Commencement speech given at University of Massachusetts, Boston, May 25 2017

Immigration and Public Higher Education

By Gerald Chan

When I was asked to give this commencement speech, I accepted the invitation heartily because I wanted to show my solidarity with UMass Boston. I had learned that a high proportion of the students of this university are either immigrants or children of immigrants. I identify with them because I too am an immigrant. It was fifty years ago this month that I came to America.

I came on a tourist visa. The only way I could stay on in this country was to become a student in a school that would grant me a form I-20. My problem was that I had not yet finished high school even though I had set my sights on going to college. I knew that without a high school diploma, there was no way that I could get into any of the major universities. Given the lack of transparency in those days, I thought it worthwhile to try finagling my way into a small college that didn’t know any better. I had heard of a small engineering college on the outskirts of Los Angeles, so I took a Greyhound bus from San Francisco to Los Angeles and showed up at the school with my high school report card from Hong Kong. With the exception of the grades and my class ranking in each subject being numerical, the rest of the report was in Chinese. I told them that the teachers’ comments were all great and they believed me. I was granted admission with the proviso that I had to take the SAT during the first week of the fall term.

I had never taken a multiple-choice test in my life, neither did I know that people took practice tests for the SAT. For an aptitude test, I thought I should go unprepared so that the test results can be a truthful reflection of one’s native aptitude. So I simply showed up that Saturday morning and took the test. I will now tell you something few people know. While my SAT math score was good, my verbal score was abysmal. It was less than 400. The vocabularies in the test stumped me. I found most of the test nigh to incomprehensible.

Today, people say that I am a good writer. I did not start out as such. Like many of you, English is my second language. I did not learn the English alphabet until I was in third grade. I tell you my SAT score today to make the point that we never need to be ashamed of our humble beginnings. What we celebrate is the effort that we put in along the journey from the humble beginning to the destination.

My parents ingrained in me to always work as hard as I can. There is no excuse for not striving for excellence. It was in preparing for my chemistry final exam in my college freshman year that I pulled my first all-nighter in my life. In the ensuing years, there were too many times when in the small hours of the morning, my tired body, in vehement protest, nevertheless complied with my decision to keep on studying. There is simply no substitute for hard work and sacrifice.

There is an urban myth that I was always a straight A student. I was not. There were courses that I struggled just to get a B, or even a B-. I picked course that I was interested in, but I would be lying to you if I told you that the degree of difficulty for getting an A with that particular professor was not a consideration in my choices. Being a foreign student shy in demeanor, scrawny in stature and inept in sports, grades were about the only thing I could be competitive in. My grades in my freshman year did enable me to transfer to UCLA the following year. From there I was able to make my way to Harvard for my graduate work.

The America I came to in 1967 felt like a land of unbounded opportunities. We believed that if we just work hard, there would be a good future in this country for us. It was an optimistic time in America. With that optimism was a magnanimity towards immigrants. President Kennedy had proposed an overhaul of the nation’s immigration policy which would make it easier for people to apply for immigration on the merits of their skills rather than on the basis of their ethnic origin. Those immigration reforms were signed into law in 1965 by President Johnson in a ceremony held at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

In spite of the popular image of Lady Liberty being so welcoming to the huddled masses, America’s welcome to immigrants has historically been contingent and by no means unwavering. When economic times were good, immigrants were welcome. When economic times were bad, immigrants were made the scapegoat. The history of Chinese immigrants in this country attests to this fickleness. In mid-nineteenth century, Chinese laborers were brought to this country when labor was needed to build the trans-continental railroad. When the railroad was completed, they became surplus labor. Ten years after the beginning of the California Gold Rush, a quarter of the laborers working in the gold mines were Chinese; but when the mines were depleted, the Chinese became competitors for a shrinking pool of jobs. They made matters worse for themselves by being willing to work longer hours for lower wages.

In the 1880s, anti-Chinese riots spread from California to as far as Colorado and North Dakota. The Workingmen’s Party of California called for the expulsion of all Chinese. The California state constitution of 1879 had a whole section, article XIX, that dealt with the prohibition of Chinese from immigration and employment in the state. This anti-Chinese sentiment found its consummate expression in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the United State Congress in 1882. It was the first time in the history of this nation that a specific ethnic group was singled out for exclusion. Even the Chinese who had already settled in America then were barred from citizenship; they were to remain as permanent aliens. It would be 1943 before the Act was repealed by Congress.

Then as now, the Chinese immigrants wanted two things. First, they wanted to remain in this country which offered them the opportunity for work. Second, they wanted their children to have access to education and thereby have a better future in this country. Two landmark court cases give evidence to these aspirations. In the Chae Chan Ping v. United States case of 1889, the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Chinese plaintiff was denied re-entry into the country after he went back to China to visit his family. In the Tape v. Hurley case of 1885, a Chinese family in San Francisco sued for the right of their US-born daughter to be educated in the public schools. The California Supreme Court ruled in their favor citing equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. But much as in the later Plessy v. Ferguson case for African Americans, the San Francisco school board immediately set up separate schools for the Chinese children alleging that they were separate but equal. These two landmark cases serve to remind us of the vulnerability of immigrants.

For these early Chinese immigrants, America offered them work. What America did not offer them was social mobility. In consonance with their contemporaries that came to America from Southern and Eastern Europe, social mobility had to be a multi-generational project made possible only because their children could access free public education. If immigrants in this country should seem extraordinarily concerned about their children’s education, it is because they know that education is the only way for their children to have a better future. This concern is deeply rooted in the exigencies of their life circumstances.

Today, the new immigrants in our midst crave with no less intensity the opportunity for their children to be educated. Governor Baker once told me that the lottery for a place in Boston’s chartered schools used to be done physically. Applicants would gather in a school gymnasium to observe names being drawn randomly from a vessel. Eventually they had to do the lottery by computers because the atmosphere in the room where the lottery physically took place became emotionally insufferable. There were too many tears of joy for those who won the lottery and there were too many tears of disappointment for those who did not. Many of those parents did not speak much English; their tears spoke volumes of their hopes for their children.

It is in this light that we must look afresh at UMass Boston. This campus is situated squarely in the midst of immigrant communities. The university has no dormitories because the students stay at home to save money. More than 50% of the student body are the first generation in their families to go to university. More than 40% are Pell grant eligible. Among the research universities in the Boston area, UMass Boston has a unique positioning. A large study published earlier this year by the Stanford economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues suggests that if universities in this country are to move the needle for social mobility, they must both offer a quality education and widen access to students from all socio-economic strata of society. State universities like UMass Boston are ideally suited to deliver such impact, as indeed they already have.

Like most people outside the immigrant communities of Boston, I was unaware of the good work being done at UMass Boston. I am indebted to Dr Andy Grosovsky with whom I shared an office when we were fellow graduate students. After he became the Dean of Science and Mathematics here, he invited me to meet the students. It was only then that I realized how talented the students are, the adversities they came from, the hardship they endure in order to remain in school and the accomplishments they have achieved. I met a young lady from Brazil who was graduating from this university and going on to UC Berkeley to do her PhD in physics. To qualify for a place in Berkeley’s physics graduate program is an extremely high bar. Last month, I met a pre-med student from this university who was accepted by fifteen medical schools. She worked as a nanny to put her younger sister through medical school back home in Ghana before coming to UMass for her pre-med studies. She supported herself through the four years and will begin medical school this fall. Last week, I met a graduate of this university who is the first in his family to finish college. I asked him why he chose to attend UMass Boston. He said it was the only school he could afford. He is now heading to UCLA for a combined MD/PhD program. He has also lined up two part-time jobs in Los Angeles to help pay for medical school. One is to work in the emergency department of a hospital and the other is to flip hamburgers at In-and-Out Burger. The truly extraordinary accomplishments of these students are made even more extraordinary in light of the life challenges they face.

We are fortunate to have young people like these as our fellow citizens in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. They are shining examples that affirm the Commonwealth’s longstanding commitment to public higher education. It was the legislature of Massachusetts that started the first university in America. Few people appreciate the fact that Harvard University started out as, what we would call today, a state university. It was founded by a vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636. A tax was levy on every household for the support of the University. The Massachusetts state constitution of 1780 states, “it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge,” The mention in the state constitution of the university in Cambridge, as yet the only university in Massachusetts, signals the importance the Commonwealth placed on higher education. For well over two hundred years, Harvard University derived its financial support from the Massachusetts legislature. Its governing board was controlled by the state. Harvard was in every way a state university. It was only in 1865 that the Commonwealth spun out the University to the charge of its alumni.

Massachusetts was also a pioneer in modernizing university education to adapt to the state’s changing economy. As early as 1825, the state legislature considered creating and endowing an institution to provide “economical and sufficient instruction in the practical arts and sciences to that class of persons who do not desire, or are unable to obtain a collegiate education.” In other words, when Harvard was in the business of turning out gentlemen adorned with a modicum of Latin and Greek, the Commonwealth was opening the door for its citizens to be educated in the useful arts, specifically, French and Spanish to facilitate trade, accounting, economics, management of manufacturing, engineering, chemistry and crop science.

UMass Boston follows in this long tradition of public higher education in Massachusetts. In times like ours when educational privilege has become a powerful source of economic privilege, this University is making our community more equitable and less polarized. For the Founding Fathers and the leaders in government when this nation was a young republic, democracy and education were inseparably coupled. The same 1825 report to the Massachusetts legislature has this to say. “With us it has become axiom that the preservation of free institutions, without great intelligence in the people, is impracticable.” Democracy gives voice to the common man, but it is education that enables him to achieve the social and economic ends of democracy. At the same time, it is education that nourishes democracy and creates the social and economic conditions that make democracy sustainable.

I once met an elderly professor in the University of Göttingen in Germany. I asked him how much tuition do German universities charge. He stared at me in disbelief that I would ask such a question. He then looked me in the eyes and said to me, “If my grandchildren ask me to teach them something, would I ask them to pay for it?” His simple words are so loaded with meaning I consider them as one of the most profound sentences I have ever heard. Over the years, I have ruminated over that sentence time and time again. It speaks to a conception of society and a relationship of the individual with society that is quite alien to mainstream America today. Rather than considering higher education as a commodity to be purchased and consumed by individuals for their own betterment, that German professor jolted me to think about higher education as a public good and a moral imperative.

I stand before you today as a product of public higher education. My undergraduate studies were subsidized by the State of California. My graduate studies and post-doctoral training were supported by the National Institute of Health. If I had returned any benefit to society in my career, it is only because the American public first made an investment in me beginning from the days when I was a foreign student in this country. It is in gratitude for public higher education that I come to be with you today to show my support for UMass Boston.

I am particularly pleased that the graduates here gathered have not only finished college, but are now receiving a graduate degree. Your choosing to enroll in graduate school tells me that you want to continue to grow and that you are reaching for greater opportunities. If I had one advice for you, and this is the same advice that I give to my son and daughter-in-law for their newborn twins, it is this — read. Read good books. Access the huge number of books that are freely available online. Go to bookstores and browse through what is on display. I particularly like going to used bookstores because I am randomly exposed to new subjects that I had not been interested in before. When it comes to books, I am very old fashioned. Purchasing a book has symbolic meaning for me. It is my way of saying thank you to the author. It is my way of saying thank you to the bookstore for being a channel for the diffusion of knowledge. I am today a more avid reader than I have ever been in my younger days. Never stop reading and you will never stop growing.

Today marks a significant milestone in your lifelong education for which you and your loved ones should feel very proud. I am honored to be able to spend this day with you and I send you my congratulations and all best wishes.

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