Administrator Michael Regan, Remarks For North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University Commencement, As Prepared for Delivery
December 11, 2021
Good morning, A&T! It’s an honor to be here this morning with the finest graduates in the United States of America. Congratulations to all of you.
Before we get started, we can’t be so dignified that we don’t say, “Aggie pride!”
Thank you to Chancellor Martin for giving me the privilege to join you today. Thank you to the faculty, staff, alumni, and the entire A&T community.
To the family and friends here with us today, and to those who are with us in spirit, you made all of this possible. Your children’s successes are your successes, so this day belongs to you just as much as it does to them. Please join me in giving them a big round of applause.
I’d also like to acknowledge my incredible wife, partner, and fellow Aggie, Melvina, our wonderful son, and hopefully future Aggie, Matthew, my younger sister Chrystal, also a proud Aggie, and my brother-in-law Oliver, another loyal Aggie, who are here with us today. My brother, mother, father, and in-laws would never miss an A&T graduation, so they’re watching the livestream. As you all know and can see with my family, we Aggies roll deep.
I’m grateful my parents are watching today’s ceremony, because they are the reason I walked across this stage more than 20 years ago, and along with my wife, they’re the reason I stand before you today, as the first black man to serve as Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
So, remember, no matter how important you think you are, don’t forget the people who sacrificed for you. And if you do forget, don’t worry, they’ll remind you.
My mother, Mavis Regan, was a nurse for 40 years – the best nurse in all of Wayne County, North Carolina. She’d work multiple shifts, often back-to-back, so she could keep a close eye on those under her care. Her work ethic was undeniable, as was her commitment to caring for her patients and her community – those two things made a lasting impression on me. And while I didn’t join the healthcare profession, the work we do at EPA is all about protecting people’s health.
My father, like many of your own relatives, grew up in the segregated south. He was born of a time when the doors of opportunity were supposed to be closed to Black students. And yet, it was this very institution – North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University – that prevented those doors from shutting on his aspirations and the aspirations of so many like him.
My father went on to serve his country in the Vietnam War. He went on to serve his fellow North Carolinians as a proud officer in the North Carolina Army National Guard. And although he had to walk through limits that society tried to impose on him, he was not bound by those limits. He knew, because of what he was taught at A&T, that in order to succeed in this world, you have to stand up and be counted.
James Baldwin said, “You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.” In other words, you have stand up and be counted.
And so, by the time I arrived at A&T, those words were practically ringing in my ears from all the times I heard my father say, “Michael, you have to stand up and be counted, son.” Those words took on a new meaning for me when I got here, because in so many ways, that’s the essence of our beloved university. It is in our DNA.
More than 60 years ago, on February 1, 1960, four A&T freshmen refused to be bound by the racist injustice of segregation. Jibreel Khazan, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, and David Richmond headed downtown on that first day of the month to the F.W. Woolworth store. They sat down at the whites-only lunch counter, risking their freedom, and potentially risking their lives. And when they were denied service, they stayed planted, like mighty oak trees, until the store closed. But they didn’t stop there – they came back the next day, only this time, bringing more than two dozen students along with them.
Their bravery not only led to the desegregation of Woolworth's lunch counter, but it also helped inspire other protest movements throughout Greensboro and throughout the nation. Their actions helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement.
They had the courage and the conviction and the understanding that their value was God-given, and no one could take that away. That is what it means to stand up and be counted – and that is my challenge to all of you. Despite the obstacles and challenges of life – and trust me, there will be many – and despite the people who will want you to sit back down, you must stand up and be counted.
The A&T Four changed our society forever. And their impact has transcended race because they made this country better for everyone. Their legacy lives on in every single one of you. That is the A&T way, and that is the foundation you were given over these past four years. So, as my good friend Rev. Yearwood, President of the Hip Hop Caucus often says, what is your lunch counter moment going to be?
To stand up and be counted means you have something you believe in – yourself, number one – but also something that is much bigger than you… something that’s worth fighting for. The A&T Four believed fiercely in the fight for equality. They believed in the right for Black people in this country to be treated with dignity, fairness, and respect. They also believed that this country had the power to change, and that this nation could one day reach her highest ideals.
Of course, we still have a long way to go and a lot more work to do. But that vision of a more equitable America was worth fighting for then… and it’s still worth fighting for today.
The point is, you’ve got to fight for something in this life. And only you can decide what that is – maybe it’s voting rights or women’s rights or maybe it’s a lifelong dream to push the boundaries of science or the arts. Whatever it is, when you find it – and it’s ok if you haven’t found it yet – but when you do, grab it. Don’t let it go.
Now, I found that something a long time ago – protecting the environment and people’s health and advancing environmental justice for Black and brown communities. But as Dr. Uzochukwu, affectionately known as Dr. Uzo, will tell you, I went down a few meandering paths before I wound up where I needed to be academically. I kept ignoring that thing that stirred inside of me, that thing that would ultimately give my life meaning and purpose and depth.
When I started at A&T, I knew instinctively that I gravitated toward science – but I was also curious about how people and organizations worked, so I thought, of course, I’m meant to be a psychologist. But I very quickly realized that I was in no way, meant to be a psychologist. So, then I thought, well, engineering is prestigious, I’ll be an engineer… it turns out I wasn’t meant to be an engineer either.
I kept resisting what was in my heart all along because majoring in the environment wasn’t popular at the time, and it wasn’t clear that it could lead to a well-paying job. I kept resisting God’s plan and his purpose for putting me on this earth. The Book of Proverbs tells us, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.”
The truth is, when you don’t listen to your passion, you make the journey so much longer. Two big things happened when I finally stopped ignoring my passion for environmental science.
One, a part of me was awakened that I never knew existed. Two, for better or for worse, I met Dr. Uzo because I had to interview with him to switch my major to environmental science.
At this point, because of all my “soul-searching,” it turned out I wasn’t on pace to graduate on time. But let me tell you, I found all the motivation I needed after spending just one semester with Dr. Uzo – I had to graduate on time, if for nothing else, so I could escape his grip. (laughter)
He was a thorn in my side, constantly asking me for things that – in all my wisdom at 20 years old – I thought were unnecessary. He would tell me to memorize things that I, naturally, thought were completely irrelevant, like 30 different types of rocks.
Dr. Uzo, I’ll admit that I was wrong about a lot of things back then, but memorizing 30 different types of rocks, still feels a bit… irrelevant.
If I had a dollar for the number of times Dr. Uzo said, “Michael, you’re on a path for a minus F,” I’d be a rich man.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Dr. Uzo wasn’t hazing me with his constant brain exercises. His intellectual probing was about making me better, putting me on a path to self-discovery, teaching me the importance of discipline.
His pushing and prodding were about excellence and making me more powerful, which is exactly what A&T, one of the premiere universities in this country, is all about – excellence.
So, this thorn in my side, Dr. Uzo, became a mentor. He helped change the course of my life. He increased my belief in myself and helped me understand that my potential was not in anyone else’s hands but my own. He helped me see that I could find all the answers I was seeking, within. If it weren’t for Dr. Uzo, I don’t know if I’d be standing here today, as the first HBCU grad to serve as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
So, this brings me to my last point – and it’s about the true meaning of relevance. Today, too many people are caught up in this idea that if you are seen, you are relevant. I think we need to be more honest about what it means to be relevant.
I know it may come as a shock to some of you … and I am not just saying this because I am old … but being relevant is not about the number of TikTok views or the number of Instagram followers we have. Being relevant means being part of a larger conversation. Having something to contribute. Advancing an agenda.
So, how does one become relevant? Well, first, you must be willing to stand up and be counted. You also must fight for what you believe in... because the power of conviction will push you to work harder than you ever thought possible. And, as you all know because you’re sitting here today, you have to put in the work.
Standing up and being counted, fighting for what you believe in… that is what makes you relevant. That is what makes you powerful beyond measure.
Relevance is also about permanence in terms of the legacy you leave behind. If you want to know whether you’re relevant in the broader sense, ask yourself two questions: “What am I contributing to society?” and “What will my contribution to society be?”
One of Chancellor Martin’s contributions to society, his legacy, will be cementing A&T unquestionably as a premiere university, not just the largest HBCU in America, but one of the greatest research universities in the world.
Dr. Uzo’s legacy will be challenging tens of thousands of students to harness self-discovery and academic excellence to change the world.
For me, I’m just beginning to write my legacy… but I hope that one day, it will be that I used my time on this earth to do everything possible to turn the tide on climate change and to provide clean air and clean water to all people in this country, no matter the color of their skin, their zip code, or how much money they have in their pockets.
So, what will your legacy be? It’s never too early to ask yourself that question. I hope that some of you will use your talents to help advance environmental justice, tackle climate change, or make a difference in your communities, however best you can.
Some of you sitting here are already finding ways to get involved – like Nate Mosley, who spent the semester interning for his Congressman in Washington, D.C. and whom I had the opportunity to meet earlier this week. I promised Nate I wouldn’t embarrass him today, but it just goes to show, we Aggies are everywhere.
After completing your A&T experience, you now have the education, you have the tools, you have the ability to become extraordinary. You have everything that you need, so my hope for you is that you will remember your power. And much like the A&T Four, much like my mother and father, much like Chancellor Martin and Dr. Uzo, that you will stand up and be counted.
And never ever forget that, yes, indeed, your degree, a degree from a historically Black university, can take you anywhere, including the White House.
It’s been an honor to celebrate with you. I wish you all the luck in the world. And know that I’ll be rooting for you every step of the way. Thank you, and congratulations!