Michael D. Smith, the eighth CEO of AmeriCorps, gave remarks at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. Smith is a New England native.

Good evening, Wildcats! 

Dean Decelle, President Dean, distinguished members of the UNH Board of Trustees, esteemed faculty, proud families, cherished friends, and most importantly, the graduating Class of 2024: thank you for the opportunity to celebrate this momentous occasion with you.

I don’t have to tell you, your path to this day was not easy. You navigated a once-in-a-century pandemic, balanced homework and 9-5 work, cared for your loved ones, met deadlines, and made ends meet. But you persevered, and now you are here, celebrating this unforgettable milestone. Class of 2024, you made it! Congratulations! 

Tonight, we also salute the village that helped you get here—grandparents, siblings, professors, counselors, coaches, mentors, family, and chosen family. This is their day, too. Class of 2024, let's give them a resounding round of applause!

In a few minutes, you will be receiving your hard-earned diplomas. But first, like generations before you, you will politely endure your commencement speaker. (because no matter what they say, Granite Staters are kind).

Although it was a few decades ago, looking at you brings back so many incredible memories of my graduation day and that exciting part of life where everything was new, possible, and terrifying.

We have other things in common too… I'm a New England kid – I grew up just down the road in Western Mass. So just like you, I know that in New England, we don't make a U-turn, we bang a "UE." When we need “supplies” for the after party, we go to the "packie." And, they can call it subway all they want, but what they sell are grinders! 

I was raised in this beautiful part of the country. And, it’s good be home. 

In the short time I have with you today: I have three goals. 

  1. To celebrate you and remind you of why you are uniquely qualified to meet this unique moment history has given us. 
  2. To encourage you to find opportunities to serve no matter who you are or where you go. 
  3. And, especially since it’s a late ceremony, my third goal is to be brief and not put you to sleep. You have to help though. I grew up in a Pentecostal church so I’m used to some active participation. Can I get an amen?

So let me start with the celebration! 

Dean Decelle said a lot of nice things about me in the introduction, but at my core, I am a little Black boy from Western Mass whose parents were both just 16 years old when I was born. My family didn't have a lot of money, but we had love in excess. 

My nana moved to New England from a tiny town in North Carolina at 15 years old to escape the Jim Crow South. 

My mom loves to tell me how she took six buses a day to get me to daycare and herself to school and back again. 

My dad didn't have a crib at my grandparent's house, so he'd fill a dresser drawer with blankets, so I had a place to sleep. 

And, I watched too many of my friends and family members become victims of the school-to-prison pipeline and the heartbreaking scourge of gun violence.

In my faith tradition, we often talk about the idea that God doesn't call the qualified, he qualifies the called. 

You are looking good in your caps and gowns today. But my story may be yours too. People see you but they don't see your struggles: high school dropouts, learning disabilities, single parents, recovering addicts, refugees, hungry, and even homeless.

But UNH wanted you. Because they knew what some saw as hurdles, you would use as springboards. 

The reason I was taught that God qualifies the called and calls on those who have been broken is because he asks them to lead—not in spite of their weaknesses or struggles—but because of the experience, empathy, and character that grows from them. 

When I reflect on how it's possible that a kid like me goes from a family that qualified for WIC and welfare to working in the White House, it's first due to a big, beautiful family that always had my back. It's due to faith – loved ones praying for me when I didn't know it, and a whole lot of unmerited grace from an awesome God. But it's also because I grew up in a community that believed in the power of service.

I first learned about service at my Boys and Girls Club. My mom tells me she sent me there because she needed cheap day care. She got a whole lot more.

Volunteers and staff taught us about Black pride and social justice and gave us the opportunity to serve and care for our community when we were still little kids. 

We cleaned up run down lots, served at the homeless shelter, woke up on Saturday mornings to pass out food to seniors. 

At the time I just knew it was something to do. But when I look back, I didn’t know through service they were teaching me that I had something to give, that no matter how little I had there’s was always something I could do to help others. 

Service and those who were called to serve had an immense impact on me from a young age. They helped shape who I am today and made me want to both follow in their footsteps and build a career dedicated to supporting individuals like them and communities like mine. 

I think about Mama Morgan, who was the cook at the Boys and Girls Club. She was my buddy. We’d bake cookies together so I didn’t have to pretend that I actually liked getting hit with dodge balls in the gym. 

I think about Mr. Dawson. One day when I showed him an exceptionally bad report card he just looked at me and said “damn Smitty.” But he didn’t scold me. He found me the best tutor he knew and got me back on track. 

Or, I think about Carol who became my second mom. She would greet me at the door when the school bus dropped me off and say Mikey’s home! And she gave me my first job when I was 12 running the coat room, making $2/hr. I was rich! 

So many of you are already active in your communities as teachers, nurses, first responders, PTO leaders, and National Guard members - a culture of service embraced and strengthened by college leadership through actions like offering a 20% tuition discount to AmeriCorps alumni as a School of National Service!

The changemakers in this room or at my Boys and Girls Club weren’t looking to get rich, to get famous or even to get credit. They woke up every day, with a deep belief, like the UNH community, that our neighbors’ children are all of our children. 

And with a hope that kids like us…would realize dreams bigger than they (or we) could ever imagine. 

And, let’s be clear these hometown heroes not only made a difference for me but through their service they were served.

Volunteering decreases isolation, increases job prospects, health, and even romance. A recent study found that more than 80 percent of those who have volunteered in the past year would be more willing to date a person they met volunteering than through an online dating site.

So, whether you choose to serve to make your community better, to increase your chances of finding a good job, or even to get a hot date, know that service has the power to change your life in profound and unexpected ways. 

So, let me try to sum it up through some of the wisest words I know. 

Jesus reminded us that "it is more blessed to give than receive." A call to the faithful to lead with service. 

A more modern disciple, RuPaul Charles, tells us, "You better work." A reminder that progress doesn’t happen on its own. 

And her Majesty, Queen B—Beyoncé told us… “You survived all you been through / Confident, damn, you’re lethal.” 

So, Wildcats…to the immigrant, to the first in your family to put on cap and gown, to the graduate whose guidance counselor told you weren’t college material, to the young moms and dads that were making bottles while making the grades.

Remember, what you survived qualified you to tackle whatever life throws your way. 

That democracy is not a spectator sport. Change is not just something that happens to you; it's something that happens because of you. 

And that service and giving back will always lift us up – those being served and those blessed to serve as well. 

UNH Class of 2024. You’ve already shown us you’ve got what it takes. It’s your world now. What are you going to do with it?