Founders' Celebration speech by undergraduate student Michael Tubbs
BY MICHAEL TUBBS
Transcript of Founders' Celebration speech by undergraduate student Michael Tubbs.
The first time I saw my father, he was chained. Gone was the mirage of the invincible man, the man who would protect me once I found him. At the age of 12, I finally saw my father- in an orange jumpsuit, looking weak and vulnerable. The conversation with this stranger was cordial albeit distant:
"How have you been?"
"What's your favorite basketball team?"
Suddenly, the seemingly pleasant conversation took an abrupt turn, as I could not resist the urge to ask, "Why are you in here?"
My grandmother's face flushed, but my father remained cool and collected. He looked me in my eyes and explained how the system was designed for him to go to prison. "Michael, the oppressor designs the world in a way so that prison is your destiny. From birth, you are set up to fail. I decided to comply and give 'the man' what he wants." As I contemplated what he said, he continued, "You're a black man in America, and it's either prison or death."
This was not the first time that I was told that the odds were stacked too high. Last year, around this time while applying for colleges I was met with the same sense of nihilism and hopelessness. Well-meaning teachers told me that I was aiming too high, that no one from our school had ever attended Stanford, that my SAT math score was too low. One teacher, put it more blunt and said that a poor kid from the ghettos of Stockton, CA (lowest in literacy, highest in crime) with an incarcerated father and a mother who had him at 16 did not belong nor would fit in at one of the nation's premiere universities.
Almost 120 years ago, similar conversations happened. Jane and Leland Stanford decided to transform the tragedy of their only son's death to triumph by founding a university. This university would be not on the elite East Coast, but in the new and free West. They, too, were met with skepticism and hopelessness, as naysayers or "haters" as we call them in 2009, saw too many barriers to their success. "We want to create a university that will be coeducational in a time when most private universities are all-male; nondenominational when most are associated with a religious organization; and avowedly practical when most are concerned with creating cultured citizens," said Leland Stanford. Instead of being encouraged for their revolutionary idea, applauded for their innovation, and affirmed for their audacity, they were told "the marble halls will be filled with empty benches. Their dream, the skeptics essentially said, were futile because they were attempting to establish a college in the West and they had only two options—conform to the university norms of the time or be non-existent.
But this university chose not to conform. I chose not to conform. We refused to listen to conventional wisdom or be deterred from destiny—and look where we stand today. This marble hall is filled with people celebrating the 117th anniversary of this university, listening to a freshman speaker that was supposed to be either in jail or dead. People are fond of saying "only in America." Well, today I submit to you that this story is quintessentially, only Stanford.
To the plethora of naysayers—1890 newspapers, 2008 teachers or absent fathers—this Founders' Day Celebration is unlikely, as both myself and this university are not supposed to be here today. I wish they were all here, in the front row, to pay testament to the fact that their predictions were false and their low expectations futile. If they were here today, they would see the power of the "audacity of audacity." This may sound repetitive, but it truly is the force behind my success in getting into Stanford and the monumental success of this university—having the "nerve," as my mother would say, to dare for more—having the nerve to establish a place, or go to a place where Die Luft der Freiheit Weht, or "The Wind of Freedom Blows."
This wind has propelled alums like Herbert Hoover, Tiger Woods, Susan Rice, Cory Booker, Mae Jemison and Sandra Day O'Connor to the heights from where they now stand. This wind has also caused me to rise, like a phoenix, from the ashes of race, single parenthood, and low expectations. Likewise, this university has risen from the ashes of personal tragedy and low expectations to a place of global prominence. Looking towards tomorrow, this wind will serve as the wind beneath our collective wings, pushing us to heights "that eyes have not, ears heard, nor has entered into the heart of men"—despite budget cuts, an economic recession, IHUM papers, critics, cynics or competition. Thank you.