Rep. Murphy Commencement Address at Gettysburg College
Good morning, Gettysburg College.
President Iuliano, Provost Zappe, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, family and friends, and—most importantly—students of the graduating class of 2022—thank you for inviting me to speak and for your hospitality.
I’m so happy and so honored to be here, helping you celebrate your special day.
You’re probably feeling a mix of emotions right now.
Happy about everything you’ve accomplished.
Already nostalgic for Gettysburg College traditions like the first-year walk and something called “Servo-Thanksgiving.”
Proud of the adversity you’ve overcome, including a pandemic that has caused terrible suffering and disrupted your education.
Grateful to your family for always having your back. Indebted to them in—literally—every sense of the word.
Excited for the future and confident that Gettysburg has prepared you to lead a life of consequence.
Sad to say goodbye to classmates who’ve become close friends, and to professors who challenged you because they saw the potential in you.
Personally, I’m feeling excited for you, and a little nervous for myself, because I recognize that I am one of the only things standing between you and your hard-earned degrees and your—shall we say—spirited celebrations.
Since President Lincoln set the bar pretty high for speeches delivered in Gettysburg, my goals for this speech are rather modest.
I polled members of my staff, many of whom graduated from college fairly recently. Most didn’t even remember the name of their graduation speaker. Those who did, couldn’t remember a thing the speaker said.
So, I suppose my main goal is that, sometime in the future, when someone asks who your graduation speaker was, you’ll remember me. You don’t even need to remember my name. “Some Asian woman with an Irish name” is good enough for me.
My second goal is to avoid the fate of Edward Everett. You’ve probably never heard of him. He’d been the president of Harvard University, also known as the Gettysburg College of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Everett gave the main address in Gettysburg on November 19th, 1863—and was followed by President Lincoln.
While Lincoln spoke for about two minutes, Everett spoke for about two hours. The next day, a newspaper said this about Everett’s speech. “Seldom has a man talked so long and said so little.”
If someone says that about this speech, I’ll never forgive myself. So, my hope is to be brief and inspiring. Because I know that, when you want brief and inspiring, the first person you turn to is a Member of Congress.
What I’d like to do is give you three suggestions for life after Gettysburg College. Then I would like to sit down as you stand up to applaud me.
My first piece of advice is to be courageous. To be clear, having courage—whether it is physical courage or moral courage—is not the same thing as being reckless. Courage is bravery, but with a purpose. It’s about taking a calculated risk for a cause, knowing you could fail or suffer consequences even if you succeed.
When I look back on my own life, I see countless acts of courage along the way. Simply put, I would not be where I am today, or maybe even alive, if it weren’t for the courage of others—both those closest to me and complete strangers.
Let me explain.
I was born in Vietnam in the late 1970s, several years after the Vietnam War ended. The new communist government was persecuting people, like my parents, who had worked with American or South Vietnamese forces during the war.
My mom and dad, like all parents, wanted a better future for their children—a life of safety, freedom, and opportunity. But that was no longer possible in Vietnam.
So, when I was a baby, and my brother was eight, we fled our homeland by boat, in the dead of night, with my father at the helm.
My parents knew we might not survive the passage. But they had resolved that it was better for us to die together in search of light than to continue living in darkness. Now that I’m the mother of two kids myself, I can’t imagine the courage this took.
Several days into our attempted escape, our boat ran out of fuel in the middle of the South China Sea. Evidently, my dad’s bravery was not matched by his logistical skills.
Thanks to grace or good fortune, a U.S. Navy ship found our small boat adrift in the vast sea. The sailors onboard, all of them trained for combat, gave us the fuel and food we needed to reach a Malaysian refugee camp. In extending grace to desperate strangers, they embodied the power and generosity of America.
At around the same time, the administration of President Jimmy Carter, in the face of significant public opposition, made the politically-courageous decision to increase the number of refugees from Southeast Asia that the United States would accept.
This policy change set the stage for a Lutheran Church to sponsor my family’s passage from the Malaysian refugee camp to the United States. We settled in Virginia and became proud American citizens.
When I reflect on the earliest years of my life, I shake my head in astonishment. If it weren’t for the courage of my parents, those American sailors, and leaders in the Carter administration, my life would have turned out very differently, and could have ended soon after it began.
Let me tell you another quick story about courage.
It was 2016. I was in my late 30s. My husband and I were living in Orlando. I had two kids under the age of 5 and two jobs—working at an investment firm and teaching at a local college.
One evening in June, a man walked into the Pulse nightclub in my city and gunned down 49 innocent people who had gathered to dance and have fun with their friends. The incident shocked me, as did the inadequate response from the long-serving Member of Congress who represented the area.
So I did something that a few people called courageous, but that most people called crazy. Trust me, it’s often a fine line. I launched a four-month campaign for Congress, trying to unseat a 24-year incumbent. Did I mention the only elected office that I had ever held was vice president of my college sorority?
On election eve, before we knew the results, my husband presented me with a ring. He told me: ‘Whatever happens tonight, whether you win or lose, you’ve earned this ring because you had the courage to try.’
Well, in a huge shock to everyone, myself very much included, I won—becoming the first Vietnamese American woman elected to Congress in our nation’s history.
As an aside, I confess that, when I first arrived in the halls of Congress, and walked around, taking in all the history, and the architecture, and the statues (mostly of men, but we’re working on that), I thought to myself: How did I . . . a refugee, an immigrant, someone who grew up in a trailer park and who was the first woman in her family to go to college—how in the world did I get here?
These days, when I listen to the things some of my colleagues say, and see how they behave, I think to myself: How did they get here?
Back to my point about courage. I still wear this ring. I’m wearing it now. I call it my courage ring. Which I realize makes me sound like a character from Lord of the Rings.
I hope you find your own version of a courage ring. Throughout life, you will be presented with opportunities to act and you won’t know the outcome in advance. There are no guarantees in life, but I hope you’ll have the courage to try.
If you do, you can change your own life, or the life of someone else, in ways you never imagined.
My second piece of advice is to calibrate your internal compass toward your true north.
True north represents the person, thing, or cause that gives you purpose, meaning, and direction.
You’ll need this because, no matter how much you plan out your life, it’s unlikely to follow a linear path. When you arrive at a fork in the road, you’ll need to check—and re-check—your internal compass in order to chart the best course forward.
For me, my true north is the desire to honor the memory of my late father. To live my life in a way that is worthy of his sacrifice.
It’s also the hope that I will make my children proud of me, when they are old enough to fully understand who I am and what I’ve done.
Finally, it’s the desire to continue paying back the debt of gratitude I owe this country, which first gave me sanctuary and then gave me opportunity.
It was this internal compass that first led me to public service, around the time you all were born. I had just graduated from college. My classmates and I were setting out on our own, splitting time between our first jobs and big-city versions of college weekends.
But, on September 11, 2001, terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers in New York City. They flew a plane into the Pentagon in Washington, DC. And they planned to fly another plane into a high-profile target in our capital. Thanks to the unbelievable courage of its passengers, that plane instead crashed into a field here in Pennsylvania.
For me, I saw the nation I love come under attack. So I left my job in the private sector, went back to graduate school, and got a job at the Department of Defense. It was an honor to work alongside men and women in uniform—the same uniform worn by those sailors who had rescued my family years earlier.
I think my dad was proud that I was helping chip away at the debt our family owed this country.
One day, I hope my children will be proud of me for doing my part to leave them with a safer world.
And I hope my country is proud of me for giving the best of myself during her time of crisis.
My late father, my children, my country. Together, they are true north on my internal compass. They’ve helped me as I try to lead a life of consequence.
I urge you find your own true north. It will guide you as you head into your next adventure.
Finally, I hope you strive to live a life of service.
In my experience, nothing will give you a greater sense of personal satisfaction than dedicating your time and talents to helping others.
There are many different ways to do this. To the great relief of your parents, not all of them require you to take a vow of poverty. You can do good and do well.
I’ll also make a personal plea. I hope you’ll consider a career—or at least a serious stint—in government service. Boy, does our country need young people like you right now.
You are living through one of the most challenging moments in memory. A global pandemic. Climate change threatening the only planet we have. An uncertain economic outlook. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. An America that is deeply divided. At times, it feels like our union—which thousands of soldiers died to preserve just steps from where you sit—is unraveling at the seams.
At my own graduation, over two decades ago, a man who became my mentor made the same plea to me and my classmates. Brent Scowcroft had been the national security advisor to two presidents, and he said:
“I ask you to consider public service. Not because it is easy, but because it is hard, rewarding, and oh-so-necessary. How well the wonderful things this great nation stands for will be preserved and projected will depend on the quality of people whose hands are on the helm of state.”
Those words ring more true today than ever.
So, graduates: you sit here together, for the final time, at your commencement—the beginning of the next stage of your lives, each of you destined to head down a different path.
Through education and experience, you have acquired knowledge and developed character.
You have proven yourself to be strong and resilient. You’ve endured remote learning and social isolation. You’ve sacrificed to keep others safe and healthy. Through it all, you’ve persevered.
Your diploma bears a name—Gettysburg—that is central to the American story and represents what is best about the American spirit. That should make you feel proud and humbled.
As a Gettysburg graduate, you are now ready to do great work for your community, your country, and your world.
I urge you to be courageous, to find your true north, and to live a life of service.
You’ve made this place proud. You’ve made the people who love you proud. I know you’ll continue to make them proud.
Good luck and Godspeed.