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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the 2012 Denver School of Science and Technology Graduation Ceremony, As Prepared

As prepared for delivery.

Hello class of 2012! Congratulations! Thank you for inviting me to be with you today. Let me also say congratulations to all of the parents, friends, mentors, teachers and family members here today – all of the people without whom none of this would have been possible. They deserve much more than a round of applause – but it’s a good start.

I want to begin by asking all of the graduates to look around. I want you to look around and think about the incredible school you have been a part of. I want you to think about all the experiences you had in the classroom, and the technology and equipment you had access to. I want you to think about all the time your teachers put in.

I want you to think about your family and friends who are here today. I know a lot of them came very far to be here for this special occasion. I want you to think about the fact that I came here today from Washington, DC, because we recognized your incredible achievement and because President Obama asked me to be here today. And then I want you to understand that everything I’ve just mentioned, everything you encountered in your time at DSST – and all the people that put in the time and effort over the years – they all did that because of you.

Now, pay close attention. I am not saying they did it for you. What I’m saying is that they did it because of you. They worked extra hours. Maybe they saved up to get the computer you needed. They sat down with you and walked you through your senior project. They gave you access to all of these things. All of this is because they see what is possible in you. I read about Oprah giving $1 million dollars to help support DSST. That is a tremendous gift, but you can bet she would not have given it if you had not shown her with your work, that her gift would be put to such incredible use.

Your teachers and your parents and your family – and maybe Oprah a little bit – helped you get to where you are today. But never doubt that you earned it. They helped because they knew you would be right here, right now, making them proud. They knew you could do it – and you did it. And I’m proud to be with you to say congratulations.

I’m glad to be here with all of you, because I know exactly how important that kind of support is. I needed it myself. I grew up in New Orleans in the 1960s. I started kindergarten just a few years after legal segregation ended in the south. There were police officers at school my first day. I actually thought they just did that kind of thing on the first day of school. I thought it was cool that policemen were there to greet us. I was too young to realize they were really there to protect us – to protect me against people who seemed to think that people of different races shouldn’t go to school together. Some of those people believed that it would destroy our schools – even our nation. I wish they could see what I see now: an extraordinary, diverse, accomplished class of brilliant students.

I wish they could know that 100 percent of the students in this class have been accepted to a four-year college – and that 2012 is the fifth year in the row that has happened at DSST. If you do your work and do well in your education, no one can deny you anything. You are living proof of that today.

It’s not always easy. We all see our fair share of struggles. Neither of my parents graduated from college, and we did not have a lot of money. My father used to come home from his day job as a mailman and let me read the newspaper with him before he went off to his night job at Sears. Those were the precious few moments I got to be with him when he wasn’t working. But I know he worked both of those jobs because he saw potential in me – and my brother – and he wanted us to get an education so the world would be wide open to us. I know your parents feel the same way. A lot of people might have believed that my circumstances would hold me back. That I would not have the power in my life to make my own choices – that my circumstances would make the choices for me. But I worked hard for my education, and I let my education work for me. Now I have a job I love, working for the first African American president of the United States. I get to set my own course. And I get to give my children even greater opportunities – something I know many of your parents are proud to say – and that I hope all of you will be able to say one day too.

Now – one of the choices I made was to become a scientist. That’s another reason I’m so glad to be here with all of you from DSST today. I know you have been told over and over again about the ways your study of science and technology has prepared you for the jobs of the 21st century. That is absolutely true. And as the Administrator of the EPA, I do happen to know that environmental science jobs are expected to increase around 28 percent by 2018, and environmental engineering jobs are expected to grow 31 percent during the same period. Just so you know. But there are a couple of other thoughts I wanted to share with you about science and math and technology today.
First, you may be the first generation in America to grow up when science and math have become genuinely, legitimately cool. Think of all the things that the previous generation didn’t have: smart phones, Facebook, wireless internet, text messaging, high def TV. I could go on – but the bottom line is that these things are all very, very cool – and none of them would be possible without a lot of math and a lot of science. As a result – science is now cool.

Back in my day, when they put a scientist in a movie or on TV, he was almost always a little guy with a white lab coat and no social skills. If he did anything it was probably to solve some equation for the hero, then get off the screen. These days, when they put a scientist in a movie or on TV, he – or she – is the hero. Scientists are solving crimes with DNA forensics, curing diseases, or building awesome technology to save the world. Back in my day, scientists were nerds. Today, scientists are Iron Man. Today, science and technology are cool.

Now, I won’t tell you that there are no drawbacks. Now that you can Skype with your parents, they can see how you aren’t cleaning your room at school. They’re going to know exactly what you’re doing at college when you post it on Facebook. If your parents are trying to reach you, they don’t just call the dorm room and leave a message anymore. It’s not like my day when you could just say you missed the message. They call your cell phone. They text you. They shoot you an email. Maybe they post on your Facebook wall. They will wait on G-chat and message you as soon as you show up. They will text you again – then they will email you about how they just texted you. If that doesn’t work, they start Facebook messaging your friends. They go on Pinterest and pin “WHERE IS MY CHILD?” – then they Tweet about it. Finally, they start a Tumblr of embarrassing childhood photos of you. They keep on posting them until you finally call them back. You see – in addition to being one the first generations to have this technology at your fingertips, you are also one of the first generations whose parents have finally figured out how to use this technology. So good luck with that.

My second point is this: your study of science has taught you the value of the scientific method and experiments. You know that it may take a few tries, a few different approaches, and a few different steps to find the right way forward. That is going to be a critical skill for you in the years ahead. My choice to be a chemical engineer was not something I knew when I was sitting where you are. I went to college thinking I would be a doctor. I took some premed classes to prepare for that career, but I also enrolled in some engineering classes. In chemical engineering, I was learning the ways that chemicals enter into our environment, and how they get into our bodies and can make us sick. I learned about a community called Love Canal in New York City where 20 tons of industrial waste and toxic materials buried in the ground many years before had started leaking into people’s houses, into their yards, making them sick and destroying their health and the environment. I was studying to be a doctor to help people when they got sick. But I realized that if I knew more about chemistry and science, I could help keep people from getting sick in the first place. I said to myself: “chemical engineers put that pollution into the ground – and now we need chemical engineers to clean it up.”

Which brings me to my third and final point about science. At the EPA, science is the backbone of everything we do – and technology is essential to how we get it done. It’s how we clean up the air we breathe, and how we protect the water that millions of people drink. It is how we keep people from getting sick, and how we eliminate pollution that can cause serious health problems like asthma, heart disease, cancer and other problems. Where I come from – we use science and technology to save lives. It’s not quite Iron Man, but it’s close – and it’s real. With your background, you now have the chance to have similar impact. Learning about science and technology has prepared you for much more than getting a job. It has prepared you to understand the world – and to change it.

Whatever path you take from this point – whether it’s pre-med or poetry – it will be the path you chose. You have earned the right to choose by working hard here. You have fulfilled the hopes that were placed in you, and set out on a course of new hopes and even greater promise. So go out there and get it done. I look forward to seeing where you will go.

Congratulations once again, and thank you class of 2012!