Claremont Graduate University
Commencement Address
May 17, 2008

Richard Tapia

The Road Ahead


          Claremont Graduate University administration, faculty, graduating students, family and friends, it is a pleasure and an honor to share this day with you. We are all proud of you, the graduating students, and congratulate you on your accomplishments. This is a good time to pause, celebrate, and reflect. Reflection is important. It will help prepare you for future decisions and will help you to guide those that come after you. In our few minutes together I will share with you things that I have learned from my own  life, and believe that you should know. Now, you may already know many of these things, but you may not know that you know them.

          I am a Chicano (Mexican American) and a mathematician. My mother came from Mexico to Los Angeles at the age of eleven, entrusted with the care of her ten-year-old sister. They came alone. My father came from Mexico with his two older brothers at the age of seven. My parents told me that they came to the United States in search of education for themselves and hopefully for future children. Times were tough, they had to support themselves, and were not able to graduate from high school. However, their educational dreams were fulfilled through their children; out of five, four of us have graduate degrees, albeit, two of us are lawyers. My father taught the value of inclusion — he loved everyone and they loved him. My mother taught me that pride in being Mexican American, hard work, and education can take you any place you want to go. She was aware that her message was in contrast to more widely held beliefs in our community and spent a good amount of time dealing with this conflict, helping us to maintain our pride and belief that we could: si se puede.  I used to think that she was rather naïve with this belief, but I have learned that she was right. I tell you today — mothers are always right. My family was my support system.

          You are here today in part because of your support system; your family, your friends, the faculty. Graduation is an important opportunity to formally acknowledge this support system and let them share with you the joy and satisfaction of your accomplishments. Formal ceremonies and celebration are  wonderful parts of life. They give us closure, a time to reflect, and a time to appreciate. Forty years ago when I received my PhD from UCLA, it was the late 60’s and some of us thought that we should forego graduation ceremonies. I was very wrong, as my wife has been telling me for all these years. So, it is with great pleasure that today I become an honorary member of the Claremont Graduate School PhD class of 2008, and acknowledge my wife who is here to share this experience with me. I am proud to have as honorary class mates the distinguished Robert Merton and the distinguished Sheila Widnall.

          You must realize by now that your entire life consists of a sequence of  tasks, one right after the other — high school, undergraduate school, graduate school, and career development. Moreover, each subsequent task is much less structured and therefore offers more challenge and requires more original thought and creativity; intelligence alone is not sufficient. Yet with each step comes the opportunity for a broader impact.

          As you move through these tasks of life, do not expect the balance of good and bad, or success and adversity, to be uniformly distributed across the population. The statement — I have had my bad, now comes my good — is at the very best, wishful thinking.

          My wife, Jean, and I were married while I was a sophomore at UCLA. She had just graduated from high school. Our daughter, Circee, was born when I was a junior. Since we were young parents, the three of us grew up together. Jean’s passion was dance and mine was math. Jean danced in various Hollywood shows and with several companies. Circee acquired a passion for dance and academics. I received a PhD from UCLA the same year that our son Richard was born.  The four of us went off to the University of Wisconsin Madison and then to Rice University in Houston, Texas to conquer the world.

          We had more than our share of successes in Houston. Jean had a very successful dance studio, I received tenure in record time, Circee was a dance and academic star and danced with a company in New York before returning to Houston to study at Rice. In 1977 Jean was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and in 1979 with myasthenia gravis. She had to give up her studio and navigate life from a wheelchair. Three years later, Circee was killed in an automobile accident. Jean said that these were three strikes for her and she was out — her life was over. Finally, I convinced her that she still had much to contribute. She started an exercise  program for people in wheelchairs called “Coming Back” and won  national recognition for her work. Our daughter Becky came into our life at this time and contributed to setting the mood for the comeback.

          I was the first Hispanic elected to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering, I was appointed to the National Science Board by President Clinton, and I was appointed to the position of University Professor at Rice University, only the sixth person to be so honored in the history of the school. Both Jean and I would trade these awards and honors, and she would suffer multiple sclerosis many times over, just to have Circee back with us.

          But we do not have that choice. Our only choice is to give up or play the hand that we were dealt. The choice is easy. Life has its strange twists. I am now on expert on things that I really never wanted to know about, like wheelchairs and how to travel with a person in a wheelchair.

          I share this  personal story to tell you this: when you encounter obstacles and adversity, learn to look both ways. Your challenge is to handle adversity. Prosperity is quite easy to handle. Remember that failure is a part of every successful person’s life.

          True success is not the education that you have, but what you do with this education. It is not the hand that you are dealt, but how you play it. At each stage of your life and career, continue to dream and work to make your dreams come true, but learn to cope and still enjoy life if they do not come true.
          I have now been on the Rice faculty for almost four decades and have been involved in addressing inequities, both for women and underrepresented minorities at all levels — university, state and nation — for literally all of those years. I did not plan on doing this – it was just something that had to be done, and I knew that I could help. Nowhere does the job description of a Rice mathematician include this work. And for most of you, your job description won’t say, “make the world a better place”.  Yet I implore you to care about this and do a part to solve current critical societal and educational problems. Realize that we, the United Sates, no longer set the bar on national well being including protection of the environment, health care, and public K-12 education; indeed we share the bottom with a host of third world nations.

          Our national image has deteriorated world wide to an unprecedented low level. Whether or not we won the war, all must agree that we have paid a huge price in losing the peace, we could have done a much better job.

          Violence today is at a frightening level. Drugs, disrespect, anger, and hate are the characteristics of the times. Little by little we have let TV, the media, and the Internet define the value system for today’s youth. As a nation we can not let this continue.  Yes, you will be the leaders of tomorrow, but this youth will be the leaders of the day after tomorrow. To not care, to not speak out, to not reach back would be the most unpatriotic action you could perpetrate upon your country.

          On health care and violence I share the following personal story. Diana, a Mexican American single mother, cleaned our house for us once a week. I befriended her son, Fernando, who was going to high school part time. I convinced him to go to school full time and move on to college. He helped me around the yard and with my show cars. He was quite smart.  Diana was diagnosed with stomach cancer. She had no health insurance, and by the time she could be seen at a free clinic, it was too late; she died at the age of 35, about four  years ago. Her death was very hard for Fernando and  I stayed close to him in the interim. Last weekend while drafting this talk, I received a call saying that Fernando had been killed in a drive by shooting. At his funeral I thought about things that I have included in this address.

          Fifty years or so ago, California set the standard for quality public education. Today as a nation, we are a country of richly different racial and ethnic people. Today California and Texas are majority minority states. As such we face unprecedented potential and challenges. I offer the following universal educational axiom:

Race and ethnicity should not dictate educational destiny.

          Unfortunately, today they do.  As such we maintain a class system that follows along racial and ethnic lines. This endangers the entire health of the country. My warning is that the rate at which the minority population is growing outpaces the rate at which we are improving our effectiveness in educating this segment of the population.

          Not unrelated to our education failure, it is with great sadness and frustration that I acknowledge that a growing contemporary challenge in big city American society is the escalation of violence and killing in the relationship between African Americans and Latinos; here my home town, Los Angeles, arguably  leads the nation. This frustration is magnified by the fact that I have worked very hard to have my legacy be that of bringing Blacks, Browns, and other groups to the table to work together. The two conferences that carry my name, The David Blackwell–Richard Tapia Mathematics Conference and The Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference are strongly modeled along these lines.

          California and Texas have the potential to either lead the nation in creative and innovative solution of these complex educational problems or lead the nation down a path of public education disaster.
          Dr. Donna Nelson, a chemist at the University of Oklahoma, recently conducted a study concerning the gender and racial distribution of faculty in the nations top 50 science and engineering departments. She found that not only is there a shortfall in the faculties of these departments in terms of women and underrepresented minorities, but there is also a shortfall in terms of American white males. The hires are going to individuals from foreign countries. Even on our academic home court we can not compete with those from other countries.

          You may say that we have left you with these problems, and I would answer that this is true. But we can't re-deal the hand, your challenge is to play well what you have been dealt. The future of the world’s scientific and societal health is in your hands. Many of you will distinguish yourselves with prestigious awards and recognition, including a possible Nobel or Pulitzer Prize, or a Field's Medal. This will be of significant value to America's scientific health and bring you great prestige, but this alone will not be enough. It will not bring you the satisfaction of helping those less privileged to live better lives, and improving the health of the nation.  It is not someone else's job, it is now your job.

          Finally, life and people around you are beautiful, reach for them. They need you and you need them. I wish you all the best of luck

          Thank you.


Minoriy & Outreach VitaeMain

2008 Richard Tapia

updated 05/27/2008

maintained by  Michael Sirois  (msirois at rice dot edu)