Best Commencement Speech of 2016

Posted on June 8, 2016 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

4 Proven Secrets to Success By Former Undocumented Immigrant, Current High-Flying Catholic Charities Attorney

Victor Cueva  delivers SUNY Ulster 2016 Commencement Speech

Looking for the secrets to success despite all odds? Check out excerpts from this keynote alumni commencement speech delivered this week by Victor Cueva, once an undocumented immigrant and now an attorney and Immigrant Justice Corps fellow at Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services. 

By Victor Cueva

Like some of you, I was the first one to graduate college in my family.

I did so while I was undocumented, and this posed many challenges throughout my life. For example, I could not get a driver’s license; work authorization; I could not try to get a scholarship by playing college soccer; I could not do a lot of internships; I could not qualify for financial aid and by that I mean that I couldn’t even take out loans to finance my education.

But the biggest obstacle of all was that I lived in fear of being myself, because my identity, my being became equated to illegality when people referred to other human beings as “illegals.”  However, just like everyone sitting here today, I overcame these obstacles that life put in front of me, and I could not have done it without the love and support of my family, friends, and mentors.

Victor Cueva, 26, is an Immigrant Justice Corps fellow with Catholic Charities Immigrant and Refugee Services.  Immigrant Justice Corps (IJC) is the country’s first fellowship program dedicated to meeting the need for high-quality legal assistance for immigrants seeking citizenship and fighting deportation.

Inspired by Chief Judge Robert Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, IJC brings together the country’s most talented advocates, connects them to New York City’s best legal and community institutions, leverages the latest technologies, and fosters a culture of creative thinking that will produce new strategies to reduce the justice gap for immigrant families, ensuring that immigration status is no longer a barrier to social and economic opportunity.

As I overcame these challenges in my life, I learned some things that I want to share with everyone.

  1. First, do not be afraid to ask questions.

    It is impossible for you to know everything and you will not get answers, unless you ask the right questions. For example, you may be in a situation in which your supervisor discusses an assignment with you for about 10 minutes. You stare right at your supervisor’s eyes nodding; “understanding” the assignment. Then you walk out of the office and realize that you don’t have a clue what you are doing. Now you have to go back, after several minutes or hours. . . (depending on how much time you freak out at your desk). . . and ask your supervisor questions that you should have asked while discussing the assignment the first time. I may or may not have been in that situation myself, but the point here is that you should not do that. Do not be afraid to speak up and ask questions.

  2. Second, you need to create a network.

    This should have started already, but if you haven’t done so, there is still time. You need to surround yourselves with people that you want to be like. Surround yourselves with individuals who are working in your field. Surround yourselves with individuals that have similar backgrounds as you do, and also different backgrounds and opinions, to learn from. But most importantly, surround yourselves with individuals that truly believe in you. This will push you to grow, both as a person and in your professional career.

  3. Third, Never Give up:

    Thomas Edison once said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” These words came from a man that made 1,000 attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked him, “how did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention that took 1,000 steps." It is inevitable that you will stumble along the way towards achieving your goals. How many times you fall does not define who you are. It is how we overcome these obstacles that define us. Just remember that. You will not be successful if you give up after stumbling.

  4. Finally, I want to ask all of you, to never forget where you come from.

    Our school motto says: “Start Here, Go Far.” But sometime down the road you will hear that, “it doesn’t matter where you start, but where you end.” Maybe, you have already heard that. Well, I am here to tell you today that because you came here, you will go far! We are all SUNY Ulster. We persevere. That is simply what we do.

Whether you are the first to graduate college in your family; whether you are a single parent, an army veteran, an undocumented student, or whatever your own personal story is; you will succeed. That is what these degrees represent. A symbol of your determination for success. And once you achieve your goals, please return to tell your stories. That way, the next generation of students who will be sitting right where you are, years from now, will be able to hear success stories from people just like them.

Once again, congratulations fellow alumni! I cannot wait to hear the wonderful things everyone will achieve. Thank you.

Originally from Lima, Peru, Victor’s inspiration to attend law school stems from his experience growing up as an undocumented immigrant in the Hudson Valley. He received his associate’s degree from SUNY Ulster in 2009 and graduated summa cum laude from SUNY Albany.  During law school he became a New York City Bar Diversity Fellow, interned at the New York Civil Liberties Union, participated in Cardozo’s Immigrant Justice Clinic and is now an Immigrant Justice Corps fellow at Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services.

Learn more about Immigrant Justice Corps.

Read more about Victor Cueva and his work with Catholic Charities in The New York Times

Find out more about Catholic Charities services for immigrants and refugees

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