HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona praised new University of Connecticut graduates for their work in helping to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and urged them to use their uniqueness as their “superpower” to accomplish their career and life goals, in a recorded speech played Saturday at a virtual 2021 commencement.
Cardona, Connecticut's former education commissioner who earned graduate degrees at UConn, taped the speech Friday at UConn's football stadium in East Hartford, the site of Saturday's ceremony. The school awarded nearly 8,200 degrees.
Cardona and other speakers, including UConn President Thomas Katsouleas and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, noted the hardships the coronavirus has wrought on schools and students.
“This experience that binds us together will no doubt impact our purpose and our passion for the rest of our years,” Cardona said.
He touted UConn students for their pandemic-related work, including contact tracing, administering vaccines, helping monitor patients with severe COVID-19 illnesses, designing ventilators and distributing thousands of gallons of milk and other dairy products to food pantries around the state.
And he told them to power their dreams with their unique personal traits.
“Whether you have ADHD, are differently abled, moved to his country later in life, speak with an accent, grew up on poverty or are LGBTQ, embrace your uniqueness and use it to find your purpose. When you find that purpose, make the pursuit of your purpose greater than the pursuit of your position.”
Cardona, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, said he didn't let his background hinder his goals. He grew up in a housing project in Meriden, Connecticut, his family didn't have a lot of money, he moved seven times before he was 13 and he learned English as a second language. He said those experiences are helping him as he oversees the nation's education system. Cardona was confirmed as President Joe Biden’s education secretary in March.
He also cited the popular song “Save Your Tears” by The Weekend, with Ariana Grande.
“This past year, we struggled together, we cried together and we experienced loss together,” he said. “Today is a new day. Save your sad tears for another day. Today is a special day. Today let your tears mark the joy you feel, the sense of accomplishment, the end of one journey and the beginning of another.”
Cardona specifically asked graduates of UConn’s Neag School of Education to fight inequities in the nation’s education system that worsened during the pandemic, and another speaker, Katie Merrick, who is a School of Dental Medicine graduate from South Burlington, Vermont, urged her classmates to stand against racial injustice.
“Violence and tragedy through specific racist acts and enabled by systemic racism have pushed our class to develop into anti-racist pharmacists, lawyers and physical therapists,” she said. "We, and especially myself and my white peers, must use our platforms as researchers, businesspeople and educators to dismantle white supremacy in our country, our professions, our communities and ourselves.
“After we graduate today, we will be community leaders in our fields and our words will have power,” she said.
The state’s flagship university also is holding several smaller, in-person graduation ceremonies for the classes of 2020 and 2021 through Wednesday at Rentschler Field, the school’s football stadium in East Hartford.
This story has been corrected to show that Cardona's speech was recorded Friday and played at the commencement Saturday.