Thelma A. Sias’ graduate Commencement address

To Mr. President, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff and students, I say to you, thank you for the honor of this great recognition. On behalf of my late parents, Roosevelt and Pauline, and on behalf of those men and women who taught me lessons to learn in the cotton fields of Mississippi, along with my six brothers and four sisters, four of my sisters with me today and other family members and friends, again, I say, thank you for this honor here today.

I want to take a moment today and talk to you as members of the graduating Class of 2022. I first want to say to you, congratulations, I’ve been up and down Wisconsin Avenue and I’ve seen some of the parties and I like the kind of champagne you selected to have in your celebration, but congratulations, you’re now getting ready to step forward because you now know you have made it.

To the parents, family and friends who believed in them when they didn’t believe in themselves, congratulations. We are all here today to celebrate you.

But as your Commencement speaker today, I want to make sure you hear me loud and clear. I want to make sure you hear the challenge from me on behalf of countless others. And I want to make sure that it says enough to you to move you to think.

My message today is entitled “How will you?” How will you make a nation different than what it is today? How will you have the courage to stand up and say, enough is enough? How will you be the leaders, educated and framed by this institution, how will you be the ones to say it is time for us as a nation to learn how to love and respect each other?

The time of hate is over with. How will you make that happen? How will you be the ones who say that time is now for us to stop saying what someone else can’t have and what I only can have? How will you be the ones who stand up every day and say it now time for us to respect everyone?

How will you be the ones that will say every day as you walk into rooms across this community, across this world and make bold difficult decisions, how will you be the ones that say, though this decision is difficult and challenging, how will I make this decision and make sure it is done with dignity and respect and everyone will be treated fairly?

How will you bring about that change?

How will you be the leaders that say when you walk into a room, you don’t see anyone else that looks different than you? How will you be the one with the courage to say it is time for us not only to expand the tent, open the tent, but make a new table so everyone can indeed be at the table?

How will you have the courage to do that?

How will you be the ones in your neighborhood that will walk back and forth day in and day out and say that I want my neighborhood to be a place where everyone can live, regardless of how different they look than me and how differently they talk than me, regardless how much money they have, they have a right to be here as well as I?

How will you make that difference?

How will you be the ones that get up every day and say the same thing? My mother and father raised 11 of us with this message. Momma said every day treat every person you meet with the same dignity and respect you so desire.

How will you get up every day and assure not what somebody else didn’t do, not what somebody else should do, how will you assure that you’re going to treat every person you meet with that same dignity and respect you so desire?

I want to know how will you be the ones that take the extraordinary experience you’ve had, being educated here at Marquette University, knowing that every day you walked across the campus and saw all kinds of people from different walks of life.

You walked into classrooms with different professors and teachers every day, you sat in lunchrooms with different people every day and you learned how to live among a world that is different from what you have come from.

How will you assure that in days to come, months to come, years to come, that we can live up to the truth that there should be the ability for all to be able to grow and to learn?

I want to make sure you understand how important this is to me.

How will you be the ones that will create the ability that we no longer have poverty in this nation and this world? How will you sit in boardrooms and in courtrooms and in just rooms and put together a plan so we no longer have to say they are poor, they are poor, but that you are the ones who put together the thoughts, you were the ones who put together the plan and you were the one who was committed that no longer there will be people hungry from one day to the next?

How will you be a part of making a change in this nation?

How will you assure that young children no longer have to wonder will I stay here tonight or will I stay here tomorrow? How will you have the courage day in and day out when someone says someone should be locked out of this door? How will you have the courage to walk up to the door and open it because you understand we all deserve to walk in the door the same time as everyone else?

How will you be the ones that say it is time for what cannot be but this is what should happen every day?

How will you have the courage every day to say to people it is time out for the old thinking that women cannot do this and women cannot do that? How will you be the ones that say there’s no question greatness happens to all of us, it doesn’t matter about your gender, it doesn’t matter about your age, it doesn’t about your race, it doesn’t matter if you came on the boat or across the water? We’re all human beings.

How will you guarantee that kind of change?

At the moment we’re at right now in this country, and in this world, how will you — you the individual, you the people that you know — how will you influence them to understand no longer is it OK for us to have one more shooting in a community and across this nation. Ten families in Buffalo, New York, struggling with loss, loss because someone decided that they were not worthy to be alive.

How will you wrestle with this difficult decision of how we get guns out of our community, how we get hate out of our community and how we build a nation we all can say we’re proud of. How will you be a part of that change?

And I want to remind you, as you struggle with being a part of change, there will come times when you will be all alone. I would encourage you to be willing to have the courage to stand alone than to watch things fall apart and be nothing.

I would encourage you to understand when other people say to you, this is too much to take on, others came before you and I and they took on great challenges to give the opportunity for me to be able to stand here today. A girl from the cotton fields is standing here with you at Marquette University. A girl in a town that didn’t have a red or yellow light or green light to come on or grocery store to go in. But with the belief of some and hard work of others, we made extraordinary things happen.

I want you to be the class that everybody talks about. You know, they graduated on that Sunday afternoon and they have been raising the bar of possibilities ever since the day they graduated. I want you to be the ones when they talk about greatness, they go through the books, oh they graduated from Marquette on that Sunday afternoon.

It will become a norm, something worth talking about. You are the ones who have to step up and ask the question, how can I make a difference? You are the ones that must understand day in and day out, there are many women who don’t have the hope you have. There are men and women who didn’t get the chance to be educated as you have been in this moment right now. There are men and women who are working in jobs right now, not the jobs many of us want to have. But they have been the ones who have held the fiber of this country together.

They’re holding on and waiting for young people like you day in and day out to have the courage to speak up, to have the courage to say it is now the time for this nation to be better than what it used to be.

And I’m the first to say to you, I understand we have not done a great job of getting all of the barriers out of your way. But we twist and turn and pushed many of them over so you all have a chance to walk into the room, open the door and make greater things happen. But the test is, how will you believe that it should be better than what it is now?

How will you understand even when others say it should not be done, that this must be done and done now?

How will you be the ones that will remind people of how challenging it may be for some but it shouldn’t be that way for everyone always?

How will you be the ones who say to them, my commencement speaker challenged me to understand whether you like it or not, that person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect the same way as you? My Commencement speaker told me to learn the important lesson, respect is earned, you can’t go to any store and buy it.

Respect is an earned commodity between two people and you must keep earning other’s respect. And how will you take the gift of being at a campus like Marquette, making incredible friends, how will you hold on to each other, build upon this friendship and make sure every day you are reaching out, out and around and bringing other people in your thinking and into your circle?

How will you knock down social media’s ability to make people think bad of people when they don’t even know they’re being thought bad of?

How will you be the voice to be heard to say to people, now why is it I’m the only one who can think of a great idea? Have you ever been in the room and being as smart as you can be and you realize only one person thinks they’re smart in there? How will you be the one to tap the person on the back and say to them, “I know you think you know it all. My commencement speaker told me to remind you nobody knows everything.”

And finally, I want to say to you something very important. As you celebrate here today, I don’t want any of you to believe that you did this all by yourself. There was always someone believing in you. There was always someone pulling for you. There was always some professor who said to you, “Think about this a bit differently.”

And that’s what you must remember, as great as all the things you do in life, the ability to care for others, the ability to take your talents and leverage them so other people will have an opportunity. And with all of the greatness and all of the things that occur with you, around you and for you, understand it is important to have a heart, a heart that cares about the needs of other people.

It is important to have a sense of understanding of other people’s journey. It may not be your journey but it’s their journey. They need you to be respectful and understand of that journey.

As you move about your success in life, please know it is important for you to reach out and grab others and bring them along. Everyone may not do it the way you want them to do it. How well do I know after working 30 years, you can’t always get people to do what you want. Find that coalition of people who will work with you to push forward for change.

It is now greater than ever before that you be the leaders of our future, that you become one to think boldly about the kinds of things we need to do in this nation and in this world. The time is now for you to raise your head, level your shoulders and tell people, “I know leadership is difficult, I know it is lonely, I know some people will disagree with me, but I’m going to stand firmly for fairness. I’m going to stand firmly for justice. Not just on this side of the street but every side of the street I go to, I’m standing for the same thing.”

As I say to people, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I want you to stick to your principle and belief that a nation should be better, our world should be greater and you fit into the mold, making sure that that happens. That you understand the power of the enormity of the gift you have that you earned this degree today. Many have not had that chance. You have.

You are the generation that must outlive the story told over and over again that says I am my brother’s keeper. You’re the generation that needs to kick that old saying aside. You’re more than your brother’s keeper, you’re your sister’s keeper, but most importantly, you’re the keeper of hope for future generations.

When you think you are too tired to get up and do more, you are holding on and carrying on the ability for future generations to have a greater and more powerful life than you had. When you say to yourself, “There’s nothing else I can do,” be reminded you are the ones holding on to hope for future generations.

When too many people say to you, “This is impossible to do,” be reminded that you are carrying on the ability of hope for future generations.

As I go to my seat, I will say to you again and again, thank you for this honor, be aware of who you are, be willing to give all you have to bring about change and to do what George Washington Carver once said, “When you can do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the entire world.”

The graduating class of 2022, I want you to command that attention of the entire world and make it better than what we are today. Thank you for the honor of being with you today.