The following is the text of the full University of Wisconsin Oshkosh 142 spring Commencement address delivered at the May 14 morning ceremony by Graciela Brinkman-Hernandez, student speaker and women and gender studies major.
“Only 30 percent of people in America are privileged enough to have college degrees and today we join their ranks. Thus, we have a personal obligation to ourselves, our families and our communities to use our education and experiences to create social change.
“My name is Graciela Brinkman-Hernandez and I am a social justice activist. While unknown to me at the time, I have been an activist since I was 16 years old. See, as a child I learned that threat comes in the strangest of forms. I was 16 years old when I decided to flee from my adoptive family. While some might call it running away, I say that I had emancipated myself from a life of abuse and rejection from a family who saw me as a burden rather than a child in need of empowerment and a stable and loving home. They tried to strip me of self-dignity and worth. They said I would never accomplish anything or even stand here today to claim this diploma. While it was hard not to internalize the hate and rejection my adoptive family tried to instill, I knew that my life was meant for so much more. I decided to choose myself and my freedom. It was on that midnight Greyhound bus, where I only had myself and an empty suitcase, that I truly realized the danger of standing still. That night I learned the freedom of action.
“After months of wandering I found myself here in Wisconsin, which I ultimately decided was the place that I would start my journey of healing and growth; however, one problem remained: I found myself homeless once more. I had no friends or family, and my hopes for a better future seemed unobtainable. As I struggled to find a safe place to live, I wondered which one of the many negative runaway statistics I would fall into. Just as I hit another low point in my life, fate stepped in. It was at this time that I met the woman I would eventually come to call my mother. Not only did she save me from a hard life on the streets but she also taught me the most important lesson. She taught me that activism is not for the self, it’s for others. Activism is selfless. It’s for the betterment of the people of this world. And that’s what I challenge us to reflect on today.
“What we achieve, we do not achieve alone. We all, at various times throughout our college careers, have needed a community to guide us through, and now we graduates must consider how to be that community for others. With 10,000 children born in the U.S daily, we have to reject the idea that we aren’t responsible for anybody else. I think about my own story and wonder where I would be if my mother and the leaders of UW Oshkosh hadn’t been willing to uplift and empower me in my time of need. We have to see each other in each other. Everything that we have learned and experienced in our college careers has no value if we don’t share it with the world with the intent of making it a better place than it was at this time of our graduation. The educations we have received are opportunities to teach, inspire, influence and change.
“There are many forms of activism. Which form will you take? Whether aware of it or not, most of us sitting here today have engaged in some form of activism. Many of us have volunteered and engaged philanthropy with our Greek or student organizations. I witnessed the entire football team come together to serve food to the people of our community during our mobile food drive. Each year, more than 250 Titans serve their community during Hands on Oshkosh. These are just a few examples. I have been constantly inspired by you, my peers, by your passion and willingness to serve our campus and the Oshkosh community as a whole. I challenge us to keep alive that passion for serving long after we leave this institution.
“Some of the most impactful moments I have had at this University have included marching side by side with all of you at events like the LGBTQ Ally March, or Take Back the Night. At these events hundreds of Titans join to promote LGBTQ+ inclusion and speak out against violence against women. The kindness, empathy and solidarity I have seen at events like this does not surprise me one bit as we are Titans. Everywhere we go we should be impacting, inspiring and making change. That is who we are, and it’s simply what we do. We are for inclusion; we eradicate hate and fearlessly promote love, even at a time when violence and human separation continue to afflict our world. We speak out against injustice because we understand the importance of creating a more just, fair, and equitable society. We strive to pursue excellence in whatever we do and with the education UW Oshkosh has given us there’s nothing we can’t do!
“Wherever our professional or personal journeys take us, I do not doubt that we Titans will be there for our fellow humans with empathic and understanding hearts just as the people in our lives have been there for us. In the end, activism and serving others binds us to each other, to our communities and to our country.
“Today we graduate today from the university where ‘excellence and opportunity meet.’ Graduates, UW Oshkosh has given us the excellence, now we have the opportunity. I look forward to seeing the many ways this class of 2016 will influence change in our world. Thank you.”