“World can't hold me, too much ambition always knew it’d be like this when I was in the kitchen…” – Jay Z
It is such an honor for me to be here today.
I want to thank the First Lady for giving me this opportunity to share my story with you. The dedication and commitment the First Lady has for education is inspiring.
The programs she and the President have launched for students, especially for our most vulnerable students, are helping millions of children across the country and the world get the education they need to thrive in the 21st Century.
Their resoluteness to the entire educational pipeline demonstrates their belief in education as the most important investment we can make in America.
As the President has said many times, “If we want America to lead in the 21st Century, nothing is more important than giving everyone the best education possible.”
I want to also like to thank Eric Waldo and the Reach Higher Team for inviting me to participate today and for all the work they do to help our students dream big and reach higher. Their work is critical to our students and their future, a future we know demands more than just a high school diploma.
I am the Chief Education Evangelist at Google. I work with an amazing group of Googlers (that’s what we call ourselves) focused on using technology and the web as an enabling and supporting capability for educators as they empower students to be lifelong learners.
I believe deeply in education because in my heart I know it has the power to disrupt poverty and to change the destiny of a family in just one generation.
I am a first generation American. I was born in New York to a single mother who came to America from Argentina like millions before her escaping unstable governments and dictators. I was raised on welfare and food stamps in Hell’s Kitchen, New York and when they welcomed me at my first day of school at PS 111, I said “que?” So technically English is my second language.
I'm not talking about the Hell’s Kitchen you visit today with the nice restaurants and expensive condos. I grew up in the Hell’s Kitchen of the 1970s and 80s, an era in which it really lived up to it’s name! I believe our community was highlighted in the “neighborhoods to stay out of” pamphlets they distributed to tourists who landed at JFK!
Hell’s Kitchen was not a nice place. I grew up watching friends I knew since elementary school turn into drug addicts, criminals, drug dealers, and watched them cycle through Riker’s Island year after year (Riker’s is New York City’s main jail complex and has been in the news lately). As many of our students in this room know, growing up like that makes you grow up fast and hard just to survive.
I wanted out of Hell’s Kitchen. Riker’s Island was certainly not for me and I rejected the narrative that my destiny was to become a drug dealer, criminal, or that I too would be a frequent Riker’s Island visitor.
However, when you seek a road that leads you out of an environment like Hell’s Kitchen, you realize many of these roads lead to dead ends. It becomes clear the only legitimate road out is education and so getting my education became my focus.
I’ll be the first to admit it wasn’t always easy. There are distractions and enticements all around you. Those minding the dead end roads will work hard to lure you with assurances of quick power and riches. You need to have your own distractions.
Fortunately I had basketball and a job to occupy my time. If I wasn't at school, I was at practice or playing at the Police Athletic League Gym (or what we called P.A.L.) When I wasn’t in school or playing basketball, I was working. If you don't keep yourself busy, someone with less than noble intentions will gladly help you find ways to keep busy.
You also need a pair of very thick and solid “reality distortion glasses.” Everything around you shrieks, “you will not make it!” All you see, read, and hear will proclaim, “You are not meant to succeed. You don't belong here.”
I remember taking the “what you will be when you grow up” assessment in elementary school. The assessment told me I was to become an IRS agent! I didn’t even know what an IRS Agent was? The worst part was that I was told by my teacher there was no way I would be an IRS Agent but reassured me if I work hard and stay out of trouble, I could get a good city job.
Those who argue, “just go to school and keep out of trouble” clearly don't understand what it’s like to grow up in our environment. You don't need to look for trouble. Trouble finds a way to get to you. You have to be stronger than most people understand.
Through hard work, the grace of God, and with the help of some amazing teachers, I graduated from high school.
However, being the stubborn person I am, graduating from high school wasn't enough for me. I remember looking at the college graduation statistics, which were around 5% for Latinos. I refused to accept those stats. It became an “I'll show them” mission. I needed to prove myself!
So without any help, I looked at colleges. I had already missed the fall semester deadlines so I committed to start in the spring. I figured out how to fill out the applications and the financial aid forms. I knew we had a great state system so I applied to a few schools outside New York City and ended up at SUNY Brockport, near Rochester, New York.
Talk about a culture shock. I went from the middle of Manhattan with eight million people to a small town of 8500, where the population was doubled when school was in session. I was on my own to figure it all out. I felt more alone than I had ever felt in my life.
There were many times in those days I doubted my ability. There were many times I felt like I didn’t belong. There were many times I wanted to pack up my stuff and go home. The stubbornness kept me going. I was determined to beat the odds and going back would prove I wasn't capable. Going back would give the naysayers the opportunity to say, “I told you so.”
I doubled majored at SUNY Brockport in Political Science and Communications and because I wanted to continue to study public policy and my reality distortion glasses were still firmly glued on my face, I went to Arizona State University on a full scholarship to get my Master’s in Public Policy.
As you can imagine, the doubts creped in again. I didn't belong at ASU. I didn't deserve the scholarship. I wasn’t smart enough for a graduate degree. I realize now these doubts are always there; you have to be strong enough to push them down, to ignore them!
So here I am today working at Google and speaking at the White House, evidence education is the silver bullet. However, this story does not end with my accomplishments.
You see I have three kids. I have a 22 year old, a 14 year old, and a 10 month old. Yes, it’s clear I can only handle one child at a time! My 22-year-old daughter graduated from college last month and I never had a conversation with her about college. It never had to come up. She just assumed she was going. I went to college. Her mother went to college. Everyone around her went to college. She assumes she is going to graduate school because I went to graduate school. She also assumes I’m paying for it but that is a nice problem to have.
My 14 year old wants to skip high school and go to college now to focus on game design and development.
Their outlook on life is fundamentally different. They see no obstacles in their way. They fear no barriers. In just one generation we’ve been able to change our family’s destiny. This is the real power of education.
So I share these stories with you for a number of reasons.
First, I believe in what the First Lady is trying to accomplish with Reach Higher. It is absolutely clear that graduating from high school is the minimum requirement for the global economy we are in. While graduating from high school was all you needed to succeed a generation ago, it is no longer true. Today's young high school-only graduates earn about 62 percent of what their college-graduate peers earn.
We all recognize students must go beyond a high school graduation – whether that is a four-year college, community college, a technical/certification program depends on a number of factors, but no one is disputing the fact a high school degree, while an accomplishment on it’s own, is no longer enough.
The second reason I share with you is because I believe with all my heart that if I can accomplish what I've accomplished, you certainly can.
I am no different than you are. I was in your shoes and I know your struggle. I know what you must overcome and I am here to tell you with a lot of hard work, a healthy disrespect for the impossible, some luck, and a nice pair of reality distortion glasses, you can accomplish anything!
I call on you to ignore all the haters and naysayers. Far too often, people underestimate the capabilities of students who live in poor communities, equaling poverty with low ability. You will face people with very low expectations of you, usually draped in the cloak of “looking out for your best interest.”
The First Lady herself shared her story on how counselors warned her about being too ambitious when she told them she wanted to go to Princeton.
Do not, I repeat, do not wait for anyone to believe in you. Believe in yourself, strap on your glasses, and prove them all wrong!
The third reason is to ask you a question. Often we ask our students the wrong question, “What do you want to be when you grow up.” I don't like this question. First, there is a very good chance your “job” doesn't exist. Second, I do not expect kids growing up in communities like Hell’s Kitchen to tell me that they want to be a microbiologist or a sustainable materials architect.
Instead, I want to ask you, “What problem do you want to solve?” What problem occupies your thoughts?
I want you to think about the knowledge, skills, and abilities you need to solve this problem.
Where can you start building the knowledge, skills, and abilities you need?
- What research do you need to do?
- What publications and websites should you subscribe to?
- What classes can you take? Online? In school?
- What books should you read?
- What videos and documentaries should you watch?
- Who else is interested in solving this problem? Who are the people you can collaborate with?
- Who should you follow on LinkedIn or Twitter?
- What blogs should you be reading?
When I ask you to think about what problem you want to solve, I am asking you to take ownership of your learning. I am asking you to begin to create mastery for the most critical skills you will need. I want to give you the opportunity to think about purpose.
The fourth and final thought I’d like to share with you is a thought I wish someone shared with me when I was your age. You see I was ashamed of who I was. I was ashamed of my family. I was ashamed of where I came from. I did not share my experiences with folks. I felt if they knew I was poor, they would assume negative stereotypes about me.
I am here to tell you that who you are, where you are from, and your perspective and experiences will be enormous competitive advantage when you make it out and find your way in the world!
In my 20 years of working, I know my point of view and perspective comes from my background and experiences and I have found they are often unique. There aren’t many who have my point of view. I work with some smart folks who went to Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton and I bet they would say I do a decent job not just keeping up with them, but also keeping them on their toes.
Be proud of who you are and your experiences! The experiences define you and you should walk proudly because you have overcome the odds stacked against you.
So I want you to leave here today thinking about the problem you want to solve. I want you to think about the knowledge, skills, and abilities you need to solve that problem. I want you to find your reality distortion glasses, put them on, and dream as big as you can.
I bet no matter how big you dream; you’re nowhere close to your actual potential! I want you to think beyond high school and set extremely ambitious and ridiculous goals for yourself and to ignore anyone who doubts you or tries to get in your way.
When you succeed, I want you to pay it forward and share your story with the next group of students who need your guidance.
There is an ethos in this country that is fundamentally and uniquely American.
It is the belief that if you get your education and work hard, you can succeed regardless of where you come from and how you grow up.
This is the American dream and some people believe this dream is no longer reachable. I am here to tell you it is possible. I want you to believe it is possible!
So with God’s speed, go out and prove all the haters wrong! Accept their premise and just work harder and reach higher and I bet, no I know you to will beat the odds!