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Commencement Address 2015

Juliet V. García, LHD; May 17, 2015

Commencement 2015

Juliet V. García, the first Hispanic woman to lead a U.S. college or university, and the woman whose decades of leadership at the University of Texas at Brownsville expanded educational opportunities for Hispanic and first-generation students, delivered the address at Smith’s 137th Commencement ceremony, Sunday, May 17, 2015.

Good morning. I am humbled and greatly honored to be here to celebrate this moment with all of you Smithies, the Class of 2015. Thank you President McCartney and members of the Board of Trustees for this great distinction.

I want you to know that ever since your president announced that I would be your commencement speaker, I have run into Smithies everywhere, in D.C. and in New York City and yes, even in Texas. Smith alums are proud of having been nurtured here and having been with others like many of the graduates here today, in a place where the spirit is awakened. And once awakened, the spirit never returns to its original dimensions.

I learned that this year Smith College celebrates its 137th commencement. And yet with all of its impressive history and long-standing traditions, Smith continues to be a place known for its pioneering spirit.

I am particularly impressed by your commitment to sustainability in reducing your energy use by 30 percent. As we were envisioning the future of our university in South Texas several years ago, our students pressed us to strive to become a net-zero energy campus. Our students would be very interested in your bicycle kitchen, your Green Team and your Community Garden.

Graduates, the degrees you will receive today, just as the honorary degree I have been awarded from this prestigious college, only has room for your name on it. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could add to it, the names of all of those who have helped us along the way? Believe me I’ve tried....

On all of my official documents my name is listed as Juliet Villarreal García. Juliet, because my father’s name was Romeo and my mother was a romantic and loved Shakespeare.

Villarreal, because it was the name of my parents, who planted the idea in their three children, that we must all graduate from college; not because they had, but because they had not.

And Garcia is on my diploma because it is my husband’s name. When I married at the ridiculously young age of 19, it was only because my father required my fiancée to promise to make sure I would finish my bachelor’s degree. My husband, Oscar, promised. Then he proceeded to work, to make sure he made good on that promise. Having completed my bachelor’s degree, he encouraged me to continue with my studies and work to earn my master’s degree. And after finishing my master’s degree, now with two small children, he moved our little family to Austin, Texas to live in married student housing, where we learned to tell “poor” jokes.... to help me pursue the doctorate. Oscar made good on his promise.

But there are so many others whose name I was unable to get on my diploma. Just as it is for many of you that are graduating today, who know that it took the help of many, many others to urge you forward, encourage you during the toughest of days, and inspire you all along the way.

Make sure that you take a moment today or tomorrow or someday very soon, to thank everyone for helping make today a reality for you.


Y para los padres de los graduados,

Es un gran honor que nos acompañen en este día tan especial.

Todo lo que transcurrió durante el año universitário, se disfrúta hoy.

Hoy celebrámos:

Todas las noches que estos estudiantes se desveláron y las mañanas que madrugáron.

Hoy celebramos, el trabájo de estos estudiantes y de sus profesóres.

Además, estámos aquí para celebrár también lo que han hecho ustedes: los padres, los esposos y esposas, hijos e hijas, al prestárles su apoyo.

Porque sin ustedes, los reconocimientos del día de hoy, no habrían sido posibles.


My father was born in Monterrey, Mexico and came to the U.S. with his family to escape the Mexican revolution. Their passport picture is of the entire family looking very grief-stricken, because no one wants to be forced to leave their home.

My mother grew up in a small South Texas border town, where the Mexicans lived on the south side of the railroad tracks and where they were allowed to swim in the public pool only one day a year. The next day, the pool was drained and cleaned.

But in spite, or perhaps because, of the circumstances of her life growing up there, she excelled in school, was named to the honor society and earned such good grades that she earned the title of salutatorian of her high school class. Unfortunately, my mother and my father, who also did well in school, graduated during the Great Depression and were never able to fulfill their dream of going to college.

How hard it must have been for them both to see others leave their small town to go study in Austin or Houston or elsewhere. Later in life, when my father would see someone who had graduated from high school with him and was now a pharmacist or a doctor, he would quietly say, "I had better grades that he did in geometry."

The pain of not being able to continue his studies lasted a lifetime.

I was 9 years old when our sweet mother died at the very tender age of 40 of breast cancer.

My greatest regret is not to have known her better and longer as a mother, confidant and, in later life, as a woman. But what I can assure you of is that in her very short time on earth, she had huge impact on our family.

She launched us on our individual journeys and gave us her essence; her discipline for schoolwork and how important it was that we take care of our home and its gardens. She taught us much of the Bible that I know today, and she taught us to care deeply about family. What I remember most about her is her loud and animated laugh.

Years after she had died, I was in a store with some friends and I laughed out loud at some joke. A woman, hearing me laugh, came over to me and said, “What relation are you to Coqui Lozano?” Coqui was my mother’s nickname. I told her I was her daughter. The woman smiled broadly and said, “I hadn’t heard her laugher in years. I’ve missed it.”

I had inherited my mother’s laugh. Even that was a gift of hers.

Several weeks after our mother died, our father sat us all down in front of him and reassured us that life for us would be easier from here on. And then as if the saying of the words would have some sort of magical effect he proclaimed, “You have survived the most difficult thing that will ever come your way. Nothing that can ever happen to you, will be worse than this. You are stronger for it.”

Those enchanted words somehow gave us strength enough to survive that moment and prepare us for the many other such moments that were to come our way.

So during my life's most difficult moments; when I seem to run out of my own strength, somehow I am gifted renewed strength that comes from somewhere outside myself.

I believe it comes from my mother. It is difficult to explain, other than to say that I am strengthened by her spirit.

So much so, that I believe that my life has been lived for both of us; that through me and with our combined strength, we have been able to accomplish what perhaps neither of us could have done by ourselves.

She would be so pleased to be here today among so many accomplished women. She believed in women being smart. She also believed that to those who much is given; much is expected. Sound familiar?

I remember winning a spelling bee in the 4th grade. When I told her, she was convinced that I had been given a special gift. She said that I must be careful to use that gift to do good for others. I insisted, “Mom, it just a spelling bee.” But she remained intrepid and confident. It was a “gift.” And, I was to be about the business of discovering how to use that gift to help other.

Our lives are strengthened, not by our accomplishments, but more often, by our challenges.

So where does our strength come from? For me, my strength comes from that young man that I married over 46 years ago who is still at my side and has believed often more in me than I did in myself.

My strength comes from those two babies that I had between degrees that are now extraordinary parents themselves.

My strength comes from my four grandchildren, one of whom, Carolina Rico, is here with me today and watching them become better versions of themselves.

My strength comes from the 40,000 men and women that we have graduated from The University of Texas at Brownsville, so that never again will someone who grows up in South Texas fail to fulfill their dream of getting a college education because they could not afford to leave to attend college.

My strength comes from having had the great privilege of doing important work in my community on the southern border of the United States. Not because there weren't opportunities for positions elsewhere, but because I could never find another place that seemed to need us so badly to help it succeed.

My work began in a place known best for being one of poorest and most undereducated in the United States.

Today, that same place is transformed and is home to thousands of young children that learn chess at the age of 5 and are known nationwide for winning chess championships year after year after year.

A city that last year was named the Chess Capital of the United States. A city with a university chess team that attracts players from around the world and who routinely win national and international chess tournaments.

And one of the top five cities in the United States that every year sends the most kids to the national chess competition.

It is also the city that was recently chosen by SpaceX as the site for the world’s first commercial rocket launch pad; chosen for its geography but also for its rich human capital.

And finally it is also the city that is now home to the university that ranks in the top five universities in the United States that graduates the most Latino physics majors, who together last year in our labs, discovered one-third of the pulsars identified and named world-wide.

I get my strength from all of them.

Today, you must seek that which gives you strength. And having discovered it, you must run toward it.

While today, you may only have a hint as to what it is that gives you strength, when you soon discover it, you must pursue it.


I have worked with a fellow who in the midst of a budget crises said, "It's not so bad..." I thought he had found a solution to the budget dilemma that we were working on; he said instead, "It's not so bad; working with a woman."

I have had more good days than anyone deserves and I have received much too much recognition for work done mostly by others.

I have missed many important events for my children and my grandchildren because of my work.

I have not ironed a shirt for my sweet husband for over 46 years.

I have worried about gaining weight; looking old and being out of shape.

I've taken up yoga and tennis to try to make up for decades of neglect.

I have learned to pretend courage and borrow it from others.

I would do it all over again; every moment of it.

But there is much yet to do. The window of opportunity is still closed to too many other women, too many Latinos, too many first-generation poor of all kinds.

So, we must all accelerate our efforts; re-spirit each other souls and continue to push ahead.

A wise colleague of mine once shamed me into new understanding. I was a baby president then, very young and lamenting about always being the only woman and, most often, the only Latina at the table and how I was tired of always being expected to represent both groups.

He was patient, let me finish and then quietly he said, "As long as you are the only women or the only Latina at the table, the responsibility falls to you to represent all others until they can take their own place at the table."

I say that to all of you today as well. We are the privileged few; we must not squander the opportunity that we have been given.

We must use it to find our own strength and having found it, to become steadfast, powerful and incessant advocates for others.

Cities can be transformed. Every child can learn to play chess and study physics and launch rocket ships.

Today, as an honorary Smith graduate, I join you in becoming one of Smith's newest ambassadors.

So together, let’s pledge to represent Smith well. To take our place among the many that have preceded us to become stewards of Smith’s mission, leaders in our communities and important contributors to making our world a better place.

Let's pledge to build bridges not fences; nurture and care for our fragile environment; work for peace and justice; and take our places as engaged citizens of our world.

Thank you for this lovely honor, and congratulations Smithies, Class of 2015!