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UT System Regent Sara Martinez Tucker Delivers Commencement Address

Watch UT System Regent Sara Martinez Tucker deliver the keynote address at the 133rd Spring Commencement of UT Austin and read her remarks as prepared.

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UT System Regent Sara Martinez Tucker delivered the keynote address at the 133rd Spring Commencement of The University of Texas at Austin on May 21. Below are her remarks as prepared. 

Thank you, President Fenves. Before I begin my remarks, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the challenges that happened in our campus over the last year. No university president across the country that I know, in their first year, has faced so many challenges with such grace and such dignity. It made me proud to be a graduate of The University of Texas knowing that Greg Fenves was the person I could count on to lead us through such difficult times. Please join me in acknowledging President Fenves. 

Regent Beck, Ambassador Garza and members of the platform party, it is an honor to join you on this very special evening. 

It is so good for me to be home, especially to a place that means so much to me and to my family – The University of Texas.

I’d like to extend my appreciation to all of you who were instrumental in the education of tonight’s graduates – the administration, the faculty, parents, family members and friends. 

To all of you associated with The University of Texas – you’ve invested a lot of time and effort in these students, and tonight you get to see the proverbial fruits of your labor. 

To the parents, family members and friends – you’re where it all began. You’ll see from my remarks how much I value the role you’ve played in your children’s education.

And finally, but most importantly, my congratulations to the graduates – the class of 2016. You’ve worked so hard to get to this point. Your feelings have to be bittersweet – excitement for what comes next and sadness for what you’re leaving behind.

Among the memories you take with you, I hope you remember your place in the history of The University of Texas at Austin’s commencements: the 133rd class of graduates who have the potential to change the world.

I know you beam when you hear those now familiar words, “What starts here changes the world!” Last September, in his inaugural address, President Fenves defined why that’s been possible for so many years when he described The University of Texas at Austin as “the university of what’s next.”

What is next for you?  

I did not have an opportunity to attend my own commencements – both my degrees were off-cycle. But if I had been sitting in your seat, there is one thing I know for sure: I could not have predicted how my life would unfold after either degree.

My mistake? I thought choosing a major meant choosing a career. Little did I know that choosing a major was simply choosing something to explore. It was the exploration and the journey that mattered. Choosing my jobs and companies were not the defining moments I thought they were when I sat in your seats. Knowing that at the time would have saved a lot of anguish as I was anticipating where I would go from here.

The university of what’s next—our alma mater knows how important it is to keep ever evolving and reinventing itself to stay among the top-tier universities. It’s a lesson for all of us. We, too, have to keep evolving. More important, we have to determine when it’s time to reinvent ourselves. We, too, have to keep asking ourselves, “what’s next?”

Our lives are a series of journeys – the journey that brought us all to this magnificent campus, our journey through here and, the most important journey of all: your journey to discover the potential that lies within each of you. The journey that will define your purpose.

Can you remember the moment when you decided to come to UT?

My message tonight starts with my father. It was December 1969 and my father got the family ready to watch what many were saying was the college football national championship game between number one, Texas, and number two, Arkansas. Those of you who saw My All American will know the game I’m talking about.

Never mind the excitement of the game – what I remember most was what my father said when we asked why this game was so important. He said, “Because this is the best school in Texas and it’s your chance to see them win the national championship.”

Years later, when I was in high school, my father drove my classmates and me from Laredo to the campus for a UIL (University Interscholastic League) competition.

It was our first visit from this campus, and we were so excited. As we ran away from the car, I turned back to thank him. I wish I could describe for you the look on his face. He said, “It’s so beautiful here. Everything is so clean and fresh. If I’m lucky, one of my children will get to come here one day.”

From that moment on, I knew I wanted to come to UT. The look on his face convinced me that I wanted to be a part of this inspiring campus! 

Take this moment to think about and appreciate everyone and everything that inspired you to come to UT.

What have you experienced during your time at the university?

Still today, I find myself reflecting on what I heard from campus guest speakers and professors who helped shaped my thinking. More important – the students with whom I shared classes and got to know. 

I remember walking into my first class and seeing the reading list. I was overwhelmed. My relief when the student next to me remarked, “Can you believe this list?” was short-lived. She quickly followed with, “I’ve read all these!” I hadn’t even heard of the books. I came to appreciate the talent that was going to surround me during my time here helped expand my horizons, broadened my thinking, pushed me to try harder. At UT Austin, we are fortunate to have been surrounded by inspiring people!

Think about and appreciate all of the talented people you’ve met during your time here. 

What is next for the graduates of the university of what’s next?

All of those people – those who inspired you to choose UT. Those who helped you get here. Those that helped you grow while you were here. My single most important message for you tonight? Your impact on others can be as much as or even more than the impact they had on you!

Let me say that again in a different way. You know, because you’re feeling it, the magnitude of the impact others have had on you up to now. You are going to have that much – if not more – of an impact on others.

How? Tonight I’ll share with you the perspective of one person’s journey to discover her potential to make a difference. I’ll keep it to three pieces of advice.

First, Find Your Talents

My family had a convenience store when I was growing up in Laredo – the “Come-n-Shop.” My brother and I worked there on weekends during the school year and on alternate days in the summer.

We loved Tuesdays – that’s when the new magazines and comic books would be delivered. We figured we could sit on the Coke machine and read all the new comics as soon as we got our chores done.

My mother had different ideas. Even if we’d done the sweeping, the dusting, restocking the shelves – she would call out, “Initiative! You’ve got to come in every day with an attitude to change things so that we’re more attractive to customers, to improve things to make it easier for our customers,” she said. It isn’t, “When I complete my tasks, I’m done and I can relax.” It’s, “What can I do to make a difference today?” She was inspiring us to make changes and to find our talents.

And so it went with each of my jobs – whether serving as a reporter, a corporate executive, a not-for-profit leader or a policy official in a presidential administration, at each job, I learned invaluable lessons. How to communicate clearly, how to engage others and motivate them, how to attract investment in my ideas, and how to effect change to improve society.

The lesson I’d like for you to take away? Don’t overestimate the importance or the influence of the major or majors you selected on the discovery of your potential. My majors didn’t define me, my careers or my potential. They provided skills, necessary skills, that I could put to use in each of my jobs. My work helped me discover my talents and, ultimately, what would influence my life’s work. 

It may not look like a classroom, but there is a lesson!

Second, Find Your Voice

I will never forget the time – more recently – when I met with students here and a young woman asked, “How did you find the courage to speak up in class?” It stopped me in my tracks. I had to acknowledge to her that I wasn’t brave enough to ask questions or make comments when I was here. After a disastrous first semester, I was very careful to pick classes where the final grade wasn’t too heavily dependent on class participation. How and where did I find my voice?

When I left Laredo to come to campus, my father sat me down and said to me, “You are a person first, then a gender and then an ethnicity. Ask for help when you need it, but don’t rely on crutches.”

I couldn’t imagine why he felt the need to say that to me. But then I saw how easy it was to create labels for myself – student, reporter, grad student. Then during my corporate career – professional, part of a dual-career couple, executive.

I loved my life at AT&T. It’s where I learned to be accountable, to generate profits, to make investment decisions. As I progressed up the ladder, my corporate career brought me many public speaking opportunities. It also afforded me the opportunity to serve on nonprofit boards. 

I asked someone I really respected to define the most important asset in a boardroom. All these years later, I can still hear her voice: “The ability to say something and be heard.”

Think about it. Have you ever said something in a classroom or meeting and your comments go unnoticed? Then, someone else says almost the same thing and it gets noticed? The ability to not just say something, but to say it from a place of truth and conviction. The ability to be heard. 

And I remembered my father’s advice – you can lose your sense of self. Up until then, I had been speaking from my head – frequently, and it worked for me. I made it to a senior position. But the person that is me needs to speak with my head and my heart connected. In my nonprofit board settings, my voice got progressively stronger as I learned how to advocate for others. Giving others a voice gave me mine. 

Stay true to yourself!

Finally, Find Your Passion

I have the good fortune to meet with college students frequently. They often ask, “How did you know,” when they learn of my progression from reporter to corporate executive to national not-for-profit leader to public servant. They wanted to know how I made the decisions to follow the paths I followed, and how I knew the timing was right. When to evolve; when to reinvent. The truth of the matter is: I didn’t. I didn’t follow a path, I didn’t follow a plan; I just knew I needed to keep evolving. 

After my corporate retirement, I offered to resign from my non-profit boards, thinking those seats were “reserved” for representatives from my company. They all asked me to stay, affording me the opportunity to learn more about the obstacles getting in the way of community economic vitality, women breaking the glass ceiling and children getting their college educations. 

All of these issues mattered to me then and still matter to me. But when I delved into the state of education in this country, I realized that the rungs in the ladder of opportunity are getting further and further apart for too many young people. 

I came to appreciate just how lucky I was. I was born to parents who always said when you go to college, not if, who made sacrifices so that their three children could get Catholic school educations. And parents who, when a guidance counselor told their high school valedictorian daughter that she wasn’t college material, were angered enough to help me find my way here.

So began my journey into making college a reality for as many Americans as possible – starting with kids like me, broadening to include everyone who is disadvantaged by the uneven playing field that is public education in this country.   

My journeys helped me appreciate that learning didn’t stop when I left the classroom; everything is an education as long as you never stop exploring. Embracing opportunity leads to more exploration. And the combination of the two have helped me keep my journey inspired. 

Twenty years after I left UT, my journeys came together. When I found the intersection of my talents, my voice and my passion, I discovered the joy of waking up every day driven to make a difference in young people’s lives. And, every day I get to honor my parents for their work and sacrifice to create better lives for their children. 

Some of you may be more advanced in your thinking than I was after either of my degrees. You may already feel a burning desire to make a difference in a way that only you can. 

But – if any of you are like me – and you’re just focused on keeping yourself moving forward, remember that your college education gives you the opportunity to bring back that childhood question, “Who and what do I want to be?”  

What’s next? That’s the question you should never stop asking yourself!

So what’s next for the class of 2016?

My best advice for you? Tonight you’re taking only the first step in a series of steps that will, over time, help you forge the journey to your purpose. 

Sometimes understanding what you don’t want is a good first step toward finding the path you do want. If that is your situation, join a company or take a job that’s interesting to you. While there, follow a trajectory. You will grow and evolve. 

But – at some point – rather than following that trajectory – purposefully decide to take a journey to find your talents, your voice and your passion. Finding the sweet spot where they intersect will give you the ability to forge your purpose.

Many of us chuckle when we hear the infamous Yogi Berra quote, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I followed a terrific trajectory during my corporate career. Leaving my corporate life was hard. It was daunting when I didn’t know what was next for this girl from the university of what’s next. But I did just what Yogi suggested, I came to the fork and I took it. 

Active learning about the obstacles I was curious about created opportunities for me. Doing good work got me noticed – first by the White House and now, more recently, by the governor of my home state. All of it because I made the decision to take the fork in the road.

If all of your journeys are inspired, I know the 133rd commencement is going to produce the best world-changing graduates this university has ever seen.

Remember these three things. Find your talents, find your voice, find your passion. They are going to keep your journey inspired. 

I started tonight with a story about my father and I’ll end it that way. He was my best example of an inspired journey. He found his talent – being a great father. He found his voice – he was the best coach my brother, sister and I could have had. He found his passion – ensuring a better life for his children. 

My favorite memory of my father happened about 20 years ago. I got home and my husband told me I needed to call home immediately. Fearing the worst, I called. My father answered and I could tell he was crying, but he couldn’t find his voice. The bottom fell out of my stomach.

My brother took the phone from him and told me,“Daddy wanted you to know I walked across the stage today.” When I didn’t understand, he told me he’d spent the afternoon at his college graduation. At age 35, my brother had earned his degree. 

When my father finally found his voice, he said to me, “All of my children are now college graduates. I can rest.”

He got the job done. 

Each of us has made our own way here. It was easier for some than it was for others. But we’ve made it. We’ve earned our place here. What will we do with this gift? What can we do?

If I could have a conversation with my father tonight, I’d say, “Daddy, all those year ago, you were right. What I’ve learned is that first and foremost, I am a person. I am Sara Martinez Tucker. I also happen to be a woman of Hispanic heritage. But you missed something. There’s something else that defines me. I am also a graduate of The University of Texas.”

Tonight, so is each and every one of you. Congratulations! Hook ‘em!