Attorney General Gurbir Grewal Gives the 55th Annual Commencement at Felician University

NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal delivers the commencement address at Felician University.

To the Class of 2019: Congratulations!

Your day is finally here. All of those long days and nights, especially the ones where you were trying to strike that balance between your school commitments, your work commitments and your family commitments.

They are all finally behind you. At least for the moment.

So please, give yourselves a round of applause!

As I was thinking about my remarks for today, I was thinking about my own college graduation. About twenty-five years ago, about 200 miles to the south of here,

I was sitting in a ceremony a lot like this one, I was surrounded by my family, I was surrounded by friends and I remember listening to the commencement speaker.

But, honestly, I don’t remember who the commencement speakers was, I don’t remember what he or she said that day. And so my one hope, you’ll remember me. You’ll remember at least something of what I say to you today and I’m slightly more memorable than whoever spoke at my graduation was.

But while I might not remember the exact words there are certain things that I do remember from that day. I remember feeling excitement about graduating. I remember feeling anxiety about what was next. I also remember the pride my parents felt.

They had driven down from New Jersey to Washington, D.C., to see their only child graduate from college. And my parents pride during that graduation was understandable. You see they had come to this country a few years before I was born. They brought little with them except their hope for a better life, and a firm belief that this country could provide it.

You see, they took an extraordinary leap of faith across oceans and across continents. And in so many ways, their faith was rewarded. They built a family and they  found a community. They raised a son and guided him through college. They got to experience their own version of the American Dream. And, as they sat at their son’s college graduation, they could take pride knowing that they had instilled in him certain values. Values that had brought certain measures of success to them in their own lives. They could take pride knowing that they had taught their son to work hard, to study hard, to always treat people with kindness and decency and respect,

And to be grateful for the opportunities that this country had provided them and to other immigrant families.

They could take pride knowing that they had taught their son to give back and to serve others.

And as I stand here this morning, looking out at this auditorium, I know that there are so many parents, so many family members, and so many close friends, who feel that same pride today.

There are people in this room who have made sacrifices, large and small, so that today’s graduates could achieve the successes that we are celebrating here this morning. And I hope that everyone, everyone receiving the diploma today, will take a moment to thank those who paved the way for you. Who came along with you on this journey, who urged you on when things got tough, and who will be cheering for you in the time to come.

To the families, to the friends, I thank you and I congratulate you as well this morning.

My parents also taught me something else important.

As immigrants, they taught me that it was possible to love and to serve this country, without compromising your identity or your beliefs.  They taught me that you could love where you came from, and you could love where you were going, that the two were not incompatible.

And they taught me it was possible to achieve success in America, looking the way I do, and believing the way I do.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s always been easy. Along the way, I learned just how hard we have  to work for it. And I learned that we all must remain vigilant if we want to keep that American dream alive for others who seek it. I saw that firsthand on 9/11 and in the months afterwards.

I was practicing law in Washington, D.C., and I remember watching our country come together.

Like no other moment, actually, in my lifetime. We were united both in grief and in anger.

There was a surge of patriotism, And it was A patriotism that my family and I felt as deeply as our neighbors.

But there was also a darker side.

Four days after 9/11, in Mesa, Arizona, Frank Roque drove to a local Chevron gas station and shot and killed the owner. The owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was working outside of his station,

just planting flowers. Roque wanted to, “Go out and shoot towel heads”, who he believed were responsible for 9/11.

Sodhi, like me, was a practicing Sikh, who wore his turban and his beard, as symbols of his faith.

Two days later, President Bush spoke at a mosque in D.C., as biased offenses against Muslims and Sikhs and other minorities, across the United States, were on the rise.

And he spoke about the need to respect Islam and all faiths, for that matter. And the need to respect our differences and to not add to the tragedy we were experiencing as a country.

But not everyone was so understanding. As I walked around Washington, I noticed more and more people staring at me. I could hear people mutter under their breath as I boarded the bus,

or entered the subway. I was heckled as I walked to work. More than once, I was told to go back home, and they didn’t mean New Jersey. And it didn’t matter that I was a Sikh. They simply saw my turban and my beard and they associated me with tragedy.

And in those moments, those moments, I saw reflections of other dark chapters in our nation’s history. I saw how easily fear could overtake our sense of decency. And I began to understand how a country as great as ours, could allow discrimination and hate to fester and to grow.

So even as I felt a deep love for this country, the only country I have ever known as home,

I also felt a deep desire to help make this country the best version of itself.  I knew that for me, there was no better way to give back, or to serve, then to join law enforcement.

I thought it was especially important for someone who looked like me, and believe like me, to stand up in court, and to say, “Good morning, Your Honor! My name is Gurbir Grewal,

And I represent the United States of America in this case.”

You see, I wanted to promote understanding through my service, to show everyone that I and others like me might look different, might worship different, but we were doing our part also, to keep us all safe.

So that’s exactly what I did. I was twice sworn as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, first in Brooklyn and then in Newark, New Jersey. I was later appointed the Bergen County Prosecutor. And then about 17 months ago, I was sworn in as the New Jersey’s 61st Attorney General.

And at each step along the way, I have tried my level best to ensure the government, or whatever part of the government I touched, advanced the cause of justice.

I have tried my best, to ensure that the state treats all people fairly, respectfully, and responsibly.

When I was a federal prosecutor, I measured my success not by how many convictions I won, and not by the length of the sentences I was able to obtain in my cases, but by whether justice was done in each and every case.

As a county prosecutor, I measured success not by how many low-level drug users we arrested, but by how many of them we were able to place into treatment programs. I measured success not by how many traffic stops our officers conducted, but by whether every stop was conducted safely and with respect and with dignity.

And now, as Attorney General, I continue to work hard,  to stand up for the rights of all 9 million New Jerseyans, working to ensure that we do not turn the page back to those darker chapters in our nation’s history.

And increasingly, that has meant standing up for the values that have made this country the destination it has been for so many, to ensure that other immigrant families like mine, perhaps families like yours, can enjoy their own American journey, and achieve their own version of the American Dream so that America remains a land of promise and success for all. Regardless of whether your family’s journey began 50 years ago like mine, or 50 days ago.

But that journey is certainly not easy today when there are some in Washington, who dehumanize immigrants, who devise new plans, to make our country less welcoming. Who do everything they can to ensure that the promise of the American Dream is no longer available, even to those escaping suffering and abuse.

And that journey is not easy today, when we have people openly questioning the legitimacy, the loyalty, and the patriotism, of their fellow Americans, because of what they look like, what they believe, or who they love. And it’s certainly not easy today, when we have people engaging in acts of violence on the basis of such differences.

And I am certain that there many in this room that are experiencing these difficulties of this moment firsthand. Or maybe you are experiencing your own challenges, challenges that are causing you to doubt what lies ahead for you. My message to all of you is the same, while your journeys may not be easy right now, while this moment may be difficult, I am here to tell you that despite all that negativity, despite all that hateful rhetoric, despite all of that violence, despite all of the obstacles you may encounter in life, the American Dream remains alive and well for each of you today.

It’s alive and well because we have judges in this country, who are willing to stand up and to protect our rule of law, it’s alive and well because we have lawyers and dedicated public servants, like the men and women of my office, who are willing to do everything they can to champion our fundamental freedoms and liberties, to push back against reckless policies coming out of DC, to confront actions that make our county less welcoming, and less secure.

And it’s alive and well because you have so many professionals, on this stage and in this room, on this campus and beyond, academics and professionals, who have committed themselves to arming each of you with the tools, and the foundation, that you need to not just ensure your own individual success, but also to ensure that you are there to lift up, and to help, and to serve others.

And that’s why the American Dream survives. And that’s why it will continue to survive, because for so many of you in this room, and rooms like this one all across the country this month, this moment were in, will serve as your call to service as 9/11 was mine, and you will answer that call to service. Whether you do it now, or whether you do it after you pay off your student loans, you will answer that call to service. Whether you do it directly through serving the public or in your daily lives, each of you will improve your communities.

Some of you will go on to be the next generation of lawyers who uphold the rule of law. Some of you will go on to be the next generation of scientists to tackle climate change and protect our environment. Some of you will become teachers. Some of you law enforcement officers. Some of you will go on to advocate for the rights of workers, while others of you will ensure that immigrants are treated fairly. Some of you will volunteer to help the homeless and feed the poor. And some of you will go on to be reporters and even politicians who work to expose corruption and eradicate it.

But here’s what I’m absolutely certain of this morning all of you, all of you, whatever part of the world you touch, I am sure that each of you will make sure that part of the world is free from hate and discrimination, and filled with equality and justice. Each of you will ensure that we push back against hate and intolerance. And each of you will ensure that we never turn back to those dark chapters in our country’s history, but instead to brighter, new ones.

Why am I so certain of all of this? Because I know it’s in your DNA. It’s simply the Felician way.

During your time here you’ve been instilled with certain Franciscan values, walues that urge you to respect human dignity, to show compassion through serving others, to ensure that the needs of the poor and vulnerable are met, to work towards justice and peace, the very values that we are fighting for in this moment, these are the values that also define us as Americans.

And these are the values that will ensure, that the promise of the American Dream, despite the obstacles, despite the challenges, remains for generations to come.

Listen, when my parents took that huge leap of faith nearly 50 years ago to leave everything and everyone they knew, to come to this country, I don’t think that they ever imagined their son standing in a room like this one, holding the position that I hold today, and speaking to an audience like this one, comprised of elected officials, academics, new graduates, future leaders.

I certainly never imagined it.

And I think if there’s any doubt about whether or not the American Dream is alive and well today, even in this difficult moment in our nation’s history, I’d like to think I’m proof of it. And I’m proof to each of you, that anything, anything is possible for each of you as you begin your journeys.

Now Perhaps you will follow a path traveled by many before you, or perhaps you will blaze a new trail for others to follow. No matter what, I encourage each of you to keep an open mind, to embrace new challenges, and to most importantly, enjoy the journey.

You now go out into the world armed with a degree from Felician University, an institution steeped in a proud tradition of excellence, service, and the pursuit of justice.

You all are going to do exceptional things, and I can not wait to see what you accomplish. Whether it’s on the front page of a newspaper or out of the limelight. I wish you all the very best of luck, I wish you the deepest congratulations. And I wish you godspeed on your journey ahead!

Thank you.

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