UC Davis School of Law commencement speech as delivered on May 19, 2018 at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts
Thank you, Dean Johnson. Distinguished members of the stage party, faculty, staff, parents, friends, families — and most importantly — graduating students of the UC Davis School of Law!
I am so pleased and honored to celebrate such a joyous and memorable occasion. I’ve attended plenty of commencement ceremonies in my time, but none at UC Davis—until today. I just moved here last August, so this is my first address to the School of Law.
I got a chance to warm up this morning here at the Mondavi Center during the Med School commencement. And now that my vocal pipes are nice and buttery, I’m ready to rock this mic.
So, I’m going to start with a piece of advice that I use as my own guiding principle in life. It’s just a simple sentence, so get your yellow legal pads ready:
Try every day to learn something, to help someone, and to make the world a better place.
If we can all use that sentence as a guide, we’ll be doing something that is extraordinary for society and for our own well-being and happiness.
Make the world a better place
So, what do I mean by “make the world a better place?” On the surface it may sound trite, like one of those old Coca-Cola commercials.
So, I’ll bring this platitude down to Earth—to your world as future lawyers, business leaders, educators, and policy makers.
Being legal scholars, you are dedicated to truth, justice and the equal application of law. And you’re graduating from a school named after Martin Luther King Jr., someone who lived and died trying to make this world a better place, through mutual respect, through harmony and through justice.
The statue honoring Dr. King in the law school lobby reminds us to live by his example. We’re reminded of his spirit in the school’s mission statement to educate socially conscious and ethical lawyers who are committed to excellence.
With a role model like Dr. King, and the guidance of this school’s great and remarkably diverse faculty, the Class of 2018 is well equipped to do good in the world.
So, I look at you all in your caps and gowns, about to receive your well-earned law degrees and think: How much the world needs you now.
Just last month, we remembered somberly Dr. King’s assassination 50 years ago in Memphis. The passage of time has not dulled his message. In fact, his spirit of social justice and call for unity resonates more today than ever before.
Racial tensions are polarizing our country. Our immigrant communities are under attack. Hate speech is no longer whispered in the shadows but shouted out in public spaces and on social media. And many of us are hanging our heads in despair and anger following the deaths of unarmed people like Stephon Clark by law enforcement.
But we are not going to succumb to despair. We are going to make this world a better place.
Dr. King reminded us that the powers of love and righteousness are stronger than hate, even in the face of profound tragedy. Like Dr. King, I am an eternal optimist. And my optimism grows even more when I look at graduates like you.
That’s because you are the ones who will use the rule of law to help the voiceless. You are the ones who will stand up in the fight for social justice. You are the ones who will show how the rule of law is the underpinning of civil society, our freedom and our democracy.
No matter what kind of law you’ve studied — intellectual property, family law or even land-use planning — you are the ones who will uplift your fields by rising to high standards of ethics and excellence.
But, I believe you have an even bigger role to play. You have the gift to empower others to become agents of their own success, their own careers and destiny, just like you.
I said that I try every day “to help someone.” What I mean by that is mentorship.
All of you have clearly attained rarified academic success. You are about to receive a Juris Doctorate from one of the best law schools in the nation at one of the top public universities in the world.
So, how did this happen? How did you make the cut? Was it because you were smarter or worked harder than the other person?
In the South, there’s an expression that goes like this: If a turtle is sitting on a fencepost, it didn’t get there by itself. Somebody helped that turtle get on the fencepost.
In other words, people helped you just like people helped me become successful.
One of my go-to quotes on the power of mentorship comes from the former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, who said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
My role models and mentors helped to shape who I am today. Their histories, their challenges and their successes influenced who I wanted to be and inspired me to become that person.
Augustine Esogbue, the first black engineering professor at Georgia Tech, my alma mater, helped me. He has been there for me throughout my career. He was there when I got my Ph.D. at Berkeley, and he was there this past fall for my investiture as seventh chancellor of UC Davis.
Three of my former Ph.D. students also traveled far to attend my investiture. I have them and many other former students to thank for teaching me the value of being a mentor.
Mentoring is not, as some see it, an intervention. It’s not so much about keeping students or colleagues from falling through the cracks as it is enlightening them with visions of success.
Mentors can help colleagues and students find opportunities and successful strategies they did not even know existed. Mentors can bring uplifting, long-term perspectives to students anguished over short-term setbacks.
Mentoring is about empowering others to be agents of their own success, their careers, and their destiny.
As I conclude, let me return to where I began on the subject of happiness.
My advice: don’t take yourself too seriously. Try to have fun. Think about the things you did as a kid that started you down the road to law school.
Maybe you loved to write and got a kick out of getting your points across persuasively. Perhaps you got hooked on political life or community activism in high school, or through a college internship with a public official. Maybe you loved to curl up with a biography about a famous person and dreamt of changing the world yourself.
Whatever it was, keep that joy alive throughout your life, no matter how burdened or overwhelmed you might feel at times.
For me, one way I lighten up and wind down is by collecting and reading comic books. Just like I did when I was young. Why? The fact is that the X-Men, the Avengers and the Justice League are using their powers for good, just like I try to do.
Like I said: Every day, try to learn something, try to help someone and try to make the world better.
Congratulations to the law school graduates of 2018! My best wishes for your future. The world is waiting for you.
Live long and prosper!