Campus & community, Events at Berkeley, People

Keynote speaker to graduates: ‘The success of our country is in your hands’

"Berkeley is where my interest in public policy turned into an obsession," speaker tells graduates.

Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo spoke to graduates during Saturday’s virtual commencement ceremony. (UC Berkeley video)

Twenty years after graduating from UC Berkeley, keynote speaker Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo is now deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. He gave the following address at Saturday’s commencement ceremony:

To Chancellor Christ and the Cal faculty and staff; to the proud parents and families and friends logging in from all over the world, and, of course, to the class of 2021: Congratulations!

My name is Wally Adeyemo, and I currently serve as the deputy secretary of the Treasury. I have the privilege of working in the department made famous by Alexander Hamilton. Berkeley is where my interest in public policy turned into an obsession. As student body president during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, I soon realized that history would not judge us based on how we mourned the dead, but rather based on how we respond after the dead are buried. I wanted to help shape the response, not only for students on campus, but for our country.

I soon discovered the road after college can be uncertain, and so the first thing I want to do is give you some advice from an old boss.

You might remember that the final days of 2016 were, to put it mildly, an uncertain moment for our country. That was definitely the case for those of us in the outgoing presidential administration. But President Obama, always gracious, invited each White House employee into the Oval Office for a picture with their families.

wally adeyemo in cap and gown

“Berkeley is where my interest in public policy turned into an obsession,” Adeyemo told graduates. (UC Berkeley photo)

My family flew in from California, and after the White House photographer snapped the photo, the president asked what I was thinking about doing next, and I mentioned a few things I was considering. “You are going to be just fine,” the president said. My mother sighed … deeply. Evidently, she wasn’t so sure. “Are you sure, Mr. President?” she cut in, “Did you know, Wally never even took the bar exam?”

I’ll be honest: Not even the president of the United States convinced my mother. But he did make me feel better!

Graduates, and more importantly, parents of the graduating class, in the words of President Obama, “You are going to be just fine.”

How do I know this? Because your Cal education — inside and outside the classroom — has prepared you to help shape the world as it should be.

The Berkeley community is made up of people that show up in all the places where decisions and history tend to be made. In fact, when I received the e-mail with the subject line “Cal Graduation speaker, ” I assumed it was a polite request for me to forward the speaking invitation to my boss, Janet Yellen — Secretary Yellen, the towering economic mind who has helped us weather the economic crises of the past 20 years — and a long-standing member of the UC Berkeley faculty.

I only have one advantage over Secretary Yellen today, and that is: I graduated from Cal. I know there is no better place on Earth to get an education.

How to build a community

But I also know this commencement is nothing like the one I attended. I am so sorry that your experience today has been so different from what you hoped and expected; that I’m not speaking to you today from the stage of the Greek Theatre; that another milestone is being marked through a box on a screen. Yet, that does not make this day any less significant.

As we continue to make progress in our fight against COVID-19, for all of us, there is hope and excitement about what lies ahead, but also some measure of fear and nervousness. “What will the future look like?” is a question we are all asking ourselves.

For me, my confidence that our future will be better than our past is colored by the most important thing I learned at Cal: That my success — and anybody’s individual success — is tied to the strength of your community.

I confess that was not immediately obvious when I arrived on this campus a quarter-century ago. My freshman year at Cal wasn’t long after the passage of Proposition 209, which effectively ended affirmative action; it restricted the university’s ability to bring together a student body that actually looked like California.

ASUC President Adewale "Wally" Adeyemo speaking at 2002 commencement

When he was student body president, Adeyemo addressed the Class of 2002. (UC Berkeley photo)

I had come from a high school where the dropout rate was higher than the college acceptance rate, and often, I found myself sitting in classes where no one else looked like me.

My dorm was a collection of people that, at points, seemed to come from different planets. One classmate had spent a few years at a community college before coming to Cal — the first person in his family to ever attend college. Another was a fourth-generation Cal grad. One person in our dorm only wore punk rock shirts, and another thought pants were always optional. Students came from varied faith traditions and had a variety of political views.

My dorm was a collection of people that at points seemed to come from different planets.”

I remember the first time my family visited campus. As we walked down Telegraph Avenue, my mother — more accustomed to church pews than campus protests — was approached by a young lady offering a free brownie. This would have been unremarkable, except that the young lady with the brownie was not wearing a top.

My mother froze, and we all watched pondering … On the one hand, she didn’t want a brownie from a shirtless baker; on the other, she didn’t want to be rude. (Eventually, my father cut in: It would be okay to kindly refuse the offer.)

We all know that Cal sometimes has the reputation of being stuck in a different era, and I suppose that is one way you could read this story: Just another day at the People’s Republic of Berkeley. But I quickly came to see the teeming, diverse life of this campus in a very different way. It wasn’t just a collection of various individuals — shirtless bakers, first-generation college students, punk rockers, people of faith. It was a community.

That is what Berkeley is. A place made up of students from different places, with different lived experiences, but with a shared desire to live on a campus — and in a country — that lives up to our highest ideals. We make room for each other. We embrace our diversity, our different opinions, and in embracing them become something more. We become a force for change.

After all, it was Berkeley students who in the ‘60s, awakened by the civil rights movement, launched a free speech movement that would shape our country. Twenty years later, Berkeley students who recognized that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere started a divestment movement that helped to topple apartheid in South Africa.

Your calls to bend the arc of a moral universe faster are being heard.”

And often, when I’ve opened the Daily Cal over the years, I see that students at Cal are continuing that legacy, joining the national movement for Black lives, taking over Sproul Plaza to join a global strike in support of addressing climate change, occupying People’s Park in support of affordable housing.

The fight for more affordable housing also animated my time as student body president. I heard countless stories from students about how housing-related student debt stymied the dreams of low-income and first-generation college students.

And like your predecessors, your calls to bend the arc of a moral universe faster are being heard.

Yesterday, Gov. Newsom announced that California will build affordable housing for students, making it possible for future generations of low-income Californians to attend UC Berkeley without taking on debilitating amounts of student debt. This is because your community made your voices heard.

Bring Berkeley with you

My message to you today is: Your capacity to build and change your community does not end with your time at Cal.

The truth is that America desperately needs your generation’s leadership, your commitment to making the world more inclusive, just and free.

Just like at Cal, diversity has always been a core strength of America. I would argue that our capacity to innovate and economic strength has always relied, in some way or another, on our diversity and openness to new ideas and new people. Don’t allow the divisions you find in the world you are entering to make you forget how valuable it was being in classes and living with people from different walks of life.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (left) confers with Deputy Secretary Adewale "Wally" Adeyemo

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (left) confers with Deputy Secretary Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo in Washington, D.C. Both have Berkeley connections: Yellen has long been on the faculty at the Haas School of Business, and Adeyemo was a 2004 graduate in political science. (Photo by U.S. Department of the Treasury)

Over the last year, we have been living six feet apart because of the pandemic. But for years, too many Americans have let their fears drive them miles apart. The greatest threat you face as you graduate from Cal — the greatest threat our country faces — is this fear. Fear of the other, fear of change, fear that there might not be a place for you in a rapidly changing world.

It was also the greatest threat America faced when a new president filled with new ideas nearly 90 years ago said during his inauguration, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

What I can say based on my lived experience as a Cal graduate is that your time in college, including the hard work and determination it has taken to make it through the pandemic, proves you have the capacity to see past those fears and take advantage of the opportunity that lies ahead of you.

This is exactly what our country also needs. It’s why President Biden wants to ensure that every American has the opportunity to see past this crisis and take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead of us. He recognizes your generation has the capacity to propel our country in the same way the Greatest Generation transformed our country and created decades of growth and opportunity. This is why the president’s economic strategy is focused on making investments to unlock the unrealized potential of the American people by doing things like creating clean energy jobs and expanding apprenticeships, allowing people to train for the jobs of the future while earning a decent income.

Government alone cannot unlock our potential. The success of our country is in your hands.”

But government alone cannot unlock our potential. The success of our country is in your hands.

Now that you’re leaving Cal, how you define your success becomes a much more difficult task. There are no report cards, and in their absence, people try to replace them with all sorts of metrics: the amount of money you make, the number of followers you have, the prestige of your job title, or how often you’re mentioned in the press.

I won’t tell you that any of those are bad things to aspire to. But I will say, at the end of the day, they won’t make you feel whole. I can tell you that nearly 20 years out from Cal, I don’t remember my GPA. No one I meet cares about how well I did in my astronomy course. The things I do remember from Cal are the people I met, the experiences I had, the community I built.

Today, the things that matter most to me remain my family, friends and the other people that make up my community. They are the people that give my life meaning and motivate my passion for using public policy to build a more prosperous and equitable world. Regardless of if you’re planning to be an engineer or English professor, I am certain that the thing that gives life meaning is also your community.

Chancellor Robert Berdahl (left) and ASUC president Wally Adeyemo welcome incoming students during the fall 2001 New Student Convocation.

Chancellor Robert Berdahl and ASUC president Wally Adeyemo welcomed students during the fall 2001 New Student Convocation just a few weeks before the September 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington, DC. (Photo by Noah Berger)

At its core, America is a collection of communities, and these communities need you. The same was true for Berkeley graduates 75 years ago — leaving Cal at the end of a war that nearly tore the world apart and a depression that robbed a generation of opportunity. Those young people, born in an era of desperation, would come to be called the Greatest Generation because they took advantage of the opportunities that government afforded them to rebuild and usher in a period of economic growth that turned America into the most prosperous country in human history.

Today, you leave Berkeley, entering a country recovering from a pandemic at the end of a war in Afghanistan that almost lasted a generation, with an opportunity to transform our country just as the Greatest Generation did. It will require you to do exactly what you have done at Berkeley — invest in your communities.

At the turn of the last century, President Teddy Roosevelt addressed UC Berkeley’s commencement and called on graduates to be civically engaged. I want to renew that call to all of you today. As you focus on building your life after graduation, take the time to think about what you can do to serve and build a community filled with people from different walks of life.

California makes it easy to find ways to serve, simply visit, where you can find ways to engage in shaping the future of the communities you care about. For those of you undecided on what to do after graduation, I would recommend considering spending a year or two serving in your community.

Yesterday, the governor announced a half-billion-dollar program to call on young people to serve as climate organizers, tutors and mentors, in food banks and other critical areas. California needs you, and also, America needs you now. We need you to use the skills, education and perspectives honed over late-night study sessions at the I-house, finals cramming at Doe Library and debates late at night at Kip’s to help America meet our challenges, now and in the years to come.

I know service is seen as a selfless pursuit, and it can be. And yet, looking back, I have found service to be equally as self-enriching. I hope you contribute to making your communities vibrant in the same way that each of you made Cal a better place.

I know your class has not been able to enjoy Berkeley as much as you had hoped. So, take it with you. Take it with you for the rest of your life. Make every community you call home a little more like this one: more inclusive, just and free.

If you do that, well, then once again in the words of Barack Obama, “You are going to be just fine.”

I look forward to seeing you at Top Dog or La Burrita after the next Big Game!

Congratulations again on your remarkable achievement.

Go Bears!