by Diane Levitt, Senior Director of K-12 education at Cornell Tech
Good afternoon, and thank you so much for the honor of being part of this magical day.
Before I start my talk, I’d like to say to the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, guardians, teachers, friends and champions of these graduates: Congratulations. This is HUGE. As a mom, I know how much it took to get here. You are amazing. When we shine the light on these girls, we’re shining a light on you, too.
Several months ago, I was lucky enough to host some of today’s graduates for a visit to Cornell Tech. We talked about what you love about Girls Prep, and what you think you might not miss about Girls Prep (but I bet you will- I won’t give away any secrets, but it’s possible some graduates think a certain chant is “corny.”) You talked about what you’ve learned, what you want to study, and want to do with your future. You have some exciting plans. One of the things I was most moved by is how many of you are thinking about how you can use your big brains and your big hearts to change the world.
You know, when you hear that phrase—“Change the world”—it sounds a little overwhelming. The first thing I want to tell you is, there are lots of ways to change the world. Absolutely we all think about solving big heartbreaking world problems, like disease, hunger, homelessness. And for those of you who find your passion there, you will go for it. But there are smaller, much smaller worlds to change. Many of you told me about teachers here at Girls Prep who changed your world. Sometimes, working for a business, you can create a product, or transform a process, that changes the world for your employer, your coworkers, or your customers (or for your own business). You can do a favor for a friend, or a stranger. You can give money to a cause you care about, or volunteer your time to help others. Each of those small things can change the world for people you may never meet, in ways you may never know.
But I have something else to say to you about changing the world. You are smart, well- educated young women. Many of you are young women of color. When you graduate from the excellent high schools you’ll be attending and go to college, some of you may find yourselves in the minority in your classes. This is especially true if you go into a STEM field. Science, technology, engineering and math classrooms are still mostly white and male----- although YOU are going to help change that, right?
And when you graduate from that excellent college and enter the world of work, you may find yourself in an even smaller minority. My daughter, for instance, graduated college with a computer science degree and got a job right away working for a wedding website. She’s the only woman on the software development team. And it’s a wedding website!
You might look around you in these classrooms and offices and say, do I belong here? And the answer is, YES!
Some people say that the reason there are so few women and people of color in tech is because, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” What they mean is, it’s hard for young people to imagine a future for themselves when they don’t know or see people who look like them doing the jobs they might want to do. And that might be true. But hard is not the same thing as impossible.
You can’t be what you can’t see, they say.
But if Harriet Tubman couldn’t be what she couldn’t see, there would be no underground railroad, and thousands of slaves would have lost their chance for freedom.
If Hilda Solis couldn’t be what she couldn’t see, she would never have been the first Latina to serve in the California State Senate or the first Latina to serve in a presidential cabinet as President Obama’s Secretary of Labor.
Sandra Day O’Connor would never have become a Supreme Court judge. When she was named to the Supreme Court in 1981, there weren’t even women’s restrooms in the judges’ offices! Twenty nine years later, Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina Supreme Court Justice. For sure she’d never seen anyone like her do that.
Hedy Lamarr was a famous actress who appeared in 18 Hollywood movies, but if she couldn’t be what she couldn’t see, she wouldn’t have invented the technology that made cell phones possible fifty years later—yes: a Hollywood actress and a scientist! People said she was the most beautiful woman in the world. I guarantee she never saw anyone like her do what she did.
Misty Copeland would never be a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater.
Oprah Winfrey would never be—well, Oprah Winfrey. Because there’s never been anyone like her before.
And that’s my point. There’s never been anyone like YOU before. And I don’t want you to put your dreams on a shelf because you can’t see people who look like you doing what you want to do. Sometimes to change the world, you can ONLY be what you can’t see. You can only reach into your dreams, your passions, your imagination to create your own reality.
Plenty of people of have done this, famous and not. Every invention, every innovation, EVERY great idea came from someone seeing themselves in the world as it can be, not only as it is.
So here’s your job. Go to high school. Study hard and pay attention to three things: What you love, what you’re good at, and what you care about. I’m going to repeat that: What you love, what you’re good at, and what you care about. Because when you’re done with high school, you’re going to college. And there, you’re going to look for those same three things: What you love, what you’re good at, and what you care about. And when you graduate from college (and you WILL graduate from college), you’re going to head in the direction those three things take you. Not in the direction people tell you to go--even the people who love you in this room today. Not in the direction of people who look like you, or act like you, or dress like you. In the direction of YOU.
Harriet Tubman said, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
So, look inside yourself. You can be exactly what you see there. You go be what I can’t see. Thank you.