
I visited with several of those scholarship recipients in October. Like John Lee, they were filled with gratitude to find safety and kindness in this new land.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie, “Schindler’s List.” I hope so. I think everyone should. It’s about a German factory owner who rescued hundreds of Jews from the Nazi extermination camps.
In one of the closing scenes of the movie, Liam Neeson, who plays Oskar Schindler, is given a small gift by the hundreds of Jewish people whose lives he saved. He breaks down in tears as he says: “I should have done more.”
I should have done more.
In our lives we can all do more.
So, the finals are over – finally! Thank goodness! No more tests at least for a while.
But the most important tests – the test of our humanity – never end.
As you move forward into new jobs and new challenges, may you always remember to use the education in your head – and your heart.
Congratulations, NEIU Class of 2022! We are proud of you.
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