Princeton 2015 Baccalaureate remarks

June 4, 2015 9:30 a.m.

2015 Baccalaureate address
Lisa P. Jackson
May 31, 2015 — As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, President Eisgruber. It's wonderful to be here. Thank you for your kind introduction and for your leadership. Congratulations on your continuing commitment to openness and community here at Princeton. Thank you for taking up the mantle of Princeton leadership at such an important time in our history.

Thanks also to the wonderful staff here at Princeton. I've gotten to know many of you through my work on the Board of Trustees. You really run the place and, believe me, we all know it!

A special shout out and thank you to my fellow members of the Princeton Board of Trustees. And especially to the chair, Katie Hall — my friend who convinced me that I was the right person and now was the right time to serve on such an esteemed board.

And a shout out — literally — to the parents and friends sitting outside. If I were you, I would run over to Hoagie Haven. But if you go, bring some back. In fact, nothing says lovin' like a #7 with salt, pepper, and oil and vinegar.

And, finally, a huge congratulations to the students here today. Class of 2015. You are almost there! I'm so happy for you.

I will be sure to keep my remarks brief because I suspect many of you are exhausted. I'm exhausted just looking at you. You all are taking "work hard, play hard" to the next level.

Still, I would rather be speaking to a tired Tiger than a wide-awake student at any other school I can think of. Besides having you all fall asleep is really not my concern — my concern is knowing that I am really just the warm-up act for Christopher Nolan.

But I do feel a bit of kinship with him. I mean he makes dark movies about heroes who work in a dysfunctional city surrounded by bizarre twisted adversaries who aren't quite what they seem. And hey — I get that. I mean I've spent most of the last 10 years working in Trenton and Washington DC!

Mr. Nolan's others movies are wildly inventive, non-linear portraits of new worlds, often enabled by whole new technologies and scientific innovation. And hey — I get that too — After all, now, I work at Apple!

It is truly an honor to speak to you this year. It is also a challenge.

As I was thinking of what to say today, I knew that I wanted to be real with you. Maybe not quite as real as Robert DeNiro when he told graduates at NYU earlier this month, "You're (ahem) DOOMED" — except in less polite language.

I just caught up on my binge watching of "Game of Thrones," so I thought about riffing on "You know nothing, Jon Snow" to try and humble you, but this is a day for being proud of everything you have accomplished.

And I don't just want to tell you to follow your dreams and chase your passion — those ideas are important, but those words don't measure up to challenging times.

And make no mistake that these are challenging times. The past year in particular has been turbulent for many in our country. And Princeton has not been immune.

So that's what I want to talk to you about today — your Princeton experience.

For one, because Christopher Nolan went to University College London, so you're not going to get this from him ... just saying ...

But mostly, it's because the Princeton Class of 2015 has had a unique — and not always easy — experience here. And I'm betting it has shaped you in ways you don't yet understand.

Discussions, publicity and protests about justice, equality, rights and community have been a part of your four-year journey. But whether you marched in a protest or whether you didn't, whether these issues touched you personally or just glanced off peripherally, they were here ... while you were here.

And honestly, I'm glad that they were. You should be too.

I am not saying you should be glad that difficult and regrettable things happened during your time here. But you should be grateful that they did not go unnoticed. That you were not insulated from them. That you had the discussions and debates and confrontations you had.

You came here for an education — and you're going to find out that you sure got one.

Maybe none so important as learning that being part of a diverse community takes work. And practice. And give and take on both sides. And compassion for each other.

It can take a while to truly appreciate your Princeton experience. To appreciate what Princeton expects of each of us. To understand what you are really learning — in all the classes, dorm rooms, activities and moments in between. The things you have been through together — and make no mistake, you went through them together — may take time to sink in. But they help forge your identity as a person and as a class.

I know that from my own Princeton experience.

I grew up in New Orleans and graduated first in my class in high school and summa cum laude in chemical engineering from Tulane University.

I wanted to get a Ph.D. in engineering, and my professors recommended I apply to the very best schools — so of course Princeton was on the list. I got accepted, and Princeton's financial aid was generous even back then. They basically offered me a free education.

If I was smart enough to get into Princeton I was definitely smart enough to not turn that down. So to Princeton I came!

I never set foot on this campus before the day I moved into the Graduate College. You guys know the graduate college right? Way up on the hill. Away from you?

Anyway, there I was: 21 years old. I had never lived away from home.

And remember, I was a city girl — Princeton in 1983 was still a sleepy town in a very rural part of the state. I still remember the controversy over whether to allow a Burger King on Nassau Street!

Needless to say, coming to Princeton was a shift for me. But I knew I was fortunate. And I couldn't get over how beautiful the campus was. I still can't.

I found the engineering building and started my Princeton journey. I joined the Chapel Choir because I loved music. And I had my running crew of very cool classmates — the chemical engineering kids are still cool here, right?

But mostly I studied harder than I ever had. I went to class every day. When I wasn't in class, I was in a lab.

And truthfully, academics did not come easy here at all. Actually that is an understatement. On the good days it was harder than anything I'd ever done before.

That threw me. I had never struggled with the academic part of being a student. I'd never gotten anything less than EXCELLENT grades.

I was the pride and joy of my family, my professors at Tulane, my church. Even the folks at my high school bragged about me being at Princeton.

It didn't help that I really wasn't cut out for engineering research. I actually think I might enjoy it today — but at age 21, I was far too interested in the world as a whole to concentrate on diffusion equations and capillary interactions.

So despite my professors and wonderful advisers, I started to wonder if I was really getting the Princeton experience. If it was changing me in the same way that I had seen and heard it change so many others.

I didn't have the undergraduate community to rely on the way you rely on each other. And there were far fewer kids of color or other students who had shared my experience.

I want to be clear. NO ONE told me I didn't belong. At least not that I can remember. And I wasn't miserable. But I did feel apart — like this was someone else's university and I was being allowed to attend.

So I just remember thinking — forget about all this Princeton experience stuff, I have to concentrate on my studies. I need to put my head down and get through this. Imagine that — get through Princeton, as though getting through classes is what Princeton is all about.

It got easier though. My friends bucked me up. The turning point was when they helped me realize that not getting a Ph.D. was not a failure, just a change in course. It is important to know the difference and to give yourself permission to change to pursue what is right for you. So I did. I got my master's degree and headed out to start my career.

Now remember — it can take a while to truly appreciate your Princeton experience and see how it comes together in your own life.

There were the things I learned in seminars. For example, it was at Princeton that I first learned about the people of Woburn, MA — and the work on groundwater modeling that helped them fight the pollution there. Groundbreaking science in the service of public health. Later, Hollywood made a movie about it called "A Civil Action."

We talked about chemicals and how little we know about the risks they pose to us through their ubiquity in everyday life. One of my professors and his graduate students were doing pioneering work on that at the time I was here.

Is it any wonder then that toxic waste site clean-ups and better testing and regulation of toxic chemicals were two of my priorities when I ran the EPA? No — that was Princeton.

There were the experiences outside of campus that taught us, too. Like the time my friend and I got stopped by the police in a parking lot just up Route 206 — yes we were both black — and the Princeton IDs in our pockets were probably our "Get Out of Jail Free" cards. Or how hard it was for a black student back then to be able to rent an apartment in the township. The university helped us.

Is it any wonder then that issues of environmental justice and pollution in poor communities are a passion of mine to this day?

Yes — Princeton is a huge part of who I am today.

Even though I left here wondering whether I really got Princeton ... I should not have wondered. Princeton has clearly shaped me.

And that is where I come back to you ... to your class. To your triumphs and challenges.

Your class has seen controversy — whether it was the reaction to the die-in on campus or issues of equality of the sexes or income inequality.

It seems that you have had a front row seat to all those hot button moments.

Now, in an ideal world, these experiences would have pulled you together and allowed you to leave with deeper knowledge of each other and a powerful feeling of common purpose and passion.

But it is more likely that many of you are still processing all that you have seen and experienced. Maybe some of you are realizing that the Princeton experience is more heterogeneous than you realized. Good. It really is.

Because the furor has not died down. And the world you are entering does not show many signs of being better equipped to deal with issues of injustice and inequality than when you entered here four years ago.

But you are more capable, whether you realize it or not. Just like I was. Continually reflect on your Princeton education and you will find the unexpected tools it has given you for navigating and improving this complex world. Yes, you are more capable than you realize, and with compassion and introspection, you will be ready to change the world.

One more thing — in 2011, I found myself speaking at "She Roars," a remarkable first time gathering of Princeton women. I remember looking out at the accomplished alumna in the audience and hearing their stories of service and commitment to paving the way for other young women. And being so inspired by our first female president, Shirley Tilghman.

But mostly, I remember realizing then what really sets us apart as Princetonians. It is our ability to question and change and demand the very best from our great institution. This place has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. And it was Princetonians who insisted on those changes.

Princeton keeps shaping you and will long after you walk through the FitzRandolph Gate on Tuesday. But as graduates, we get to keep shaping Princeton as well.

The FitzRandolph Gate is the metaphorical entry point for what it means to be a Princetonian out in the world. Never forget that you are now the gatekeepers — the determiners of Princeton in the world.

And the support that you have here is just beginning. It is OK to leave this week. But come back. Keep the gate open. Ask tough questions about who we were and who we are and who we will be. But never stop using the word WE.

Because one thing is for sure, if Princetonians are asking the questions and Princetonians are answering the questions, they will be good questions — and damn good answers.

Congratulations, my soon to be fellow Princeton graduates.

I look forward to seeing what you do next. Thank you.