Under Secretary of Commerce For International Trade Francisco SÁnchez
Florida State University
2012 Spring Commencement Ceremony
Saturday, April 28, 2012
As prepared for delivery
President Barron, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, distinguished guests, proud parents and family members, and, of course, the Class of 2012.
It’s a pleasure to be back at my alma mater — Florida State University. And I’m deeply honored to be a part of this special ceremony.
As I was preparing for today, my mind wandered back to my time here at FSU.
Back in those days, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is fond of saying:
• Facebook didn’t exist;
• Twitter was a sound;
• 4G was a parking place;
• LinkedIn was a prison; and
• Skype was a typo.
So a lot has changed over the years.
But one thing hasn’t: the feeling of receiving a diploma.
Back in 1982, I was sitting in one of those seats. I was excited. I was proud. I was ready to use my education to do big things.
And, like you, I was hoping and praying that the commencement speaker wouldn’t talk for too long.
I won’t disappoint.
But I was also nervous:
- unsure about my future;
- worried about finding my place in the world; and
- hoping that somehow, someway, things would all work out for me.
I’m sure that many of you are feeling the same way.
You are bit anxious about this next chapter in your lives.
You don’t know how everything is going to turn out.
And I want to tell you that it’s okay to feel like this.
Life is full of uncertainty.
All you can do is to try to make the most of every moment and opportunity.
You can do this:
- by believing in your dream and yourself;
- by taking risks; and
- by finding your own unique ways to make a difference.
Now, I know what all of you are thinking: every commencement speaker says something like this.
Well, you’re right. And there’s a reason they do.
Here is my story.
My dream has always been to work in public service.
This dream was inspired by my mother, who herself is a graduate of FSU.
She launched one of the first Head Start programs in the United States, giving children living in poverty a good start in life and access to a good education.
Her work was so valued that years after she retired, a Tampa newspaper ran a piece about her with the following headline: “Delia Sanchez didn’t just raise a son, she raised a city.”
I saw up close the impact she had on others, and I always knew I wanted to get involved in my own way — which was through government.
So in my senior year of high school, there was a race for Governor of Florida, and I decided that I needed to support someone.
Keep in mind: I was just a teenager.
So my support meant little in terms of public perception.
But, I felt I offered something so I took it very seriously.
I spent months studying the candidates.
My friends urged me to support the leading candidate, the one that all the smart money was backing.
But my gut kept telling me that a man named Bob Graham was the best person for the job, even though others assured me he didn’t have a prayer.
I weighed these options carefully, well into my freshman year of college.
And one night, I was working as a busboy at a big event.
All the candidates for Governor were present.
And, I decided that it was time to declare my support.
I’m sure as I was picking up these dishes, each and every one of the candidates was waiting with baited breath for this busboy’s announcement.
When the banquet ended, I walked up to Bob Graham and introduced myself.
And, before I knew it, I was on the campaign as a volunteer. And I was hungry.
Whenever something needed to get done — I raised my hand
When they asked me to do something in five minutes — I did it in three.
And in less than a week on the campaign, I was given a salary to work directly for the candidate for Lieutenant Governor, Wayne Mixson.
We went on to win that election.
And as a sophomore in college, I was working in the Governor’s Office, and my career in public service began.
So I ask you to:
- believe in your dream;
- believe in yourself; and
- put yourself out there to achieve your dream.
This can feel risky. But taking risks is necessary for a life well-lived.
This leads me to my next story. I graduated from FSU Law School in 1986.
And, after years working for the Governor, I decided to join one of Florida’s top law firms.
I worked very hard and put in long hours.
And by the age of 33, I was making a good salary, and was six months from becoming a partner in this firm.
Yet, my heart was telling me that there was something bigger out there for me.
So I quit my job, and decided to enroll in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Some friends and family members disagreed with my decision.
In fact, my father thought I was crazy.
Not only did my salary drop to nothing, but now I was also paying a high tuition to attend graduate school.
So, on the surface it looked like a questionable decision.
But it was the best move I could have made.
I took classes with a well-known professor named Roger Fisher.
I honed valuable skills in negotiation and conflict resolution, then went to work with Professor Fisher for four years.
Then, I struck out on my own.
I took all the money I had to co-found a consulting firm teaching negotiation strategies to corporate and government clients all over the world.
And I did better than I had ever done before.
I probably would have continued with this business for a long time.
But one day, I got a call from an old friend named Buddy MacKay.
He had just been appointed the Special Envoy to the Americas for the President of the United States, Bill Clinton.
And his call was to ask me to be his Chief of Staff in the White House.
It was another opportunity to be involved in government so I jumped at the chance.
This eventually led me to be an Assistant Secretary of Transportation, also under President Clinton.
And it’s an experience that serves me well now as President Obama’s Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade.
Looking back, I would not be where I am today if I had played it safe and stayed at the law firm.
Going to the Kennedy School set me on a new course, and it is why I now have the unique opportunity to advocate on behalf of American companies all over the world.
So as I reflect on this story, I urge you to:
- take risks and follow your passion because it’s the only way you’ll satisfy yourself; and
- learn skills that give you the best chance to succeed when you do take those risks.
And as you think of success , find ways to make a difference in the world.
This can be done in a variety of ways. Sometimes, it means helping just one person.
When I was 19, I was working late in the office.
All of a sudden, I heard crying outside my door.
It was a woman who came every night to clean the Governor’s Office.
I asked her what was wrong.
She said that she had an alcoholic husband.
And when she was working at night, she feared he was hurting their children.
She had been trying for three years to switch to the dayshift in order to be there to protect them.
But her request had gone unanswered.
So the next day, I called the appropriate department and explained the problem.
Soon after, I was assured that the situation would be handled.
And I didn’t see her for many years.
Then one day, I was at an event, and a woman came up to me.
She said: “You are Francisco Sanchez. You probably don’t remember me. But, seven years ago, you helped me get on the dayshift. You changed my life.”
As it turns out, that one phone call is as important as anything I’ve ever done.
If you come up with a great idea to protect the environment or feed the hungry — then go for it.
And if you don’t, find other ways to make a difference.
Find something outside yourself and make it better.
It’s among the most satisfying things you’ll ever do.
I have the privilege of representing the interests of the United States in the global economy.
And I can tell you that people all over the world are inspired by the American spirit and character.
And all of you embody this spirit and character.
So again I ask you to:
- believe in your dream and yourself;
- take risks;
- and find your own unique way to make a difference.
By doing so, I know that you’ll help write America’s next great chapter.
My journey has been guided by a number of people who helped me along the way.
I know that you too have received a lot of help along the way.
So I’d like to ask all the parents, family members, and friends to stand up and be recognized.
Thank you all for the support you’ve given to the Class of 2012.
So I’m finished with my stories.
Now, it’s time for you to write your own stories.
Always remember that you are the authors of your destiny, and can shape the next chapter of your lives in any way that you want.
If your time here at FSU is any indication, I know that you’ll have an impact.
I look forward to hearing about the meaningful things you will do.
Keep making us proud.
More importantly, make yourselves proud.
Once again, congratulations to the Class of 2012.
Keep up the good work.
Thank you very much.
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