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Tacking: Advice for Today’s Graduates

Queens College 2019 Commencement Address by Matt Higgins

Prepared text for Queens College Commencement address May 30, 2019.

It’s such an overwhelming honor to be invited back to my own college to give the commencement address, especially when I wasn’t exactly a stellar student on the way in. Who would have thought I would walk onto campus 28 years ago with a GED, and walk out today with a PHD? Only in America.

I have so many wonderful memories at Queens College, and one of the most formative took place just a few feet from here. 

It was the summer of 1983. I was a 9-year-old freckled curly haired boy sitting in the back of a classroom in Powdermaker Hall on a suffocating, humid morning in July. My sweaty face was plastered to the desk, doodling in my notebook with a Beverly Clearly book on my lap. And I was bored as hell. But I remember looking out of the corner of my eye at the woman sitting next to me and thinking: It’s Saturday. It’s summer.  What is my mom doing inside in a classroom? 

Her name was Linda Joy Higgins. Mom never had it easy as a kid, and her childhood of abuse and poverty made finishing high school impossible. She was a single mother, raising four rotten boys crammed into a shoebox rent stabilized apartment on Springfield Boulevard in Queens. She spent weekday afternoons on her hands and knees cleaning homes for frail elderly clients. On the weekends, we would take the Q27 bus to Main Street to visit church food pantries. I never understood why we had to take a bus two hours round trip to carry cardboard boxes full of canned soup and beans and rice back home. Weren’t there churches in Bayside? She was ashamed of how we lived. But she was even more embarrassed of her lack of education, because she worshipped everything about books – the smell of yellowing paper in the library, the endless ways to express a thought. 

So at age 38, she mustered up the courage to walk into Queensborough, enroll in a GED program, and submit her application to Queens College.

There is a demarcation line running through the middle of my childhood – marked by BC and AC, the time before college and the time after college. From the day she stepped foot on campus, my mother’s life revolved around Queens College. It unlocked a world she never knew existed, of professors who cared so much. I still remember their names – Judith Summerfield from creative writing, Robert Factor from history. Christmas time was spent at Colden Center for Handel’s Messiah. At night, she would talk about the days she spent with her “friends”, as she called them….Kiely… Powdermaker…Jefferson…Rosenthal.

I remember one evening, she was smiling with pride because she had a tug of war with a mugger outside a diner on Union Turnpike. She pleaded with him, “Please, take my money, just let me keep my text books!” (He dumped her books on the hood of the car, and ran off. That’s a true story). Some people live pay check to pay check; the Higgins family lived Pell Grant to Pell Grant. We didn’t have much, but we had Queens College.

For the next 12 years, she found new reasons to never leave, taking endless credits toward three degrees. And then she had an epiphany – she would get a master’s degree in library studies, and then she would never have to leave the library again. This quad became her oasis through all of life’s trials – divorce, poverty, failing knees and, ultimately, fading health. 

Throughout her years here, although she was slowly dying, she was finally living. 

She died when I was 26. While my mother never reaped any financial reward from her education, she left this campus –  and this earth –  with something more important than degrees or material possessions: her dignity. 

If she had lived, she would have devoted her life to books and education. That’s why I’m so proud to announce that in today’s graduating class, there are two students who have received the Linda J. Higgins Empowerment Scholarship, often given to single mothers who followed a journey similar to my mother’s. Tameka Edwards-Hepburn and Rosanna Batista–would you please stand up?

My fellow Queens College graduates, I’ve been away from QC for 21 years, and I’m back to present my scouting report from the world beyond these campus walls. The most encouraging news I offer is that the die is never cast. It turns out, life is not defined by what happened to you, but by what happened next. No one is destined to be a victim. The circumstances I was born into in that grim apartment on Springfield did not dictate my life; the choices I made to change those circumstances did.

And looking back on the darkest moments, the most important choice I ever made was simple: Keep moving forward.

And so long as you get up and make even the most imperceptible move in the right direction, things always get incrementally better. 

Picture your life as a sailboat. When a sailboat faces strong headwinds, it can turn back, surrender its fate to the elements, let the wind carry it in whatever direction. Or it can fight to go where IT wants. But to move forward in the face of headwinds, the boat must do what is called tacking. It must harness the violent energy of the wind thrust against its sails and tack upwind, tacking left and then tacking right as a means of zigzagging its way forward. Under these conditions the boat is often heeled, crashing into waves and taking on water over the deck, creating the toughest of sailing conditions. 

If you were standing on that tacking sailboat in a storm, winds lashing your face, large ocean swells blocking your line of sight, the journey would feel hopeless. You would feel like you were going nowhere. But if at that same moment, you were to look down from the heavens upon that tiny sailboat in a vast ocean, you would see yourself with both hands firmly at the helm, face weathered but resolute. 

Moving left. 

Moving right. 

Moving forward. 

This will be your life. 

Sometimes you will be your own worst enemy, ignoring your own internal navigation system to follow someone else’s north star. Don’t do that. Look inward. 

Many days your forward progress will be stalled by forces entirely within your control, and for those moments I give you two pieces of advice ripped from the pages of my own life.

First, when everything is on the line, trust your instincts to make the final call. 

I want to a share a story about my last day at Cardozo High School. I was 16. Back then, when you dropped out, you first had to run a gauntlet before they released you – the academic version of a walk of shame. I had to stop by each classroom in session, my head down, and return text books. It was God awful. I remember knocking on the door, shuffling into one of the classes, sheepishly stretching out my hand with the book. 

The teacher turned to me: “Oh Higgins. What a waste. I’ll see you at McDonalds.” 

I put the book on his desk, and right before I walked out, I turned around and said: “Well, if you see me at McDonalds, it’s because I bought it.”

And with that, I walked out of high school for the last time, a 16-year-old dropout. 

Now hubris aside, I wondered if he might be right. I was living a secret life. Home was a car crash unfolding in slow motion. We were getting by on SPAM and Steak-umms and government cheese. As a kid, the last thing you want anyone to know is how poor you are. So I masked my poverty with hand-me-down designer jeans. But I was working overnight shifts at a 24-hour deli on Woodhaven and Metropolitan and coming home to sleep on a dog worn mattress on the floor. All the while I could sense my mother’s health was slipping away. Since no one had come to the rescue yet, I assumed help was not on the horizon. I had to do something. 

I hatched a plan to drop out at 16, take my GED and start Queens College immediately. My thesis was straightforward: A college student could land a better paying job than the $5 an hour I was making slinging Marlboros at the Quick Stop. My well-meaning guidance counselor said the plan was pure madness. I was throwing my life away. The stigma of being a high school dropout would cling to me forever. But he didn’t have the full story.

No one ever has the full story. 

After enrolling in Queens College, I answered an ad in the Queens Tribune to collect petition signatures for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s campaign – earning $9 an hour. In big bold letters, the ad said, ‘College Students Only.’ When my baby face appeared at Congressman Ackerman’s makeshift campaign headquarters on Northern Boulevard, they wanted to see proof I was in fact a college student. And I was hired. 

After a summer of handing out flyers, all of us were to be let go. I did not want to be fired. I could not be fired. In 1992, personal computers were still a mystery to anyone over 40 – proof some things don’t change – and the campaign manager couldn’t figure out how to merge letters. So I raised my hand and said, “I know something about computers.” Of course, I didn’t even have a computer.  

I worked through the night, crawling under the desk choking back tears as reams of letters wouldn’t line up with the clear plastic address window on the envelope. But by the time the sun rose, I was sitting on several boxes of those damn letters. And when the summer ended, all but one student was let go. I discovered the most important ingredient to professional success that still applies:

Make yourself indispensable at whatever task you’re doing, no matter how menial, and you’ll always have a job.

Four years after graduating college in 1998, and too many jobs to explain, I had graduated from law school at night and accomplished what I set out to do: escape from poverty. I can trace back most of my good fortune to that single leap of faith on the steps of Cardozo, when I trusted my instincts against all the conventional thinking in the world.

Society conditions us to look outside ourselves for the answers to our most vexing problems. We are looking in the wrong place, and deep down, we know it. We were given intuition for the very times in life when we need to operate without a manual. 

So ask questions. Find mentors. But never outsource your judgement to another. And always trust your instincts. 

For my second piece of advice, I need to bring you to Los Angeles, onto the set of a TV show you may have heard of, called Shark Tank. 

Two years ago, I was sitting on the couch with my 10-year-old son watching our favorite show. We had seen almost all 200 episodes. I love how Shark Tank embodies this American ideal that rejects birthright, that anyone can transcend their circumstances. We bonded over the show, and it was the vehicle I used to teach my son what I do in my day job, building companies. At one point, he was admiring one of Mr. Wonderful’s clever yet completely unrealistic royalty deals, and in an effort to impress my son, I turned to him and said, “You know, Dad could be a Shark.” 

To which he replied, “Yeah right dad, good luck.”

And then I thought, no, seriously, I’m GOING to be a Shark. I had never been on TV, I had no public profile, and I knew nothing about the inner workings of Hollywood. 

But a year later, an unknown guy from Queens walked onto the set of Shark Tank took and took the empty seat alongside Lori Greiner and Mr. Wonderful. That morning at 9am, the producer yelled ACTION, the bright stage lights fired up, and thus began the longest one minute of my life. I simply froze, about to get eaten alive by some voracious sharks. 

Soon the internal dialogue began. You don’t belong here. This is completely nuts. You’re an imposter. And this is going to backfire, because your son’s not going to be able to show his face at school.

Toward the end of that protracted minute, Mark Cuban leaned across the chairs and said something that started with, “Hey, Matt…” I can’t remember what he said, but what I heard, was “Hey, Matt, did you really come this far just to blow it?” 

At that very moment, the great poet Eminem played in my head. You know the song: “If you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted. In one moment. Would you capture it? Or just let it slip?” 

I grabbed the voice in my head by the scruff, and said, listen, you better cut that out. You’re not helping. I belong here, because I am here. I’ve fought through every challenge that’s come my way, seven years at Queens College while working two jobs, four years of law school at night, 9/11, building my own business. I’ve got this. 

And with that little self-talk, I spent the next 10 hours giving the performance of my life. And I loved every other minute of it. 

At the exact moment we stretch beyond our limitations, on the brink of achieving our wildest dreams, we conjure an enemy. It is the voice of doubt that labels us an imposter. Anyone who has ever achieved greatness first had to slay this beast. If you master the internal dialogue in your mind, you will accomplish anything you want.

So my advice: Do daily affirmations, meditate, sing in the shower, talk to yourself in the bathroom stall before that big interview– do it your way.

But do whatever it takes to train the voice in your head to be your biggest ally because the most impactful conversations you’ll have in life will be with yourself. 

So long as you keep moving forward, things will always get better. But they don’t get better without a catalyst. Of all the choices you’ll make in life, none matter more than what you will do in the face of injustice, especially when you’re not the target. I’ll leave you today with a story about a classmate of mine. 

I ran for Student Body President of Queens College, and was beaten terribly. It was my first stinging failure. But everything happens for a reason, and the universe had a plan for all of us.  

My opponent was the late Jose Peralta, a kind, wonderful man. That campaign launched Jose into a lifetime of public service, and he went on to have a tremendous career in the New York State Assembly and the New York State Senate. 

Jose’s running mate for class president was Alan Van Capelle. When Alan graduated in 1997 and sat where you sit, nearly 70 percent of all Americans opposed the idea of marriage equality. All of his fellow graduates had a choice: Do I remain silent, do I accept the status quo, or will I do something about it? 

Alan did something. He became the leader of the advocacy group Empire State Pride Agenda. He fought to change hearts and minds – and when that didn’t work, change politicians. 

After marriage equality was narrowly defeated in the Senate in 2009, Alan went to work and campaigned for his old Queens College running mate, Jose Peralta, to join the Senate. Jose won. Two years later, the State Senator from Corona, Queens, Jose Peralta cast one of the deciding 33 votes to make marriage equality the law in New York State. 

And now, one generation later – YOUR generation – the numbers have completely flipped – almost 70 percent of Americans support marriage equality. 

Things got better, but not without a catalyst. 

Do not sit idly by. If you open your eyes wide enough, you’ll see that something is happening in the world right now that we find acceptable today – and will be ashamed of tomorrow. I can’t tell you what it is; that’s up to your generation to tell all of us on the dais what needs to change, and appeal to our better selves. I know you’re up to the challenge because I know how you were constructed. I know what’s in your factory settings. Queens College is a place where the promise of an excellent education is not contingent on means or who you know, but on mettle and who you are. And you have more of it than any student body in the country.

Congratulations class of 2019!  Now go out there and make us proud!

Queens Commencement 2019, Matt Higgins
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