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The following remarks were delivered by Carl Camacho Jr., senior class president, on May 17, 2003 at the one hundred and fiftieth commencement ceremony of the University of Wisconsin at Madison on behalf of the graduates of 2003.
I would like to start by congratulating the graduates of the class of 2003. We owe our success to our families, friends, significant others, co-workers, and those that came before us. It is not easy to complete a college degree by yourself. I would like to give special recognition to my mother and father, whose continued sacrifices allowed me to get here today. And to my sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins: without their love and support I would not have made it through school. And especially to my grandfather and grandmother, whose values and knowledge have kept me grounded and will forever inspire me.
Coming from the Southside of Chicago to Madison was a big change for me. I entered an environment completely alien to me. I was never away from my family or community, nor was my racial identity ever such an issue. Working through these challenges forced me to understand who I am and what my goals are. And I stand here today having been exposed to a wealth of knowledge, information, opportunities, and people from diverse perspectives. The last five years have taught me a lot about how our problems will not be solved until we take action on them.
In 1903, the great educator, W.E.B. DuBois, once wrote, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line”. Well, it is now 2003 and we have not solved the problem. UW Madison, and for that matter, the entire education system, has not effectively dealt with the issue of dismantling the legacy and continued application of white supremacy.
According to a study conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the average percentage of students of color across the nation at public universities is 24 percent. UW-Madison is at nine percent.
If this university is sincere about offering equal opportunities for all, then there is much work to be done. With the prison industrial complex getting more state dollars than our educational institutions, it is time for this university to take action. First, we must take aggressive steps in granting reparations to the communities which have been systematically excluded from quality education. In addition, the university and its senior level administration must truly engage with the community of Wisconsin to understand the needs of those who they are obligated to educate. They must create a strong relationship with the people of Wisconsin so that they, themselves, will urge their representatives to increase funding for higher education. Tuition is no longer affordable for working class families and the Wisconsin Idea is no longer achievable, it is a dream that only the wealthy can attain. It is the role of this university to stay true to the principle of PUBLIC education, so that working class families and students do not find themselves in debt in pursuit of an education.
As for the graduates, we have a responsibility as well. We must confront the current social and economic inequalities, in order to make America truly a place for democracy and prosperity for all. I ask that when you begin your professional and personal journeys, you think about your role in this society. We cannot become part of the 49 percent that do not vote in this country. We must take an active role and begin to question the inequities that surround us.
Why are huge tax breaks given to corporations and millionaires in a time of economic crisis? Why do farm workers get paid two dollars an hour when it is their labor that produces the food on our tables? How is it that we live in the richest country, yet we don’t provide health care for all? Why are race relations in America not yet on a path towards harmony?
Internationally, why do our tax dollars support the Occupation of Palestine, AND fund human rights violations occurring in numerous countries? Why do our public officials continue to make unsound and deadly decisions abroad that will create a new generation of hatred towards America? These are all things we must ask ourselves because we are all affected by the consequences. We must eradicate oppression towards people of color, women, gays and lesbians, immigrants, and neglected people across the world because oppression is a cancer in our society.
Graduates, as leaders and parents of tomorrow, I urge you to think of these issues and make the sacrifice. Put in the hard work to correct the injustices of the past and the present, so that those without power are equally granted opportunities. We have complex social problems, and they will not go away until they are adequately addressed by all of us.
And for all of you that are sitting there wondering what this has to do with you, your personal and professional actions do impact peoples lives on a daily basis. As the class of 2003, we have a responsibility to utilize our college experiences to make positive change. Good Luck and thank you.
Carl Camacho Jr. can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org