Ting Gives Commencement Address at City College

Friday, May 26, 2017

Assemblymember Ting provided the following remarks for the City College of San Francisco commencement ceremony on Friday, May 26, 2017:

Chancellor Lamb, Trustees, faculty and staff, distinguished guests, parents, family members, and the Class of 2017 – thank you very much for the honor of inviting me to join you this afternoon.

Before I begin, I want to thank Chancellor Lamb for her leadership of City College during a critical time over these past 18 months.  You will leave a strong legacy when you end your term as Chancellor next month, having put City College on solid footing for the future.

I am so proud to share this day with you, because each and every one of you decided to improve yourselves through the pursuit of education.  You put in the hard work and the late nights, many of you balancing school with full time jobs and family obligations.

I want to acknowledge the students who are the first in their families to go to college.  Please stand up.  You carry not only your own dreams, but also those of your family members, who may have never reached this milestone themselves, but helped to lift you here.

I also want to acknowledge the students who are immigrants or who are the children of immigrants.  I am one of you.  I didn’t have the honor of being a San Francisco native, I am from somewhere else.

I grew up in a sheltered Los Angeles suburb.  Until I started at UC Berkeley, I had never seen a homeless person, had only taken a bus once and couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a parking space in front of every store and restaurant.  I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor, engineer or lawyer, so that left a career in business.  I was determined to take the two years of undergraduate requirements and apply to Business School. 

But something happened when I decided to stop and smell the roses in college.  I watched the students table in the Plaza talking about South Africa divestment, Middle East peace and the environment.  I listened to the political speeches and started to follow my heart. 

Growing up in a monotone suburb, we were that “Fresh Off the Boat” family, long before it was a top-rated TV show.  I had never quite felt like I fit in. I had few role models.  All my parents’ friends were immigrants, who were mostly engineers and scientists.  Since I never liked science, I needed to find something else to do with my life.  Where I grew up, I would only see Asian Americans working at a restaurant or liquor store. 

But this all changed when I moved to the Bay Area, where I would enter an alternate universe where Asian Americans were everywhere.  They worked at community organizations, helped me at the bank and even delivered my mail.  I had no idea this entire universe of options was open to me. 

Most importantly, I met faculty who didn't just teach science, but taught history, English and sociology.

What was even more shocking was to see Asian Americans who didn’t just go along to get along, but ones who stood up, spoke up and fought for their beliefs. 

I learned Asian American history.  Discovered that Chinese Americans were excluded from the United States after building the railroads.  Learned that Japanese Americans were interned during World War II.  Discovered that Filipinos helped start the first Farm Worker Union with Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers. 

What I learned is that an Asian American could really do anything he or she set their mind to.  I learned we had made contributions throughout American history, but as my friend, Helen Zia said, “we were missing in history” and excluded from all the textbooks.

So I decided I couldn't look backwards but had to look forwards and create my own history.  My story had never been written before, but would have to be written by me.  I discovered my voice and was startled to find out that sometimes people would listen.  I found out that one person could make a difference. 

When I had gotten to college, the Asian American population was at an all time high - almost 25% - large compared to the state’s API population of 10%.  Some people thought there were too many Asian Americans.  But if you asked Asian American parents, they probably thought there weren’t enough. 

What I discovered during those years was a little shocking, that my public university had decided to discriminate against low income immigrants to keep Asian American students out.  I had always heard rumors of Asian American quotas at elite universities, but I had never imagined, that my university, our flagship public university could actually do this.

I had always been told by my parents that if you study hard, get good grades, then everything was going to be just fine.  But what happens, if you study hard for 13 years, get good grades, but the rules change and you can’t get the winning ticket to the game of life.  What I learned in school is that rules do change, life isn’t always fair and you don’t need to always follow the rules, you can change the rules.

So I set out with a few fellow students and faculty to change the rules.  We worked to expose the University’s discrimination.  Researched the facts.  Organized other students.  Built coalitions with African American, Latino, LGBT, Native American and White students to grow our movement. 

I learned strength in numbers and how to amplify my voice.  Together we changed our school, got the policy modified and removed these barriers.  And instead of a business degree, I graduated with a Development Studies degree, where I studied international development, and began a career in public service.

In short, my parents don’t understand what I do for a living.  They just know that what I do makes me happy.

And I am lucky. I found what I loved to do when I was in college and I am even luckier today to get paid to do it.  If you ever find a job where you can get paid to do what you love, take it, do it.  You will excel and do a great job.  I love making a difference in our community, our state and our world.  When I was young, I learned that by working with others, we could change the world, but you always have to understand why you do what you do. 

I work every day to fight for equality and fairness for all.

Our civil rights can never be taken for granted.  We only need to remember the lessons of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese American Internment.  Lest we think these things can never happen today.  We have a government which has permanently etched the Muslim Ban and the Wall into our history books.  Fifty years from now, I believe a City College commencement speaker will talk about these stains on our nation’s history and wonder aloud how history could have repeated itself. 

But we won’t be able to learn from this lesson unless we as community stand together.  We must stand together under the simple belief that we all belong.  We all belong in San Francisco.  We all belong in California and we all belong in the United States of America.

Remember our Statue of Liberty says:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

For all of us, who have the honor of living in this amazing city, gorgeous state and incredible country.  We have a responsibility to keep the doors of our country open like so many Americans did for our parents and grandparents.

I am proud to stand here with you.  I have the honor and privilege to represent many of you in the California State Assembly.  It is a privilege I never could have imagined when I decided to move here. 

As the son of immigrants, as someone from Southern California, as an Asian American, I was welcomed into this city and community.  Now, that we are here, we must welcome others.  Bring in others.

So how can you do that?  Not everyone wants to run for office.  That's fine.  Everyone can choose a different way to contribute what you can to make our community, our state, and our nation a better place.

Start by figuring out what makes you passionate. Is it protecting the environment?  Aiding new immigrants?

Next start small.  At a minimum, vote.  Help put decision makers in power who share your values and fight for things that you care about.  If the events of the last 6 months have taught us anything, it’s that elections matter.

What else?  Volunteer in your neighborhood.  Join an organization that advocates for what you care about.

Here in San Francisco, there are countless nonprofits that would be grateful for your time and talent.  And there are endless opportunities to get involved with local government, working on issues that affect not just your life but the lives of your fellow citizens.  Give public comment at hearings. Organize your neighbors.

Just remember, democracy is not a spectator sport.  Like Will Rogers said, “Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there.”

As for me, I am still that college student who said I am not going to become a doctor.  But let me be clear, your friends and family here today, even if they had a different plan for you, they could not be prouder of you.

Today, you are graduating from one of the best community colleges in our country - the largest community college in our state and a treasure for our City. 

Some of you will continue on your higher education journey.  Some of you will join our city workforce and become stewards of San Francisco.  Others of you will spread your wings and explore some other part of the world.  Just remember you will all become ambassadors of San Francisco.  Our city.  Our values.  Our values of inclusion, innovation, exploration and openness.  You are the future of our city, our state and our country.  Make us proud and go change the world.