Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by First Lady Jill Biden at Erie County Community College’s 2024 Commencement

Erie, Pennsylvania

Thank you, President Gray.

Good morning – I am honored to be with all of you today.

“You shouldn’t go to college.”

That’s what my high school guidance counselor told me.

I was crushed. 

His assessment was that I wasn’t college material.

He said, “if you don’t really know what you want to do next, college just isn’t right for you. You shouldn’t waste your time.”

My whole life, I’d wanted to go to college. And now the person who was supposed to guide me there was saying I couldn’t do it.

Well, I got my college degree. In fact, I got three more degrees.

I got two masters and a doctorate while raising three children and going to school at night, and working full time.

It took me 15 years.

And at 55, I walked across my last graduation stage. 

I really wanted to call that damn guidance counselor to tell him I just got my doctorate!

Today, I stand here as Dr. Jill Biden, and I join your family and friends in congratulating you, Class of 2024.

People like to tell us what they think we can’t do, don’t they?

They say it’s going to be too hard or too complicated. That no one like you has done this before. 

How many of you have been told, “you can’t”?

You can’t get your degree while raising kids.

You can’t go back to school at age 30 or 45 or even 50.

You’re working two jobs – you can’t possibly take classes too.

You’re in high school, you can’t go to college at the same time.

And how many times have you done it anyway?

Most of you are the first in your families to attend college.

Many of you came back to school after time away.

But sure, “You can’t do it.”

You worked while taking courses long after the sun had set into the lake. Brought your kids to class because your child care fell through – praying they’d behave. Typed at the kitchen table to get your paper just right, long after everyone had gone to sleep, because that’s the only time there’s quiet. Even when it was 7am, and you’d just finished the night shift, and you hadn’t eaten, you went to class. 

That’s who you are: Strong. Courageous. Full of hope.

Thank you for the invitation to join you today to celebrate that achievement.

The Bidens are Pennsylvanians. I’m from Willow Grove. Joe’s from Scranton. And we even have a family member – our cat Willow – from a farm not far from here. So, it means so much to come to my home state and be a part of a moment like this one.

Being your First Lady is the honor of my lifetime. And, on behalf of President Biden, Vice President Harris, and the Second Gentleman: Congratulations, Class of 2024! 

We are so proud of you.

I teach at a community college for the same reason students go to community colleges.

They’re flexible and meet people where they are. And, as my husband, President Biden, says, they provide the “best career training in America.”

Community colleges should be free.

This community knows that. From shipyards to steel mills to health care centers, there are jobs here that need workers with the training to fill them.

And when people told you that this city is too small or it will be too hard to start a new school, you fought for one anyway, because Erie doesn’t do “can’t.”

And four years ago, with the pandemic raging, before classes had started or students had enrolled, I joined leaders here – some of whom are with us today – to talk about the promise ahead.

I told you that community colleges change lives. And graduates, you have made that promise real one paper, one project, one credit – one job offer – at a time.

A few years ago, this community took a leap. And, graduates, you rose to the challenge. You stepped onto this campus for the first time – and look at what you’ve accomplished.

And just as you created a school where there was none before, you also built a community. Students and teachers, administrators and staff who supported each other – helping each other find a way.

You’ve sat together through online classes and in-person labs; gone to Mari at the library when you needed help finding a resource; been inspired by a history or communications class from Kimber; stared down the creepy deer after welding class.

Through job applications and career decisions, you believed in each other, lending one another the strength to persevere. 

And, to my colleagues, my fellow educators, thank you.

President Gray, and all the EC3 leaders here, thank you for all you do for your students.

I’m also grateful to Mayor Schember and all the elected leaders joining us for taking the time to celebrate this day too.

Graduates, you have inspired so many with your journeys – including the people here cheering you on today. The parents and spouses and friends who have believed in you from the beginning. And your kids – who will grow up knowing that they can do anything – because they watched you do this.  They’re feeling excitement. Relief. But most of all, pride. Chest-swelling, cheek-aching pride.

To all those here to support these graduates, this is your day too. Through all those late nights and hard days, you’ve been there – helping them find a way to the other side – to today.  Congratulations on loving an incredible person.

Yes, people like to tell us what they think we can’t do.

Sometimes the voices that say “can’t” are coming from the people around us – a guidance counselor or even a friend who means well – and sometimes they’re coming from inside our own heads.

Drown out those voices. And remember what you’ve already done.

You’ve met life’s challenges before.

And you know that on the other side of “can’t” lies the beauty and joy and surprise of life – the adventure that changes us for the better.

And you are ready for it.

Never underestimate the magnitude of that accomplishment. Never forget your strength, your resilience. Never be afraid to face the unknown.

Expect anything and everything. Take the risks that scare you. Don’t hesitate when you see the chance for joy. Share your stories too. Be kinder. Love harder. Dream bigger. Find your adventure and keep your courage to say “yes.”

Class of 2024, you are brave and fierce: You made it.

And the next time that someone tells you that you “can’t,” you’re going to say, “Oh yeah? Watch me.”



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