On Tuesday evening, First Lady Jill Biden posed a question to the latest graduates of Los Angeles City College: Where are you from?
"What we really mean is, what's your story? Tell me about the journey that brought you to this moment," Biden said, addressing students from the Classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022 in a keynote address speech at the Greek Theatre.
Biden, dressed in doctoral regalia, spoke for about 15 minutes at the commencement ceremony for L.A. City College students and alumni.
In many ways, the students who make up the college's population are nontraditional; they are often older, working class and parents. One graduate, in collecting her diploma, carried her child in one arm and raised her diploma holder above her head in the other.
The college has traditionally graduated students from underserved and underrepresented backgrounds; one school official acknowledged that 1 in 5 students are housing insecure, rely on the college's food pantries, work multiple jobs and are older and younger than the average college student. On Tuesday, the oldest graduate was 69, the youngest, 16.
"For the rest of your life, people are going to ask you to define yourself ... but your story is so much more than a place you grew up or your degree," Biden said. "Those things don't define you and neither does your hometown. But it is a part of your story. So my message today to you is this: Never forget where you came from."
In her speech, Biden highlighted the stories of the graduates before her. She spoke of a student who emigrated from the Ivory Coast and, pregnant with her third child, finished final exams while experiencing contractions. Another student who, after 25 years working as a graphic designer, enrolled in L.A. City College to begin a career as a teacher.
As first lady, Biden has continued to teach English and writing at Northern Virginia Community College and has advocated for federal resources to provide free tuition to community college students. The latest push failed to gain support in Congress.
Mary Gallagher, president of L.A. City College, acknowledged the special occasion of Biden's presence.
"Of all the colleges that our first lady could have chosen to be at for commencement, she picked us," Gallagher said.
Community colleges, including L.A. City College, are often a starting point for many students pursuing higher education. As of 2018, 46% of students expressed interest in transferring to a four-year university. More than half of students enrolled in 2018 - 54% - were Latino. Thirteen percent were white, 11% Asian and 6% Black.
Stefanie Stone, president of L.A. Community College's associated student government, described her own circuitous journey.
"Five years ago, I was a drunk, a university dropout with literally zero future plans to speak of," Stone said in a speech to her fellow graduates.
She decided to become sober on June 30, 2019, and when she lost her job due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she enrolled at L.A. City College on a whim. Her experience, she said, was far different than her first time pursuing an undergraduate degree, and she found a support system that ultimately paved the path to her educational future - one she will continue at UC Berkeley.
Valedictorian Voleak Sip, who is set to attend UCLA, spoke of the uncertainty of attending college during the pandemic, a time when students were collectively transferred to "Zoom university."
"With the pandemic, we were thrust into the deep end of all sorts of uncertainties. But we recalibrated ... We sat through our lectures in our kitchens, living rooms, or the Starbucks parking lot when our internet went out," Sip said. "If there's one unifying descriptor for all of us here today, it would be that of tenacity."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.