Sen. Elizabeth Warren Draws from Own Life in Advising Graduates to Fight for Their Beliefs and Make the Best of the Unexpected

Cultural References Run from Beyoncé to Trump in Speech Marked by Humor & Insight

Sen. Elizabeth Warren used lessons from the twists and turns of her own life to illustrate her advice to graduates of Suffolk University’s College of Arts & Sciences: “If you take the unexpected opportunities when they come up, if you know yourself and if you fight for what you believe in, I can promise that you will live a life that is rich with meaning.”

Warren joined University leaders in shaking each graduate’s hand after delivering a speech that was both heartfelt and funny. The University awarded her the honorary degree Doctor of Public Service at the ceremony, one of three Suffolk commencements held on Sunday, May 22, at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on the Boston waterfront.

Beyoncé and Trump

There were screams of delight and laughter from the crowd when Warren dispensed with that familiar cliché, when life gives you lemons; make lemonade.

“That’s an important lesson on being resilient. But when it comes to lemonade, could I really add anything to Beyoncé?”

She also dispatched commonplace advice about not living your life based on what other people think.

“Good advice, but Suffolk University runs one of the best public opinion polls in the country, and so it seemed off message,” said Warren. She then turned and addressed President Margaret McKenna: “How’s this speech polling so far? Higher or lower than Donald Trump’s unfavorable numbers with women.” That yielded more laughter and applause.

Warren also gave a shout out to graduate Talia Sanchez whose brother Ricardo, works for the senator “and dared me to embarrass her at this graduation.”

She began her address with a tribute to Suffolk University.

“I can’t think of a better place to be celebrating education than at Suffolk University, a school founded in 1906 for the best possible reason, a deep belief that because higher education matters, it should be available not just for the wealthy few, but for everyone” said Warren, recalling the University’s origins. She turned and applauded University leadership as she proclaimed: “Exactly right, Suffolk. Exactly right.”

“Suffolk would grow in many ways that [founder Gleason Archer] could never have dreamed, becoming a world-class university and a cornerstone for the city of Boston.” She said. “Now it is big and vibrant. But Suffolk has never strayed from its original vision of being an excellent school that sends smart, tough, hardworking, capable people out into the world to make a real difference.”

Warren, a consumer advocate, educator and policymaker, has been outspoken in promoting a more egalitarian financial system and, like many Suffolk students, was a first-generation college student from a working family. Warren was a law professor for more than 30 years. She was asked by the Obama administration to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and she was chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. In 2012 she was elected to the U.S. Senate, where she represents the state of Massachusetts. Warren has published many articles and books, including the national best-sellers A Fighting Chance, The Two-Income Trap and All Your Worth. TIME magazine has on three occasions named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Warren is a graduate of the University of Houston and Rutgers School of Law.

An unexpected journey

Warren recalled her expectations on the day of her graduation.

“My own journey here feels so unexpected – so full of mistakes, twists and turns,” she said. She never imagined that she would be a lawyer, law professor or U.S. senator. “I never imagined I’d be a blonde, but here I am. And I can tell you, it’s life changing to be a blonde.” More laughter from the crowd.

After college Warren began what she considered her dream job: teaching special needs students. But she became pregnant at a time when that meant losing her teaching position. As a young mother she said she “watched a lot of TV” and found the legal dramas interesting, so she went to law school. But firms didn’t want to hire women lawyers at the time she graduated from law school. Soon a call came to teach law to night students. She accepted, loved her role as a law professor, and made a long career of it. Then an unexpected call came from Sen. Harry Reid to come to Washington and work on a panel that would bring accountability to the Wall Street bailout following the 2008 economic crisis.

Power and backbone

“The big problem at the heart of the crash was that Wall Street had made zillions of dollars in profits ripping people off, and there was no one with the power and the backbone to stop them,” said Warren. “So I put together a new idea for a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.”

She said that the big banks and credit card companies spent more than a million dollars a day for a year fighting the bureau’s financial reforms. But “we won, and that little bureau is now the law.” Warren said that in the five years it’s been up and running, the bureau returned $22 billion dollars to the people.”

She drew three lessons from her journey from an early marriage and children, job loss and difficulty finding a law firm that would hire a woman, divorce, and the transition to Washington, first as a policy-maker and now as a senator.

“All the planning in the world can’t prepare you for the twists that are coming your way,” she said. “Don’t be so focused in your plans that you are unwilling to consider the unexpected.”

Noting that her family’s struggles when she was young put her squarely on the side of working families throughout her career, Warren advised: “You have to figure out who you are. You have to think hard about what really matters to you. What makes your heart flutter and your stomach clench? What makes you wake up ready to go? Knowing who you are is the compass that will guide you to unexpected opportunity.”

Warren told the graduates that the path isn’t always easy, and “you have to be willing to fight for what you believe in.”

“Now that I am in the Senate, I can tell you that Washington is full of people who say ‘no, no, no’ and who are saying it in nastier and nastier and nastier ways. Fight for the job you want, fight for the people who mean the most to you, and fight for the kind of world you want to live in.”

University President Margaret McKenna, who began her remarks by saying that the Class of 2016 is her favorite Suffolk class – and her first – said: “I have to say from my heart, you have welcomed me with open arms. … I am so lucky to have shared this year with you.”

She acknowledged the parents who have nurtured the students and the faculty and staff who have supported them.

The president stressed the importance of social responsibility and noted that Suffolk students give nearly 40,000 hours a year in service even as they balance jobs and coursework.

“You are ready, I am convinced of that, and we need you to fill a variety of roles,” said McKenna. She noted that the world faces troubling issues including violence, inequality and a deteriorating environment.

“The degree comes with a responsibility to make a difference,” said McKenna. “One of my models in life is Nelson Mandela, and Nelson Mandela’s name, in his native language, means shaker of the trees. It means troublemaker. I welcome you to the world of troublemakers. We need you to make trouble in the world to make this a better world. I hope that you will do that.”

The Suffolk University Class of 2016 is made up of 2,337 people receiving undergraduate, graduate and Law School degrees. They range in age from 20 to 65 and hail from 30 states and 74 nations. There were 718 graduates in the College class.


Greg Gatlin
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Nancy Kelleher
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See Also

Photo album

Media coverage

Boston Globe
"Elizabeth Warren invokes ‘Lemonade,’ life as a blonde in Suffolk speech"

Boston Globe
"At Suffolk commencement, focus is on the future"

Boston Herald
“Delivering another punch; Warren jabs at Trump during Suffolk speech”

Mass Live
“U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren tells Suffolk University graduates to get ready for the unexpected”

WBZ radio
WNAC, Providence, R.I.

Republican, Springfield, Mass.
"Warren tells grads: Get ready for unexpected"

Texts of speeches

Undergraduate commencement speaker Sen. Elizabeth Warren (PDF)

Undergraduate student speaker Victoria Ireton (PDF)


Graduate commencement speaker Professor Sean Solley (PDF)

Graduate student speaker Sheelah Gobar (PDF)