Executive Director Maria Woltjen's Commencement Address at Northeastern Illinois University

Our Founder and Executive Director Maria Woltjen delivered the Commencement address at Northeastern Illinois University. Below is the text of her speech.

Thank you to Dr. Gibson, acting Provost Wamucii Njogu, Board of Trustees, and the wondrous faculty who helped get you to this place.

Congratulations to all of you, and to your families who I know are so proud.

This is such an extraordinary university—you’re all so fortunate to have attended a school that prides itself on diversity—of race, ethnicity, and age.

I’m going to talk about story, about why your own stories are so important.

I never could have dreamed of standing here and being asked to give this commencement address. I was born on a farm in Missouri, one of 9 kids. My father was from Chicago, and though he tried, he didn’t know the first thing about farming. We barely eked out a living. There was never enough, and you had to get to the dinner table on time, or you’d miss out. To this day, I don’t like sharing food when I go out to a restaurant, not even with my husband.

We moved constantly, one year, four different times. We lived in public housing in St. Louis, Pruitt Igo, and San Francisco, Hunter’s Point. As soon as I could, I got away. I flew to Israel with a one-way ticket and $50 dollars in my pocket. And then to South Africa. I was gone for five years before I returned to Chicago, and to college. I worked my way through UIC, waitressing—one of my first jobs was at Denny’s, working the counter. I was 28 … many years older than my fellow students … when I graduated from college.

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I never liked sharing my story. People would ask me about my childhood, and I’d just gloss over it, or change the subject. It wasn’t that I was ashamed. I just thought people would judge me. I thought people would think they knew me.

But over the years I’ve come realize that it shaped who I am today. In a good way. It’s given me strength and perspective.

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You each come to this single place today with your own stories, your own narratives. Many of you I’m sure are here after many detours. Some of you are the first to go to college in your family. Some of you supported yourselves, studying and writing papers, while working a full-time job. Many of you are immigrants, or the children of immigrants. Each of you here today brings to the world a sense of what it means to work hard, to persevere, to maintain your faith in yourself.

As Dr. Gibson mentioned, I run a non-profit that advocates on behalf of immigrant children who come into this country on their own – without a parent – and who get picked up by immigration authorities and placed in detention. Lately we’ve also had cases involving children forcibly separated from their parents. We’ve had amazing Northeastern students interning and serving as Child Advocate. Our work is all about learning the kids’ stories, learning what they want, so that we can go out and advocate on their behalf. We advocate with judges, asylum officers, and enforcement officials. And these are challenging times.

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From the beginning, I’ve been so in awe of the children’s journeys.

We met a 15-year-old girl from Guatemala whose family sent her to the U.S. because she was the responsible one; their family had no money. She was in custody for 7 months. It was really tough for her, she was desperate to be working so that she could send money home.

There was a boy who traveled all the way from Somalia at the age of 16. His older brother had been murdered by an opposition political group and his parents knew it was the only way he’d stay alive. They flew him to Brazil and then he traveled over land, through South America, then Central America, and somehow met a boy from Guatemala, they traveled the rest of the way together. His journey took him 8 months and the boys got apprehended when they climbed out of the Rio Grande River.

There was a girl from China who arrived with a debt of $70,000 American dollars—owed to the smugglers for the journey.

We met a girl from Ghana, her name is Haniah. At the age of 14 her father married her off to a much older man.

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I will tell you that most of the kids hold tightly to their stories. They worry that they’ll be judged. Or categorized.

I can’t help but think of something the novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls the danger of the single story. This notion that because of one’s circumstance – we think we know their story, we think we know them. As she has said, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. . . .”  

We often talk in generalities of undocumented immigrants, of people from poor communities, of people with opposite political beliefs. We think we know them, when in fact we don’t know them at all. Each of their stories are unique to their own journeys. We need to be careful not to pigeonhole people—if we do it leads to a simplified view of humanity. It leads to a simplified view of each other.

The kids we work with, it would be easy to see them all as having one story—crossing the border, getting caught. If you’d have met them in detention, you’d think you know their stories, but in fact you’d know very little.

But getting to know them, to spend time, you realize they’re all unique. They had a destination, a plan that’s been disrupted. They’ve each had their own particular journeys.

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The girl from Guatemala, she’s settled in a community with people from her home country. She’s working and helping her family back home.

The boy from Somalia. His story has a happy ending. He won his case and is living and working in Minneapolis.

The girl from China—she ended up working in a Chinese restaurant for 3 years to pay her debt, sending every dollar home to pay the smugglers. She loves her parents and talks to them every week. She’s married and has two children.

The girl from Ghana, Haniah—her aunt saved the money to help her escape to the U.S. She has the widest smile and liveliest spirit. It took her months to open up and tell the story of being married off. And it was a hard story to listen to. She talks about how she understands why her parents did what they did, about how much she loves them. She’s now is attending community college.

I look around this arena and I see the faces of America, a country which when it’s at its best embraces its diversity and richness of experience.

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Each person you meet has a story. And each of you no doubt have made a remarkable journey to get here today. It’s what has made this country so extraordinary, that there’s no single story, no single narrative.

It’s what makes you so extraordinary. Embrace your stories. Share them with the rest of us. We need to hear them.

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Congratulations to all of you! Congratulations to your parents and your families.

Photo credit: Northeastern Illinois University

Maddie Witters