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Remarks by Vice President Harris at South Carolina State University’s Fall Convocation

By: Office of Vice President

South Carolina State University
Orangeburg, South Carolina

1:55 P.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Good afternoon!  (Applause.)  Good afternoon.  Please have a seat.  Please have a seat.  (Laughs.)

Oh, it’s so good to be back.  Madam President, thank you for that introduction and for your leadership.  Thank you. 

Well, good afternoon, Bulldogs!  How’s everybody doing?  (Applause.)  It is so good to be back in South Carolina.  I really do love this state.  And it is so good to be back at South Carolina State University.  (Applause.) 

So, before I begin my comments, let me thank the Marching 101, because you all are — (applause) — are doing your thing!  (Laughs.)  They do not disappoint.  (Laughs.) 

So, today of course, we are also joined by Secretary Cardona, who is one of the champions of our nation’s students.  Secretary Cardona, I thank you for your leadership and your work.

And to Mayor Butler for welc- — welcoming us back to Orangeburg, I thank you. 

To President Conyers, always, for your leadership and for welcoming us to campus.

Students, it is an honor to join you at convocation.  And to all of the freshmen — can I see — where are the freshmen?  (Applause.)

So, to the freshmen here today, I will say to you specifically for a moment: This is the beginning of a great journey for you.  It’s a great journey.  For the next four years, you are going to have an experience that will shape the rest of your life.  The lessons that you will learn here at SC State, both inside and outside the classroom, will guide you for years to come.  And, of course, during your time here, you’ll face challenges.  And through those challenges, you will learn that you are strong enough, resilient enough, and brave enough to overcome any obstacle.

And, you know, joining you this afternoon, it takes me back to when I was 17 and flew from California to Washington, D.C., to start my first year at Howard University.  And I will always remember walking into freshman orientation to a room very much like this one.  And very much like this one, the seats were packed with students and faculty and alumni who just, like for you, all looked like us.

And it was exhilarating.  I don’t think at the time I understood how special that moment was where you were surrounded and you are surrounded by people from different places and different backgrounds, who are joined together in community, where you are surrounded by people who, I promise you, some will ask you to be in their wedding; others will ask you to be godparent to their child; some of them will ask you, “Please do come to my inauguration.”  (Laughter.) 

You are students united by the pursuit of excellence.  And I remember back in that day what I believe you must be feeling today, which is to feel the possibility of great opportunity, to feel the vigorous welcome that you are being given for you to lead.

So, to all the students here today, I say: There is no limit to your capacity for greatness.  There is no obstacle that you cannot overcome.  And believe me, there is no barrier that you cannot break.  And so, as Vice President of the United States, I urge you to seize on that — because in this moment, our nation needs your leadership. 

Today, we live in unsettled times.  The ideals that we thought were long established — such as overseas, what we’re seeing, the sovereignty of democratic nations we thought was long settled; domestically, we thought long settled would be the freedom of voters to decide elections; long settled we thought would be the freedom of women to make decisions about their own future.  We thought we could take for granted what constitutes the truth.  But these ideals now hang in the balance.

And in moments of great crisis, our nation has almost every time turned to our young leaders to help guide us forward.

Just remember, John Lewis was only 23 when he spoke during the March on Washington.  Twenty-three.  Diane Nash was just 21 years old when she led the Nashville sit-ins to protest racial segregation.  And the great Jim Clyburn was in his early 20s when he was jailed for protesting for civil rights.  In fact, it was in that jail where he met his beloved wife, the late Dr. Emily England Clyburn.  And as you guys know, I think, they were both proud graduates of this very institution.  (Applause.)

So that to say, students, we turn to you once again.  Your nation turns to you.  Because to move America forward, we need you.  We need your passion, your purpose, and your excellence.  We need your leadership.  For so many reasons and on so many issues, we need your leadership to help grow our economy.  We need your leadership to protect our planet, to drive innovation, and to fight for equity and justice.

We need your leadership to build on an economy that works for everyone.  Far too many people on that point and far too many communities in our country are being left behind.

So we have invested $12 billion in community banks, which specialize in lending to minority and rural communities.  But we need you to then access that capital, to build a business, to be invested in your community, to allow you to buy a home and be part of the leadership of neighborhoods and society.

We need your leadership on the climate crisis.  Just think: In your lifetime — in your lifetime — your generation has experienced the 10 hottest summers on record.  You all have.  You have seen communities decimated by wildfires, flooded by hurricanes, and choked by drought.

And you know, then, we must treat the climate crisis like the crisis it is.  And we’re doing our part in terms of our administration to make the largest investment in history and fighting that crisis.  But to implement that vision, we need you. 

We need chemical engineers to help us design more efficient solar panels.  We need architects to help us build more sustainable homes and communities.  We need climate scientists to help us model the impact of rising seas and warming temperatures.  And we need you in those positions to also do the work of helping us to fight for environmental justice and equity.  We need you.

As Vice President, I’m the chair of the National Space Council.  So, for generations, we say with pride, America has led the world in the exploration and use of space.  Well, to continue America’s leadership, our nation needs more engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and programmers.  We also need more welders, and machinists, and electricians. 

So we are investing, as an administration, increasing apprenticeship programs so that students like you — and I want you to, if you have the interest or the passion, take advantage of those opportunities so you can continue to lead our nation on issues like space exploration. 

Students, to help us build a better future for America, we must also make sure you have the resources you need to achieve academic success without the distraction of worrying about making ends meet. 

So, we have increased Pell Grants by $400 per student per year.  It’s the largest increase in more than a decade and money that you can then use for food and textbooks and tuition and rent.  But we’ve got to do more.  As a proud HBCU graduate, I am fully aware that 75 percent of HBCU students rely on Pell Grants.  We need your advocacy to continue to push forward on very substantial issues like that, because it makes a difference, and the details matter.

Speaking of HBCUs, I’m proud that we have invested nearly $6 billion in our HBCUs, knowing that they are the centers — that this is a center of academic excellence.  This is where we train the next generation of leaders like those who serve on our federal courts.  Places like this give us the vision and, dare I say, the ambition to know what’s possible even when we’ve not seen it before. 

So, in addition to knowing that we should have and we have now confirmed more women of color to the federal courts than ever before at this point in a presidency, it means that because of the inspiration of places like this, we knew we also needed to deal with that at the highest court in our land.  And that happened.  And her name is Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.  (Applause.)

The President and I also know that you cannot help us build a better future if you are buried under a mountain of student debt after you leave here.  And that is why we have announced that we will cancel $10,000 of federal student loan debt — (applause) — right — for all borrowers making less than $125,000 a year. 

And we will also cancel — and this is of particular relevance to HBCU students — $20,000 of debt for Pell Grant recipients.  (Applause.) 

And it’s important for you know — to know that this loan forgiveness does not just apply to graduates, it also may apply to many of you sitting here right now.  So if you receive — please take note of this — if you received a federal loan before July 1st of this year, you are eligible.  If you have a friend or a sibling or a cousin who acquired that student loan debt to the point that they may have had to leave before graduation, you needn’t have graduated to apply for the debt relief.  So, please help me get the word out so folks can take advantage of that.

And all of this to say that since we took office, we have made real progress.  And Madam President mentioned the path leading to us taking office came right through this beautiful university.

So let me be clear, then.  We have seen great accomplishments, but we still have a lot more work to do.  We still need to make, for example, community college free for all people.  We know that access to quality education should not be determined by whether or not you can afford it.  We still need to make sure all people can access the healthcare that they need, especially mental healthcare.  (Applause.) 

I was discussing with some students earlier — access to mental healthcare should be a right and not just a privilege of those who can afford it.  And let’s be clear about it: That’s healthcare.

For too long, we have failed to understand.  When we talk about healthcare, people act as though the body just starts from the neck down.  What about the neck up?  That’s healthcare.  So let’s address it. 

When we look at the work that we still need to do, we need to pass a law to protect a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body — (applause) — without government interference. 

We need to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — (applause) — to protect voting rights in every state, especially in those states that have passed laws that intentionally make it more difficult for people to vote — laws that not far from here ban drop boxes and restrict early voting; laws that states are passing making it illegal to give folks, who stand in line to vote, food and water.  Undemocratic laws.  Un-American laws. 

And on that topic, I’ll tell you — so, as Vice President, I’m also the president of the United States Senate.  And in that role, I broke John — this is for the historians here — I broke John Adams’s record of casting the most tie-breaking votes in a single term.  (Applause.)  So, for context, this kid who was born in Oakland, California, and graduated from an HBCU just broke the record of John Adams.  I think we should all fully appreciate how history can take a turn.   (Applause.)

And I’ll tell you, in that capacity then, I cannot wait to cast the deciding vote to protect voting rights and women’s health.  (Applause.)  Yes. 

So there is more work to be done.  And the work includes something that affects the students here and young people across our country.  We still have to address the epidemic of gun violence in our nation, because all communities have a right and should be able to live free from the fear and the terror of gun violence.  And to accomplish those goals, we need you.

I have talked, as Vice President, directly with 100 world leaders, in person or by phone — presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, and kings.  And they have asked me in those conversations, in this moment of great uncertainty, “How will our nation, how will you as Americans respond?” 

Well, I think that is a question we all have to answer together.  And that is a question, undoubtedly and invariably, you will answer. 

Today as students, tomorrow as graduates, and for the rest of your lives as Americans, you will help to determine our nation’s future by excelling when required by marching, by advocating, by organizing, and by leading, and by voting. 

In our democracy, your vote is one of your most powerful tools for driving change.  So, given that today is National Voter Registration Day, please make sure that you each are registered to vote — here’s the website: Vote.gov — because there is an important election happening in 49 days, and so much of what we discussed here is on the line.

Your vote is your voice, and we need your voice.  We need you to lead America forward.  And President Biden and I will be with you every step of the way. 

May God bless you.  And may God bless America.  Thank you. (Applause.)

                         END            2:15 P.M. EDT

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