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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, 2011 Commencement Address at University of California Santa Cruz, College 10, As Prepared

06/10/2011
As prepared for delivery

Congratulations class of 2011! It’s wonderful to be here with you today. And it’s my great privilege to welcome you into the world as college graduates.

I’d like to thank some of those here with us: Chancellor Blumenthal and Vice Chancellor McGinty, Dean Kamieniecki, Provost Shapiro, Deana Slater. Thank you for welcoming me to your school. I’d also like to acknowledge those whose love and support have helped to lift our graduates to this moment. Please join me in thanking your families, teachers, mentors and friends.

There are plenty of good reasons for the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to be on this great campus. Your school’s work on behalf of the environment is nationally recognized: you are one of US News and World Report's top 10 eco-friendly colleges, one of 18 colleges on the Princeton Review's Green Honor Roll, and fourth on the Sierra Club’s annual ranking of America's Greenest Schools. You are doing your part to make our communities cleaner, healthier and more sustainable.

At College Ten, you’ve made it your specific mission to focus on social justice. And you’ve learned here that part of social justice involves environmental justice – making sure that all Americans receive the same protections that ensure clean water and air and healthy communities. Fighting for environmental justice is one of my key priorities at EPA, so thank you for your contribution.

But today, I’m not here solely as the Administrator of the EPA. I’m also here as a mother of two teenage sons about to enter into their own college years. I’m here as someone who grew up in New Orleans’ 9th ward. I’m here as one who worked hard through college – like you. And I’m here as someone who has seen firsthand life’s rewards and challenges, something I’ll talk more about in a moment. But I’d like to begin with a couple observations – lessons I bring to you from “the real world” – that place you are about to enter.

One of those observations involves a single word: “passion.” Passion isn’t shaped by the guy or gal of the moment, but by the experiences that come together to form your life.

The road to developing my passions started with my Dad, who worked as a post man. But to my Dad, his work meant more than a paycheck. He knew the people on his route, and would ring the bell when Social Security checks came in the mail to make sure they were received. He was dedicated and proud. My Dad set an example for me. I used to tell him that I wanted to work at the Post Office so I could be at the front lines serving my community like him. My parents encouraged me otherwise. But I knew from watching my father that I wanted to help people. So my parents pushed me to be a doctor and I went to college as a pre-med student.

In college, along with my pre-med classes, I took a few engineering classes – and I liked them. I liked the inventive aspect of engineering. Then came a major chapter in American history – and in my life – one that goes by the ironic name Love Canal. Many of you have probably never heard of it all these years later, but Love Canal was the first major episode in which hazardous waste – the byproduct of our industrial age – had contaminated land and water in such a dramatic, tragic way. Toxic waste started invading homes and oozing into basements in Buffalo, New York. I remember this terrible incident like it was yesterday. And I remember the day its greatest lesson hit me: if engineers can invent the processes that create all this waste, engineers would invent the processes to fix it.

I didn’t have to be a doctor to practice preventative medicine. Protecting against pollution was protecting public health. From then on I was a full-fledged environmentalist. I had found a way to heal – the medical passion in me; to design and develop solutions – the engineer in me; and to help my community – the public servant in me. All these experiences – from watching my Dad at work, to experiencing Love Canal – helped me realize my passions. For you, an event like September 11th might have been your “Love Canal” moment – it might have led you to your passion and to choose this college.

Which brings me to a second observation: trust your decisions. Decisions are informed by your passions. It’s hard to know right after you’ve made a decision if it was a good or bad one. But what you do know is that the decision is yours. To be happy and confident, you need to do more than just live with your decision. You need to own and trust it. And those are two very different things.

I lived with my decision to go into environmentalism for many years. And I was happy. My career was going well. I had helped to clean up hazardous waste in communities and formed plans to protect watersheds. I had started working on energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction. But then an event occurred that caused me to question the very decision I had lived with for so long. Remember – I grew up in New Orleans’ 9th ward. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit, the levees broke and 8 feet of water covered my mom's home – the house where I grew up. I went to New Orleans in the days before the storm and drove my mother out. But our home was ruined.

In the weeks following the hurricane, I was filled with regret. I dreamed of being able to build my mom a new home. One that was energy efficient and raised out of the floodplain. But I couldn't afford to act on this dream. For the first time, I really began to regret my career choices. I almost left government to move back to New Orleans, get a better-paying job, help clean up the pollution and rebuild my mom's home. But my mom encouraged me to stay and continue working in government. Soon after, the then-Governor of New Jersey asked me to stay with the state government. He promoted me to his Cabinet. And not long after that, President Obama asked me to stay with the federal government – and he promoted me to his Cabinet.

One of my first trips as EPA Administrator was back to my hometown. And I’ve returned many times since then. I’ve seen that at long last my mom’s house is being rebuilt – rebuilt out of the floodplain and with energy-efficient technology, technology EPA thought up and is improving every day. Last year, when the Gulf was hit by yet another tragic challenge – the BP oil spill – I was in a position to help the people there. Given my very personal connection, President Obama named me to lead our efforts to restore the region after the spill and decades of abuse. So it turns out, even though I had some tough moments of doubt, my decisions were just right.

Now there are people around you today who may be saying: “Social justice? What will you do with that?” They may be trying to help you make the next big decision in your life – perhaps telling you to follow the money. I’m not telling you to ignore your parents or teachers or mentors. These people are filled with wisdom and love. They’ve lived through this time in their own lives and have the benefit of looking back – just as I have that benefit. But I am telling you to learn to trust your passions and decisions as you take your place in this new world of adulthood and self-responsibility.

When I was graduating, Pink Floyd was the Jay-Z of the time. One song of theirs seems appropriate for this time in your life. It goes something like this: “Breathe, breathe in the air. Don’t be afraid to care. Leave, don’t leave me. Look around and choose your own ground.” As you move onto your next adventure, don’t leave behind the experiences that made you who you are. Use them to “choose your own ground.”

So go forth. And as you go: “Long you live and high you fly. Smiles you’ll give and tears you’ll cry. All you touch and all you see, is all your life will ever be.” Remember, life is what you make of it. It’s filled with good and bad decisions. But they are yours. Trust yourself. And take advantage of opportunities as they come – opportunities this day presents to you. “For long you live and high you fly, but only if you ride the tide.”

Thank you and all the best!