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Sen. Cortez Masto to 2017 grads: 'I wish you firsts'

In her remarks during 2017 December Commencement ceremonies, history-making U.S. senator encourages grads to make their own histories

(Editor's note: On Saturday, Dec. 9, U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, a 1986 alumna of the University, was the featured speaker for the 2017 Commencement ceremonies. Below is text of her remarks.)

Hello, Wolf Pack! Congratulations to the Class of 2017!

I'd be remiss if I didn't take a brief moment to acknowledge the tremendous loss our community recently experienced in the passing of former University of Nevada, Reno President Joe Crowley.

Joe dedicated his life to education, he modeled the value of service, and his dedication to the University helped make it the world-class institution we have today. It was a true honor to know him as a friend and I am grateful for his mentorship.   

I want to thank University President Marc Johnson and Provost Kevin Carman. I'd also like to take a moment to honor the faculty sitting here with me today. These hard working and dedicated educators do so much to emphasize the University's values of excellence, integrity, inclusiveness, and collaboration. Thank you.   

To the parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, children, and friends - thank you. I hope the graduates will join me for a moment to honor you.   

No one arrives at these moments of personal accomplishment alone. The support and dedication of an entire community of people sustains us and pushes us forward. For me, that support system was my mom, my dad, my sister, and my family. Even today, my father's memory and my mother's support sustains me. To all the families here today-thank you for what you've done for our graduates.   

It's my special honor to join you today as a graduate and alumna from an institution with a nearly 150 year legacy of educating and training self-reliant miners and ranchers, committed public servants, brilliant scientists and engineers, leading journalists, doctors, and scholars.   

This proud legacy is embodied in the school motto: "All for Our Country." The University is an institution dedicated to the idea of public service and that commitment is reflected in the work of administrators, staff, faculty, and students that volunteer for community service opportunities, provide free medical services to low-income northern Nevada residents, and who serve in our nation's Armed Forces.   

It's that idea of service that I am interested in talking with you about today. Service can mean volunteering in the community, or fighting in uniform. And it can also mean quite simply using your voice and sharing your story about how you can uniquely contribute to the greater good in this world. It can mean breaking down a barrier to make it easier for everyone coming along after. And it can mean, reaching your hand out to someone who needs help on the path toward their future.   

I want to share a story about service, today. If you've studied your Nevada history, you may know a little bit about this. It's the story of a young woman born to an Irish father and a Bavarian mother. At the age of 19, she dared to defy her primary school teacher, who told her that she was too young to enter college. She applied and was accepted to what was then known as Nevada State University. She even skipped a grade, and entered as a sophomore.   

Her name was Anne Henrietta Martin. She started her education just as the first electric lights were being installed on campus. She graduated in three years with a Bachelor of Arts. She went on to get advanced degrees in History, and returned to Reno, and founded the Department of History.

This proud Nevada woman went on to study with fellow suffragettes abroad, to advocate on behalf of the equal rights of women and for the well-being of families. She returned to Nevada to organize the campaign that won women's suffrage with the popular vote in 1914.

As women began to secure the right to vote and entered into politics, Anne too decided to enter the arena and in 1918, she became the first woman to run for the United States Senate. She didn't win. She came in third. But in a state that had only granted women the right to vote four years earlier, this was not a loss.    Upon learning the results of the 1918 election, Anne said: "Even if I should not win, it will never seem so strange when a woman tries it."   

Anne blazed the trail for everyone who came after her. In that way, her campaign was a victory.    Anne Martin never had the opportunity to serve in the United States Senate, but she served all of us by making that attempt. By overcoming her fear of failure. By giving it a try.   

It took one hundred years of attempts by people like Anne, a hundred years of women standing on each other's shoulders, to finally send a woman to represent Nevada in Washington D.C. I'm standing before you today, as that first woman from Nevada, ever elected to the United States Senate, because of all those people who came before me.    

A lot of people ask me, what does it mean to be a first?   

I tell them, it's the honor of my lifetime. It's the chance to be a voice and a seat at the table for people who have been shut out of the conversation for too long.    It's also the chance to be a building block. To be a shoulder that someone else can stand on, to help them reach their full potential.   

Each "first" is a broken barrier. It's an open door. It's a service to everyone coming along after you that makes their path a little easier.   

It's the kind of service that Anne Martin did for all of us who followed in her footsteps.   

I know there are many firsts here in this class of graduates. From first-generation college students, to first to get a Ph.D., or first to become a Nurse. Maybe you're the first in a family to earn a degree in Basque studies.   

All of these firsts contribute to the beautiful diversity of our state. This diversity can be coming from rural Nevada and returning to teach, or using your degree to find the next big way to sustainably and responsibly harness our states' vast natural resources.   

It's the diversity of perspectives. The underlying stories you have. The way you can articulate your beliefs, share your values and your story, really listen to others, and collaborate to build amazing ideas.   

That's how one of you becomes the first doctor to find a cure for cancer, or how you design the next app that revolutionizes our world. You're the pioneers that will create the new technology and machines that revolutionize our future.   

Class of 2017, you're only limited by your imagination. And you're about to enter a dynamic economy that needs your dedication, your creativity, your passion, and your fresh ideas. There is no set path and I know that can be overwhelming. But I encourage you to think of the possibilities, of how your own unique experiences set you apart. Think of all you have to offer; whether you pursue opportunities in private business, higher education, or public service.

I was in your shoes once. I'm part of the Wolf Pack, Class of '86.

Back in '86, things were very different on campus. We wore our pants way too high, our hair way too big; Getchell Library was the heartbeat of campus, and the Joe was the size of a closet.   

As you celebrate tonight, and reflect on what's next tomorrow, think of the time you spent here at this campus.

The time spent in the Arboretum and walking the beautiful Quad.

The many late nights of studying and community events.

Think of the games at Mackay Stadium and of watching the basketball team - we're going to go to the Sweet Sixteen this year - and remember the value of the education, whether it was the class you almost passed, or the class you loved. The professors who opened your mind, and the friends you will never forget.   

It's all part of your unique story of how you got here, and how you go on to claim your next first in your life.    Never be afraid to be a first. Never be afraid to take that initial step.   

Not every step in my path has taken me in the right direction. But I wouldn't change a single one, because every step in my journey has led me to this point, this amazing opportunity to serve the people and the great state of Nevada.   

I wish you firsts. I wish you steps in directions that you did not anticipate. I wish you building blocks and shoulders to stand on and mentors and all the joy and excitement of carving out your own path.   

Please know this: I am so proud of you, I am so excited for you, and I am thrilled to be a fellow alum of the Wolf Pack!   

Catherine Cortez Masto head shot
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