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Grad speaker Ralph Lewin urges students to create their California story

Ralph LewinThank you very much. It is a pleasure and an honor to be with you.

President Horace Mitchell, Provost Soraya Coley, Richard Collins, Dean of Arts and Humanities, John Emery, Dean of Business and Public Administration, Julio Blanco, Dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and other distinguished members of the faculty. [Kathleen Knutzen, Dean of Social Sciences and Education, was not in attendance.] I am grateful to each of you for all that you do.

And to the Class of 2011 – congratulations on a job well done. You've worked hard to get to this point and now it's time to celebrate.

I am grateful to have been invited to CSU Bakersfield: one of the most important institutions of higher education in California and part of the California State University system –the largest, the most diverse, and still one of the most affordable university systems in the world.

I am like you. I am a product of the California public education system – In fact, from kindergarten all the way through graduate school. This education system gave me the foundation I needed to begin my career, grow and become President of the California Council for the Humanities.

At the California Council for the Humanities we curate ideas, and work with universities, libraries, schools and media to create experiences that inspire thought and understanding in our lives. We believe in asking the big questions, and that knowledge of our history and the imagination are important to each of us as individuals and to the health of our society.

In my work I get to focus on exploring, supporting, and telling the stories of California, past and present, be they told in films, theatrical performances, local history projects, murals, poems or great books, such as one of my personal favorites, John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath", which tells one of the most important stories from this great valley. Recently, I've also been listening to stories from across our state – from the lumber town of Yreka, near the Oregon border, to Calexico, on our border with Mexico. Each story I hear reminds me of what a special place we live in, and how the power of stories can deepen our understanding of ourselves and one another. Deeper understanding leads naturally to connections, to empathy, to problem solving.

Humans have always told stories – think of the paintings on the cave walls in Lascaux, France – pictoral representations of life as it was lived nearly 20,000 years ago; think of your favorite song or novel or poem and the story it tells. Stories define us as humans, who we are and how we relate to others. Stories are how we make sense of our lives and the world we live in. Today – on this momentous day -- I want you to think about this and create your own unique California story.

Your own California Story first requires that you examine your past. Look at your family's legacy that has brought you to where you are today. The stories can be painful, beautiful, overwhelming, and humbling. I ask you to dedicate yourself -- consider it an assignment, one last assignment at CSU Bakersfield -- to record a story from your family. Sounds like a small thing, but you will be grateful you completed this assignment. Because, simply put, their stories are yours and they will illuminate, inspire, and transform your life.

You may be unsure of where to begin, so here are a few simple questions you can ask:

How did your family arrive in California?
What was the journey like for your family members?
What did they hope for and what did they find?
What were the most important events in their childhood?

When I began to ask my family these questions, I was surprised by what they told me. I learned about starvation and hunger. I learned about hatred, love and friendship. I learned about true sacrifice. It was as though I pulled back a curtain on who I was, to reveal something much deeper. You know, people love to read these stories in novels or see them on TV or in the movies, but it is so much more rewarding and powerful to know stories that are true and a true part of your own life.

I imagine the stories you record will include the struggles and triumphs of making a home in California. You may hear stories of trying to find a job, starting a business, helping a friend, or a family member. You may hear stories about a home in another country or state. Stories about a life left behind. Stories about the hopes and dreams for a new life.

You may learn more from this "assignment" than you ever imagine. The stories you uncover will always be part of you, contributing to decisions about things like marriage, where you work, bringing up children, and how you define right and wrong.

Trust me when I tell you this, from this point forward, in job interviews, in professional settings, and in new towns and cities, people will ask you to share stories about where you are from and what you believe. They will ask you to tell stories about what you have done and want to do in life — and why it matters. Your ability to answer these questions with compelling and imaginative stories will contribute to your future success.

Whatever stories you record from your family, your elders, these stories will contribute to who you are. Their stories become part of your California story. So do it. Complete this assignment, you'll be glad you did.

Creating your California story also requires that you look forward to the future because that is where dreams are realized. You are already fortunate by virtue of your location. As Wallace Stegner once wrote, California is America only more so; it is where the future is invented. California has always been a state of dreams, a home for dreamers.

When I think of the California Dream, my mind goes to Bakersfield and to the man who introduced me to this part of the world, John Steinbeck and his book "The Grapes of Wrath." I remember the Joad family, as they're running away from the environmental disaster and economic devastation of the 1930s Dust Bowl toward the promise of jobs and a new life.

After leaving what had been their home for generations and at the end of a long, hard journey, the Joad family reaches the top of the Tehachapis. It's a pivotal moment in the novel as they gaze over the golden valley below and the beautiful Kern River. They see peach trees, walnut groves, vineyards, grain fields, and dark green patches of orange orchards. Distant cities and small towns beckon magically from the valley floor. Steinbeck describes the Joad family as "silent and awestruck, embarrassed before the great valley." Until one of them simply whispers, "It's California."

In my mind, this great valley, where we gather today, symbolizes the promise and dream of California. As the Joads saw it from the top of the Tehachapis. Now each of you graduates is part of the California Dream, the dream of possibility.

California represents the promise of a better life. And the Joads of yesterday could be the Rodriguez's or the Kearns or the Masumotos or the Singhs or the Jacksons of today. People who sacrificed to be here. People who believe in the California Dream.

It's no wonder this valley has inspired great writing by such authors as: William Saroyan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gary Soto, Frank Norris, Shirley Anne Williams, Wilma McDaniels, Juan Felipe Herrera, John Steinbeck … and the list goes on.

California is the place of the vanguard – women earned the right to vote in California 10 years before they did so in the rest of the country. It has always been a place for crazy dreamers and risk takers – think of the people who uprooted their lives to come here to strike it rich in gold, in oil, in Hollywood or to make a better life in the fields. Think of the people who had the audacity to imagine and the passion and dedication to create the world's greatest public system of higher education. Think of Walt Disney building a theme park amidst orange groves that became an icon of imagination throughout the world. Think of those that designed a way to move water throughout the state and create one of the greatest centers of agriculture the world has ever seen – the Great Central Valley. The future is happening here and now – think of the digital and social media revolution that's changing the world – Google, Facebook, Yahoo – all in California. Think of the advances in biotech that are changing the way we imagine human life – led by California based companies and universities.

Of course, not all that glitters is gold. This California Dream sometimes falls short of the reality. When the Joads came down into the Valley from the Tehachapis, they found hunger, injustice and cruelty. They had to make a choice as to where they stood, and whom they would help. Tom Joad, a young man like many of you in the audience, saw himself in the plight of others and felt that they were brothers and sisters in their shared humanity and experience. This compassion compelled him to help others.

If Tom Joad were alive today, what would he stand up for in order to keep the California Dream alive? Would it be the education system that has benefitted you? (Which I urge all of you to do.) Would he stand for basic health care access for all?

But remember Tom is only a fictional character. More importantly, what will you stand up for and with whom will you stand to keep the dream alive? The answers to these questions will be found in your own California Story.

I mentioned earlier that your story requires knowledge of your past and an awareness of your future. It also needs one other vital element to come to fruition and only then will your story be fully realized. You must learn to make space for quiet in your life.

We are in a time of great stress and upheaval. Tsunamis, tornadoes, floods, and other natural disasters are changing our lives and landscapes; new and ongoing wars, food poisoning crises, and economic crises beat out a rhythm that's difficult to ignore. Every day we are barraged by a constant flow of information.

Even those who love their smart phones and Twitter feeds, and I bet there a few of you out there, probably relate to feeling constantly distracted. At times, I certainly feel this way.

All this to say, that the world we live in can be hectic and confusing. A world in which moments to make quiet, to reflect are scarce but tremendously important—moments of quiet to really think about what is important in life, what matters.

Many of our greatest creations and achievements as human beings come from what I call making quiet. Think of the years, decades of quiet hours that Thomas Jefferson spent in his library studying and thinking about the ideas that went into the Declaration of Independence – one of the most revolutionary documents in human history. Think of John Muir's quiet, solitary exploration of the Yosemite Valley that became central to the creation and preservation of our cherished national parks. Think of the hours Martin Luther King spent in quiet that lead to that great American moment, his I Have A Dream speech. Or closer to home the power of quiet during Cesar Chavez's fast that brought national attention to the challenges facing farm workers.

Learn to make quiet a part of your life. Carve out a little time to stop and listen. Spend time each day reading a good book, taking a walk in nature. Wake up each morning, early, to do this – hey you did it today, why not continue?

This is not frivolous. Ideas are born in quiet hours, and your ideas can change the world. You'll find that having quiet in your life will help you remain passionate, engaged and in love with this amazing, difficult, profound, unpredictable, wondrous and all-too-short experience we call life.

It's in these quiet moments we can think of all those we have to thank. Like right now. Take a moment. Close your eyes. Think of all those who have stood by you, supported you, listened to you, answered your questions – think of your parents, brothers, sisters, and other family members, your friends, your professors and teachers, and fellow students. Now take a moment and think of those who couldn't be here with you today. How proud they are of you, how proud we all are of you, on this day of your graduation.

It takes a moment of quiet to acknowledge the gifts you've received that brought you to this day. And it will take moments of quiet, away from the hectic pace of your life, to truly create your own California Story.

So, let me say, from the Joad family to you, the California Dream is alive, but it is at risk. It needs you to dream dreams and think of possibilities. You can accomplish what Steve Jobs and others have done in Silicon Valley to transform the world. You can do as Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta have done to create one of the most important movements for civil rights in our last century. You can lead a quiet life and make a positive difference in the lives around you. You the Class of 2011 have benefited from the California Dream and it is up to you to do your part to maintain the dream.

And as you pursue your dream, don't be afraid to make mistakes. Screw up. It's ok. (…I have.) That's how you learn. Be courageous. Push yourself. Take risks. Try reading books you don't at first understand. Surround yourself with people that challenge and inspire you. Try jobs that feel out of your comfort zone. Be curious. Ask questions. Don't set out to make a living. Set out to live.

I know it may be difficult to be sure of the right path to follow as you leave CSU Bakersfield. In truth, you may not know which path to choose. The "career" you wind up with may not be at all what you imagine sitting here right now. Sometimes the work you do all your life just comes to you from the most unexpected directions with no small amount of luck involved. In fact, luck plays a big role in your success, but you have to be ready for it. In those moments of quiet, you will learn to recognize when it has arrived.

When I think about my own path, I had no idea that I would wind up President of the California Council for the Humanities. I started out working on Wall Street – something totally out of my comfort zone and it soon became clear that I didn't share the passion that my colleagues had. If I continued I'd either be a failure or at a minimum very miserable. Some of my risks that paid off included living in Germany – I met my wife there; studying in Indonesia – the largest Islamic country in the world. It opened my eyes to the fact that we as humans are much more alike than different; teaching in Argentina – it helped my Spanish and taught me about living a passionate life. I walked down these paths blindfolded, in essence. I had no idea where they would lead. Each of these risks ended up paying off, in terms of finding my passion and my career. And even if these decisions to live and work abroad hadn't turned out so well, they still would have been worth every moment, because they gave me a better understanding of myself and my place in the world – the invaluable wealth of knowledge.

I encourage you California Dreamers to take risks. I know these are tough times, but even in tough times, maybe particularly in tough times, it is important to take risks. In these first years out of college, I urge you to not focus on the amount of money you will earn, but on finding something that you are passionate about. A rewarding life will follow. The California Dreamers that I know who are the most successful have become so because their passion and their work are the same.

And as you go forward to create your own California story, remember to learn from your family's stories; make time for quiet in your life; and to dream.

I wish you well. We and the world need you – your optimism, your creativity, and your commitment. I am confident that you can make this world a better place. I look forward to the stories each of you will create.

Thank you.

Ralph Lewin, president of the California Council for the Humanities, delivered this commencement speech Friday, June 10, 2011 at CSU Bakersfield.

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