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Community Keynote for UCLA's 21st Annual Pilipino Graduation: New Tomorrow

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Yesterday, on Father's Day, I had the honor of serving as the community keynote for UCLA's 21st Annual Pilipino Graduation. This role is meant to address the importance of building communities and using one's education to move the community forward. I was humbled to be invited and wanted to share my remarks as they were prepared:

Greetings graduates, parents, family members, members of the faculty, distinguished guests and all those who are here to celebrate UCLA's 21st Annual Pilipino Graduation! Let's give a special shout out to all the fathers out there -- Happy Father's Day and as I say for Mother's Day as well, may you be celebrated today and every day.

My name is Gregory Cendana and I am extremely honored to be here with you all. Never would I have imagined being able to stand here before you and have this momentous occasion be a homecoming to an institution that has had such a profound impact on me as a person.

When I was sitting where you were at years ago, I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do after I graduated. If any of you are feeling that now, that's okay. The moment will come and it may be when you least expect it.

What I did know was that I sat with people who continue to be some of my closest friends and those who I continue to draw strength and inspiration from. There was a sense of triumph for being able to be the first person in my family to graduate from college after growing up in a under resourced neighborhood in Sacramento.

I share my story to help you understand what is possible and help you dream even bigger.

Months after graduated, I was recruited to run and was elected to serve as the vice president, and later as the president, of the United States Student Association, the country's oldest, largest and most inclusive student organization. This brought me to Washington, D.C. and opened my eyes to a whole new world of people, politics and weather. As a California boy at heart, it was a transition to deal with such humidity and real snow!

I worked on higher education issues and was part of a successful campaign that passed legislation to reform the federal student loan program and increase funding for financial aid, community colleges and minority serving institutions. I learned how legislation was passed at the federal level and why it was important for people like me, like you, like us, to be at the table and ever present in any conversation that would have an impact in our community.

After finishing my term at the United States Student Association, I was offered a position at the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance where I am now proud to serve as the first openly gay and youngest-ever Executive Director.

This role, while challenging, has been one of the most positive, eye opening and transformative things I've ever done. Each day I go into the office, I never know what to expect but know whatever it may be, I continue to stay grounded in community.

While I miss California and hope to eventually make a return here, my time in Washington, DC has taught me so much. It made me realize how much of a privilege it was to attend UCLA and have the opportunities that I, that WE, had. It also reminded me over and over of how much my time at UCLA -- inside and outside of the classroom -- helped prepare me.

The fact that we are able to say that we graduated from an institute of higher education like UCLA, in a time where higher education is becoming less and less accessible for communities of color, gives us even more responsibility to give back to OUR communities, especially the Filipino American community.

I also learned that there was no way that I could have done this on my own. As much pride as I have in who I am and the work I do, nothing would have been possible without others who have had my back each and every step of the way.

I was reminded about this even when I travelled abroad, too.

Last year, I had an opportunity to join Jose L. Cuisia, the Philippine Ambassador to the United States, on a delegation to the Philippines. This was the first time I had been to back to the motherland. I'm not going to lie, I wasn't sure what to expect and I was filled with different emotions -- excitement, curiousness, and anxiousness. There was family I was meeting for the first time outside of Facebook and I got to see where my parents grew up.

There was a particular experience that stuck with me. On the last day of the delegation, we were on the bus, headed back to our hotel after an event and I looked out the window while we were at a stop light. On the sidewalk, there were nine little kids, wearing tsinelas and similar bowl hair cut, sitting in a circle and were being fed by a woman. She held a small bowl of white rice that couldn't have been bigger than my hand. What stuck with me was how happy and appreciative each of the children were after they were fed a small serving of rice... They were content to be in each other's presence and I could feel the love they had.

I was humbled by what I witnessed and it pushed me to take time for personal reflection. I thought about the moments I took things for granted and realized there were things that I complained about, that I probably should not have. It also served a reminder to cherish the time with my family and friends and to be grateful for what life has been able to give me.

Broadly, this experience was a perfect example of how our power as a Filipino Community is instilled in family values and OUR collectiveness.

My experiences in the Philippines and throughout all of my experiences growing up, have led me to this: It is our responsibility and obligation -- to our past AND to our future -- to be civically and politically engaged. We need to be engaged as Filipino Americans in the United States and should give back to Filipinos across the globe especially in the Philippines.

Your experience here at UCLA and now, graduating, especially as Filipino Americans and People of Color, is a political statement in of itself and should be a framework for the type of transformative and life changing work you can do.

How are you going to create a New Tomorrow for OUR community?

If there was a time where a new tomorrow is not only possible but necessary--that time is now.

The Census tells us Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing racial group in the country. Filipino Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group of the AAPI community. There are an estimated 3.5 million Filipino Americans in the U.S. -- the second largest population of Asian Americans and the largest population of Overseas Filipinos.

Despite that, we are still sorely underrepresented, underserved and the stories of our community remain to be untold in mainstream media and larger society.

Don't get me wrong, there has been progress -- In 2012, California, the state that is home to a large percentage of Asian Americans and Filipinos in the country, FINALLY elected Rob Bonta -- the first Filipino American to the state legislature. Bobby Scott of Virginia was elected as the first American with Filipino ancestry is in the United States House of Representatives.

I'd be remiss to say that in May of this year, UCLA undergraduates elected a Filipino American to serve as the next President of the Undergraduate Student Association Council -- John Joanino. He is the third Filipino to serve this role, following Mark Pulido and Jenny Wood, who both were mentors of mine.

Again, if there was a time where a new tomorrow is not only possible but necessary -- that time is now.

This where you all come in!

As you graduate from one of the top universities in the country -- in the world -- let this Pilipino Graduation serve as a reminder of our commitment to each other. We can't succeed alone.

As Filipino Americans, we need to embrace, support and uplift each other. We need to push each other to be better. Our collective strength and unity will allow our people to thrive and achieve even bigger things.

Not only do I believe each of you have the power to make a new tomorrow, that tomorrow can be stronger if we all work together on the same team.

The current political climate, the demographic shifts in this country and the new and enhanced tool that are available have given us fertile ground for organizing.

We have prime opportunities to leverage our collective strength, to shape our future and ensure the new tomorrow is one where our community can thrive and get the representation, resources and recognition we deserve.

Brothers and sisters, I challenge you, as you embark on your next journey in life to DREAM big, do everything from a place of love and remember that your decisions not only impact our generation but will have impact for generations to come.

I believe the opportunities before you are unlimited -- I look forward to reading about you in the newspaper, seeing you on the cover of Time Magazine and hey, maybe the first Filipino president of the United States of America is in Royce Hall today.

What I look forward to most though is envisioning an even more vibrant Filipino American community and what our collective efforts can bring. If history, and herstory, has taught us anything, it's that we are a resilient people capable of so much more than we sometimes give ourselves credit for... Make moves, Bruins, and congratulations class of 2013!

Se, se puede! Kaya natin! Yes, we can!