One of the newest GOLD (Graduates of the Last Decade) shared his thoughts at UMass Boston’s recent Commencement.

Thank you Chancellor Motley for the honor of being this year’s JFK award winner.

2012 JFK Award Recipient Albert Chen

Welcome everyone to UMass Boston, the best university in Boston.  That’s right. I said it.  Why is this the best university in Boston?  Because we’ve got the best students in Boston.  And now, we have the best graduating class in Boston.

Class of 2012, we have arrived!

Here we are, at the end of the road, the culmination of our UMass Boston experience. Our journeys here have been full of obstacles, and detours, but we all have made it here, to this intersection, together. The different paths we’ve taken to get here have changed us along the way. We have been shaped by our environment, transformed by our circumstances, inspired by others, and sharpened by our failures. Let me invite you into my own journey of change.

Six years ago, I made the biggest decision of my life. I had just finished my first year of community college in East Los Angeles, and was looking forward to a summer of classes. However, a life-changing opportunity came knocking on my door. And I soon found myself boarding a plane to Boston for an internship at a startup company. I left the comfort of my home, my family, my community and everything I had known, all to live in a city somewhere on the other side of the country. As the son of Taiwanese immigrants, born and raised in Montebello, California, I had no idea where Boston was, much less Massachusetts. Moving to Boston felt like jumping off a cliff. I felt alone, and I was scared.

But as I fell into a new life, things began to change in me. As I adjusted to living alone; I became more independent. This new environment shaped me into a new person.  I was eager to take risks and hungry for new opportunities. All these changes within me were paving the way for my next journey.

Three years ago, I stepped foot on this beautiful campus for the first time. I had just applied to UMass Boston as a transfer student and didn’t know what to expect. After working in the private sector for three years, I just wanted to be a part of something more than profits and market share. I had grown a desire for social change, and it led me to this campus. But I came for more than a degree; I came for a life-changing experience. So I transferred here, determined to make the most of every opportunity I was given to serve this campus.

What I found were circumstances that transformed me every day. As a student of one of the most diverse universities in the world, I was exposed to new cultures and worldviews that opened up my mind. As a student of the only public university in Boston, I felt the growing burden of higher ed funding, affordability, and accessibility.  As a student of a university without dorms, I understood the challenge of finding community on our campus. But as I was being changed, so did I seek change for the students of this campus.

When I brought InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to this campus, I didn’t just want to establish another student club. I wanted to form a diverse community of student, students who welcomed those on the fringe, students who cared about this campus as much as their studies; students who wanted to see change in their own lives as much as in the world. I wanted students to feel comfortable calling UMass Boston, their home, a home where they wouldn’t be ashamed of their faith, their ancestry, their accents, or their school.

As students, our experiences wouldn’t be the same if not for the people we encounter on and off campus. Whether it’s that single mom working her way through college, or that mind-blowing professor who you never thought would be a hippie, these people inspire us.  But some of the most inspiring people I have met have come from the unlikeliest of places.

Two years ago, I found myself riding an overcrowded bus into the barrios of Chimalhuacán.  I had just flown into Mexico City for a six-week opportunity to serve with a local nonprofit through InterVarsity’s Global Urban Trek program. This team of internationals and locals were deeply committed to developing a sustainable and scalable model of community transformation. Wanting to learn about global urban poverty first-hand, I lived with a host family upon whom my livelihood depended.  Every day our team walked dirt roads filled with car-trapping mud or blinding dust storms. I soon missed the drinkable tap water and flushable toilets that we often take for granted in America.

Living in these slum-like conditions opened my eyes to the vast inequalities and put a face on the marginalized people that I had learned about in my classes. Above all, it was the local youths who left a lasting impression on me. These youths lived in a neighborhood run by drug cartels, crooked cops, and corrupt politicians; yet they set out to change their communities. Their name, ACJU, stands for “Youth as Agents of Change.” These youths brought hope to a community of hopelessness and started a movement that would affect the decisions that affect them. As much as I wanted to help the people in the barrios, I realized something important: The community didn’t need a foreigner like me; the community needed leaders like these youths.  These brave youths defied all odds to fight for what they deserve, and showed me that anyone could make a difference.

I never thought I could change the world, but the youths of Mexico have changed me. Their pursuit for change in their communities has inspired me to change my own community, here on campus and in the city of Boston. These youths have shown me that if they can change the world, so can all of us.

My journey from Los Angeles to Boston, and then to Mexico, has been filled with both success and failure. Things didn’t always go my way. Eight years ago, I had barely finished high school. Academically, I struggled to get a passing grade. Socially, I was shy, insecure, afraid to take risks, and definitely afraid of public speaking. This right here would’ve been a nightmare!

I hadn’t applied to any college because I was afraid of the future and all its uncertainties. I felt like a failure and didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, I had friends and family who helped me take one small step at a time. And with their unwavering support, each failure made me sharper and more resilient. And every time I failed, they helped me back on my feet to take another step.  Soon, these small steps became big steps. And big steps became leaps of faith. And these leaps landed me in Boston, then to UMass Boston, and then to Mexico.

Had I not come to UMass Boston, I would have never gone to Mexico, but I did! So last summer, I found myself back on the streets of Mexico. I returned to the same community in Chimalhuacán to serve for another two months. This time I even brought some friends. I quickly discovered a deep sense of joy in what I did and an excitement about who I was becoming. I had found my calling to live and serve among the world’s urban poor.

Today, I stand before you a new and changed person, deeply transformed by my experiences here and abroad. This fall I will begin an AmeriCorps residency with New Sector Alliance, a group dedicated to accelerating social change by strengthening organizations today. I look forward to returning to Mexico for several years, equipped with new skills and experiences that will ultimately help me address urban poverty on a global scale.

Class of 2012, the road ahead, will be difficult.  And for most of us, the road here has been difficult. Unemployment rates are higher than when most of us started college, which is ironic since many of us worked our way through college. Many of us have overcome painful obstacles and defied statistics to graduate. We may not always be able to change our circumstances, but as many of us have learned, we can always change the attitude with which we approach these circumstances.

As we go on from here, I have three simple challenges for us today. The first challenge is to continually put ourselves in the path of change. I wasn’t always this certain about what I lived for and I hadn’t always cared about these issues. It wasn’t until I immersed myself in the issues of the world and put myself in the path of change that I began to care about poverty and social justice. It wasn’t until I came to this campus, and put myself in the path of change, that I began to find my confidence as a student and as a leader. And it wasn’t until I left all of my comforts in California for the uncertainties of Boston that I found my true self on the path of change.  We don’t all need to move across the country or travel abroad to experience change. Even if our paths lead to failure, we can still succeed in changing others and ourselves along the way.

The second challenge is seek change in the world around you. Not all of us are called to devote our lives to community service as teachers, nurses, or social workers. Some of us will work in finance, or engineering, or management. But all of us will have an influence on those we work with and the people work for.  Your very presence will shape the environment around you. Your experiences will enable you to transform your circumstances. Your lives and your stories will inspire others. And your past failures will help you succeed in the future.

The final challenge is for all of us to not just change the world, but to embody the values we wish to see in our world. It’s not just about what we do, but rather who we are, because the values we hold are the values we spread to others. Are we willing to build the character and integrity that others aspire for?

Six years ago, on this very stage, then-Senator Barack Obama told the 2006 graduating class that “empathy is a quality of character that can change the world – one that makes you understand that your obligations to others extend beyond people who look like you and act like you and live in your neighborhood.” This is the kind of character that we should seek for ourselves. Class of 2012, we can change the world through the way we live, the way we work, the way we spend our money, and the way we empathize with others.

The youths in Mexico have a motto. It reads “Sé el cambio,” which means “be the change.”  This applies to all of us.
Whether it’s bringing honesty to corporate finance, or showing compassion within public policy – be the change.
Whether it’s showing patience to a difficult customer, or generosity to a stranger – be the change.
Whether it’s practicing integrity in school, or humility on the basketball court – be the change.

My hope is that every one of us here would embody the values that inspire others, and strive to become people of character – character that can change the world. And as we move on, from UMass Boston to the world. I invite all of us to ask ourselves three things:

One, how have we been changed?

Two, how would you like to change the world?

And three, who will you be as a world-changer?

Class of 2012, let’s go change the world. Thank you.