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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the District of Columbia College Access Program Graduation Celebration


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Argelia [Rodriguez], for your kind words and – more importantly – for your transformative leadership. Over the last decade, you have redefined statistics, expectations, and, most importantly, possibilities for students across this city. And with the help of DC-CAP’s dedicated team of mentors, supporters and partners, you have helped and inspired more than 13,000 local students to get into college.

Tonight, I'm honored to stand with you – and with so many proud parents, siblings, teachers, mentors and friends – as we celebrate this year’s graduates. To the members of the Class of 2010, congratulations.

The diplomas you recently received represent far more than the four years of study at some of the country’s finest colleges and universities, and more than eight years of involvement with DC-CAP. They also represent the commitment of everyone who has believed in your potential. They represent your own perseverance. And they are proof of your ability to do what your DC-CAP mentors always encouraged you to do – to "keep going."

The ability to continue trying, working and learning is something each of you shares. And it’s allowed all of you to beat the odds and to exceed expectations.

I know that there have been moments of doubt and difficulty, and times when you questioned whether you could possibly fulfill the many requirements necessary to earn a college degree. But you’ve proven something your parents, teachers and mentors always believed – that you are extraordinary.

You are extraordinary for many reasons, but one has to do with what the great African-American writer and civil rights activist, James Baldwin, wrote to his nephew in 1962, on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation of America’s slaves.

"The limits of your ambition were… expected to be set forever," he wrote. "You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. But you have... defeated this intention…. There really is no limit to where you can go."

Like James Baldwin’s nephew, you were not expected to aspire to excellence. Many of you have faced challenges all your lives. You’ve had to confront problems in your neighborhoods, schools and homes. And, because of this, you were expected to make pace with mediocrity. But you chose to aspire for excellence. You chose to work hard. And, when your teachers and mentors urged you to believe in yourselves and in your dreams, you found the strength and confidence you needed to do just that.

In the great spirit of this country – which, since its earliest days, has exceeded all expectations in defeating a great empire, designing the greatest democracy on Earth, overcoming great wars, great depressions and great injustices – you have proven that conventional wisdom is not always right.

Of course, you did not do this alone. You are here because that critical advice – "keep going" – was passed onto you by your DC-CAP mentors. And these leaders know all about defying expectations. Over the past 10 years, they have placed staff members in every local public and charter school and helped to raise D.C. public high school college-enrollment rates from less than one third of students to more than 60 percent. You are here because you were willing to listen to these experts and let them show you how to take control of your lives and redefine your future possibilities.

But you are also here because you understand the power and importance of setting a goal and continually working toward that goal. You understand what the first African-American Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, meant when he often spoke about the power of "intent."

Justice Marshall has been on my mind recently. I recently saw a one-man play at the Kennedy Center, starring Laurence Fishburne. He portrayed the legendary Justice Marshall delivering a lecture at Howard University – a great school that is now the alma mater to a few of the recent grads here tonight.

Like all of you, Thurgood Marshall was someone who consistently defied the odds. When he was born, the notion of an African-American man on the Supreme Court – or in the White House or leading the Department of Justice – was inconceivable. Yet, Justice Marshall overcame the expectations and limitations of his day, accomplishing much for himself and for others. Throughout his life, he often argued that intent is as important as any achievement. And he often asked those he served alongside, counseled and taught, the same question. "What," he would ask, "is the quality of your intent?" Justice Marshall believed that intent was indistinguishable from results. In other words, he would not have come so far – and served our nation so nobly – had he not intended to do exactly that. Nor would you have come so far – and performed so well in school – had you not intended, and expected, this future for yourselves; and had you not listened to the mentors who believed in your ability to earn a college degree.

And now that this goal – once so out of reach – has been realized, it is time to look forward. It is time to think about what’s next and to ask, as I imagine Justice Marshall would if he were with us, "What is the quality of your intent now?" As you move on to new futures, outside of college campuses, what can you – and what should you – intend to see realized in your futures?

This is a question that you must answer for yourselves. No one has ever been fulfilled living out someone else’s dream. Each of you already knows what I mean. Even though the staff at DC-CAP helped you get into – and stay in – college, they only brought you half way. You carried yourself the distance. Why? Because the dream of graduating from college became your own. And, now that you have that college degree, you'll find many people telling you what you should do next – what job to take or advanced degree you should pursue. But you – and only you – can make that final decision of intention. Make it specific. And make it big. But make it yours.

As you find your way forward, and as you continue to figure out what you’re good at and what you love, I want to encourage you – as strongly as I can – to think about and plan for how you’re going to give back to society. Yes, I realize that we’re here to celebrate everything you’ve achieved and experienced. And, after years of hard work, I know the last thing you want to think about is your new bond of responsibility. But that is precisely what you must do.

No matter your path, you must always remember the enormous investment that’s been made in you – not only by your families, your teachers and your mentors, but also by our society. The privilege of receiving a college education comes, I believe, with an obligation. And you now must do your part to improve the world around you.

Like this year’s outstanding student speaker, Renee Prather-Hairston, many of you recently became the first in your family to receive a college degree, but all of you now have the opportunity to help others achieve similar success. The doors of opportunity have been opened for you by the many people who have supported you and believed in you. You can honor their investment and faith in you by finding ways to assist and empower others. No one – not me, not anyone – can defy the odds all alone. Just as you will continue to turn to your DC-CAP support network, you should also seek out opportunities to serve as mentors for young people struggling to realize their potential. Now that you have earned a college education, service is more than just one possibility among many; it is a lifelong responsibility.

You must embrace this responsibility – indeed welcome it – with the same enthusiasm and dedication that you showed during your high school and college years. You are ready and well-equipped to apply your energy, your skills and your compassion to improve our society and the lives of others.

Many of you, I know, are already fulfilling this responsibility. A number of you are volunteering in your communities. And some of you are even "paying it forward," as the saying goes, through DC-CAP by mentoring up-and-coming D.C. high school students.

Take Dontrell Smith. Dontrell is one of the recent Howard University graduates here tonight. He’s also the recipient of this year’s "Most Perseverance Award." Already, Dontrell is planning for a career in public service. And he’s set his sights high. I understand that he wants to work for the Department of Justice, as an FBI Special Agent. After "a couple of decades" investigating white-collar crime, he plans to run for a seat on the D.C. Council. But that's not all. Next, he said, he would like to be the mayor of Washington, D.C., and, in his words, "rebuild this city, rebuild its school systems and rebuild its job market." Now, that’s what I mean by setting high expectations!

I’m encouraged that Dontrell, and so many of you, are planning to follow the example that dozens of your DC-CAP mentors have set by helping to improve the neighborhoods and communities where you grew up. This city – and our country – is in great need of your assistance and your talents. Although we’ve proven over the past few years that change is possible, injustice remains – in too many of our schools, courts and workplaces. Meanwhile, we face unprecedented threats to our safety in the forms of terrorism, violence, crime and disease. Your generation will be charged with navigating our nation into a safer – and more just – future.

But first, each of you must ask what goals you intend to pursue and what dreams you intend to realize – for yourselves and for others. Once you do, my advice to you is simple, and it’s something you’ve heard often: keep going. Keep working hard. Keep defying the odds. You’ve all proven that you are capable of excellence. We expect much of you. You are the best and the brightest. You are the future of our community and our nation. I have no doubt that you will meet the expectations we have for you and that this is just the beginning of your success.

I’m proud of you all. I’m grateful to your many supporters. And I’m honored to join you all in celebrating what has been accomplished, and surely will be accomplished, by these graduates. I look forward to learning what you will decide to do, how you will choose to serve others. The needs of our nation are great, as is the need for positive change. I am confident that you can meet those needs and be leaders of the next generation of great Americans.

Congratulations, and good luck.

Updated March 31, 2022