George Mason Commencement
My name is Denise Roth. I am the Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration.
This is about the point at a cocktail party or a reception, after an awkward moment or two of silence, that I’m asked: “You’re what? Whose administrative assistant?” “Oh, got it, you’re the GSA Administrator’s secretary?”
My inner monologue then goes something like this:
“Deep breath. OK, let’s see. Well, my business card says that I work for the United States General Services Administration; and that I am the – yes - it definitely says that I not only work there, but am, in fact, the head of the agency; hired by the President - the President of the United States. I was confirmed, unanimously, by the United States Senate, and lead a 12,000 person -strong government agency with a $30 Billion annual budget.”
That’s the inner monologue. Outwardly, I just smile. And they probably interpret that smile to mean, “Yes, I understand why you might think I am not who I am; that it is somehow odd - that it does not compute - that someone like me has made something of herself”. But let me be very clear: My understanding smile is by no means a concession to those who might assume less of me. If anything, that smile is just an expedient means to bypass them, and to remind myself that it does not matter what others think about me
This is the heart of what I want to share with you today: It does not matter what others think about us.
What stands out most in my life’s journey, is that what we think of ourselves - how we assess and develop and apply our talents: This is the only measure of who we are and of what we can achieve. In a sense, it’s a pretty simple realization, except that it takes a really long time to develop and take to heart.
And, to tell you the truth, every now and then I have to remind myself who I am and what I’m capable of; because those doubts we have about ourselves? They don’t ever really disappear. We just learn to manage them, contextualize them, play a little jiu jitsu with our fears, and begin to see problems and challenges as gifts and opportunities.
My first reaction when President Cabrera asked me to speak today was surprise. Who? Me? Commencement speeches are not given by people like me; they’re given by serious, seasoned men and women who set out to cast complex wisdom upon you; and that’s definitely not me.
My message is really very straightforward: Believe in yourself. That’s it. Let me tell you a little bit about my story so that you can get a sense of what I mean.
The core difference between the “me” speaking to you today and the “me” who first walked onto this campus back in 19XX … well, let’s just say … not too terribly long ago is that the “now” “me” is able to give the smile and recover more quickly from those who look at me dismissively. I am now better equipped to remind that girl who launched her adult life on the George Mason campus that she is someone with something to say, and here it is:
At this very moment, you are surfing a wave of happiness. Your immediate concern is probably “When is this Roth lady going to finish so I can go out and celebrate?” Fair enough; that’s what I was thinking when I was in your shoes when I graduated from Mason. And don’t worry, I won’t take too much more of your time. But, tomorrow… tomorrow, you’re going to wake up and think: “Oh no!!! What am I going to do with my life? I’ve worked hard to get here; made sacrifices to excel in college; maybe worked a job, or two, to be able to stay here, but the guy to the left of me and the woman to my right? They all worked just as hard, made sacrifices. And so did tens of thousands of graduates of other equally good universities. Well, almost as good. No one quite measures up to a Patriot!
But there’s a sea of other smart, determined, well educated people like me, with dreams as bright as mine. How will I measure up? How will I stand out? It’s perfectly natural and normal to have these doubts ; to ask these questions. But, in the end, they’re the wrong questions to ask. It’s only once you understand this that the sweat that you’re going to break into tomorrow morning will dissipate. You’ll realize that the question to ask is not: “What am I going to be?”, but, rather, “who?”
And, when it hits you that you’ve already answered that question; that asking and answering that question is what brought you to where you now find yourself, that’s when you’ve taken the next step to making your mark on this world.
I’m from a neighborhood in Southeast Washington, DC called Anacostia. “East of the River” as it’s known. This is a place that tourists and lobbyists and members of Congress may have been told about; told to avoid, that is. In my neighborhood, most everybody faced some form of adversity. My family did. Have you ever tasted a sugar sandwich?
Growing up in the 1980s, I witnessed the early stages of the drug epidemic that devastated our nation’s inner cities. Some chose to approach life with optimism, while others became overwhelmed by negativity and gave in to temptation. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by the right people; a strong circle of guidance, strength and optimism.
The nuns at school encouraged and welcomed me into the convent. My brothers and cousin who, regardless of the challenges in their own lives, were committed to making sure I made it to school every day and on time. And mom cleaned floors to make ends meet for our family.
Then, she had the opportunity to take advantage of a program to train as a banker thanks to a joint government/private sector training effort. Mom took that banking job; really as a bank teller, but to me she was always a banker. And she put me through Catholic school. Looking back, I truly appreciate her sacrifices for me; but, it wasn’t easy.
Imagine what it was like to walk to school through Anacostia in my uniform back in the 1980’s. I was bombarded by negative messages: “Who do you think you are?” “Why are you acting white?” “You’ll never get out of here.”
But, walking to and from class every day, I’d look West over the Anacostia River and see in the distance - but not too far in the distance - I’d see the Capitol dome. And I knew, if at first only in some hazy, general sense: That was government. And that it was government that had helped give my mother a life-changing opportunity.
Over the course of many walks to school, I decided I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to make change in my community, and working in government was the means to do so. I wanted to be someone who would enable other girls and boys like me to take that same walk; to begin to form an identity; to learn to take those same first steps toward figuring out who they are.
For me, Mason played a pivotal role in this process. When I came here, most of the student body lived off campus. The administration was incredibly supportive, ensuring that every student - even those with less than privileged backgrounds - were able to get here, and stay here. The Government and Politics faculty were deeply involved in the practice of the issues about which they lectured. They were passionate about giving their students practical, real-life experience, even while we were still in school.
Mason was the perfect environment to propel a young woman who thought she knew who she wanted to be; who was developing a sense of who she was. An internship on Capitol Hill became my first real job, allowing me to pay tuition. I was able to help craft important legislation and to launch a career in government service, all while I was an undergraduate.
The truth is that I was often terrified as these experiences unfolded. And, at times, I struggled. But, those who gave me support and affirmation helped me to be stronger than those who voiced doubts because of where I came from and how I looked. I definitely had help overcoming the external world, but it was even more important for me to do the heavy lifting myself, to quell my inner doubts. I had to develop the courage and drive to take the next step; even when I had no idea whether I’d trip and fall, or where it would lead me.
George Mason University taught me much. It helped me become a fully rounded person: Joining the student government; becoming co-president of the pre-law fraternity. And even leading the Masonettes. Debating weighty political and philosophical matters within the safety of the first two groups allowed me to overcome the intimidation I felt when asked for my opinion on Capitol Hill. And, for a self-reliant introvert like me, the dance squad really taught me a lot about the importance of teamwork and cooperation.
But, when commencement time came around, I realized that the most valuable gift Mason gave me was the ability to manage fear rather than let it drive me, and then gave me the tools to be the leader I knew I was. This is, in fact, the legacy of our alma mater’s namesake. A man of means and privilege who could have skated through life, but, instead, he had the courage to follow his deep conscience and rebel. Not only against British tyranny, but even in the face of his fellow revolutionaries when he felt they weren’t bold enough; Refusing to sign the Constitution because it did not include a bill of rights.
George Mason’s commitment to humanistic principles, constant progress, and refusal to let fear and the opinion of others guide him, has indeed proven to be a tremendous blessing; imbuing this institution - from its very founding - with a persistent drive to innovate .and positively impact society: By focusing on accessibility, and welcoming the broadest diversity of life experiences and opinions within the student body and faculty; giving all of us the tools and strength to chase and begin to realize our dreams.
It is a tremendous honor to be a Mason alumna, one that carries with it great responsibilities. I say to you graduates today: We have a mission to go out into the world; to be bold and confident, and serve as ambassadors for the values that have always defined this community: Inclusivity, curiosity, progress and passion. This is an obligation that I am blessed to bear. I hope that each of you feels the same.
I am, indeed, grateful for many things; but, most of all, for my beautiful family.
Not too long ago, my six-year-old son, CJ, said something that really pulled at my heartstrings. CJ is a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan. One day, he brought to my attention something that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said about facing fear and the doubt of others: “I don’t live in fear. Not fear of perception, not fear of public opinion.” I asked CJ why he mentioned this, and he said, “Because that’s you, mom.” Then I sat down, and this speech wrote itself.
Thank you so very much, Mason family. Congratulations, Patriots, and Godspeed!