Class of 2017, We Need You in the Arena

It was honor to address the Harrisburg University Class of 2017. Graduations are such joyous events, where students are taking stock of the journey they have been on, and the future that lies ahead. I shared some of the lessons I’ve learned from the past decade of work, and the transformative experience of serving in the Obama Administration. My full remarks are included below. Many thanks to everyone for their thoughts, ideas and edits in their formulation.


Congratulations Harrisburg Class of 2017!

I’m going to start by thanking a lot of people — because a lot of people helped you get here. Let’s give it up for your parents! Your professors! Your fellow classmates! Everyone in your life who has encouraged and supported you!

I also want to thank the Board of Trustees for inviting me, and for everyone who has helped support, guide and grow this wonderful institution.

It’s a real honor for me to be here — and to talk to you at this moment of celebration and reflection.

As we gather here today, I want you to reflect on the windy path of life that brings you to this moment. All of the hard work you have put in. All of the people who have helped you. All of those moments of kindness and support that loom large when we look back.

Twenty-five years ago, my brother and I came to this country as immigrants, brought by parents who were heartbroken to leave home but hungry for more opportunity for their children.

My wonderful parents

Coming to the states was a hard transition for me — knowing no one, and entering the hell that is middle school. I struggled. But thanks to the kindness and support of a teacher, my parents moved us a school where there were no bullies, and I wasn’t afraid to raise my hand in class.

Over the years, there have so many of these moments of kindness.

When I applied to work at the White House, I interviewed with Thomas Kalil, a hidden treasure of a man who I think has done more to define American science and tech policy over the past 25 years than anyone else.

He’s the guy who in 1993 explained to senior staff at the White House what the Internet was. “It’s going to be big deal,” he said to skeptical looks. Boy, was he wrong?

During our interview, Tom asked me what I knew about science policy. Very little, I admitted.

But Tom took a chance on me. As he told me then, I don’t need you to have all of the answers. I need you to talk to work hard, solicit advice, listen well, and learn quickly.

And six months later, I was in the Oval Office, briefing President Obama on the impending launch of his new initiative to get more students prepared for STEM careers.

Briefing President Obama on launch of Educate to Innovate campaign (2009)

As I sat there, I thought, “only in America.” What a privilege and honor that this little immigrant kid could grow up to serve at the highest levels of our government, and work for a President and nation that he admires and loves.

I ended up serving all eight years in the Obama White House because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I literally jumped out of bed every day excited.

And it was often surreal. One day, you are walking in to work, and you are stuck behind 200 nuns coming in to talk about providing health care to the neediest among us. And then, on another, you are helping bring a 16-foot electric giraffe to meet the President for the first-ever White House Maker Faire.

First-ever White House Maker Faire (2014)

The whole experience taught me three lessons that I want to share with you today.

FIRST, everything is easier in life if you work really hard. As you start your careers, you should take the hardest job you can find, and one that will demand the most of you. Hard work transforms us — it literally rewires our brains — and shows us our own potential.

My first job out of college was to be the deputy Communications Director for a long-shot Presidential campaign. That job nearly killed me. Over 8 months, our team went from 2 people to 20, and I supervised folks who were much older than me. I made mistakes — embarrassing mistakes.

But I learned so much — about what leading a team requires and the importance of feedback, about how much the end product matters and that nobody cares about your excuse for why it didn’t happen, and how much better you can get if you keep working at it.

In the White House, we created a white board of phrases that captured our way of working. And one of my favorites was “Find your doers.” Doers are people who don’t just give you their opinion, they follow up. Doers try to think of everything that needs to get done, not just what they are responsible for. Doers recruit others to help by sharing credit and making everyone feel part of the team.

Be a doer. And find other doers.

Team Kalil White Board

SECOND, don’t just look for great companies or great organizations to work for — look for great bosses.

Great bosses not only inspire; they give you opportunities to grow and succeed beyond your wildest dreams. They thrust you into the limelight. They vouch for you and they fight for you. I was in that Oval Office meeting because John Holdren, the President’s Science Advisor and Tom Kalil, asked that I join them. They were the ones who told the President that I hadn’t slept in six months.

I respect and admire them, and I will forever run through walls for them.

Great bosses also attract great teams. There is nothing more invigorating than working with people who support you, who challenge you, who surprise you every day.

One of my proudest accomplishments at the White House is the team of twenty-five all-stars I helped build. From bringing computer science education to more kids, to expanding access to education for folks in prison, to investing in the science that revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain, our team was getting it done for the American people every day.

OSTP Tech and Innovation team (2016)

THIRD, I want you to know that you can make a dent in the universe. I don’t buy all of this talk that your generation’s expectations about changing the world are too high. In fact, I think our collective expectations are too low. Here’s another quote from our whiteboard: “An entrepreneur is someone not limited by the resources under their control.”

Too often, we think of only what we can directly control. What the organization we work for can directly do.

But much of what we see in the world is based on human choices — choices that can be changed.

Let me give you an example. Today, 20 million more students have access to broadband in their classrooms because of President Obama. That idea started with a phone call, where someone told me “Here is an idea of something you all could do, but it’s probably impossible because Congress will hate it and so will federal agencies.” He was right that it wasn’t easy — but two years later, President Obama’s ConnectED initiative had broad support inside the Administration and in Congress.

The status quo is not fixed. You have much more power to change your circumstances, your community and the world than you imagine.

As STEM graduates, your talents are in high demand.

You can build the clean energy technologies that will create new jobs and fight climate change. You can be the generation that gets us walking and dancing on another planet. You can be the generation that carries your values of inclusion into the workplace and make sure the science and tech sector looks like the rest of America. You can help forge partnerships with peers around the world, because we are part of a global family, not a walled fortress.

And in this turbulent time, you can showcase the importance of reason, of facts, and of science, to forge positive change.

This world needs you in the arena.

You can be a doer.

You can help build a great team.

And you can make a dent in the universe.

I believe in you Class of 2017!

I am counting on you Class of 2017!

So, let’s get going!

Thank you!

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