Hello. I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from George Mason University, my alma mater and a place that means a great deal to me.
My name is Charniele Herring and I serve as the Majority Leader in the Virginia House of Delegates and chair of the Courts of Justice Committee. I am the first woman and African American to hold either of these positions. I was first elected to the General Assembly in January 2009 in a special election to fill the vacated seat for the 46th House District.
But well before any of this, I was seated exactly where you are today. I was feeling the same nerves, excitement, and fear each of you are feeling today about stepping out of the comfort zone that George Mason has become for you and venturing out into the world. I can say with complete certainty that I would not be where I am today without George Mason University, and all that I was taught and all that I gained in my time studying here.
I come from a hardworking American family. My father served in the Army, and my
Mom worked hard raising children – and worked hard in her career. But like many, during an economic downturn, we were left homeless, due to job loss. During my teenage years, I spent time living in a motel, then in a homeless shelter, and then most fortunately we moved to an apartment, one that is in the district I now represent.
Being homeless, dealing with housing insecurity has an impact. It made school so much more difficult. Instead of grades, I was focused on my family and our survival. I was fortunate to get the chance to attend college at George Mason University as part of the STEP program [Student Transition Empowerment Program] that allows students from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to prove they are capable of college-level work.
During my time at George Mason I studied Economics, and while I was in school, I worked as a volunteer crisis intervention counselor and trainer at Alexandria Mental Health Services, and I worked with nonprofit advocates on issues surrounding homelessness prevention. I was given a great opportunity and in return I gave what I could – service.
I was able to complete school with the help of Pell Grants and subsidized loans. However, without the STEP program and without George Mason, I would not have had the opportunity to start. And I do not know where I would be without the program and this university.
Because of my time at George Mason I was able to go on and advocate for what I believed in. I testified in the halls of the General Assembly and participated in lobbying days. I was able to go on to law school and to have a successful law career. I was able to run for the House of Delegates and to go on to serve as the first woman, and first African American, Majority Leader. I have been able to pass legislation to make voting easier, preserve our environment, help fight homelessness, provide housing to low-income people, and begin making our criminal justice system more equitable. I have been able to fight for women’s rights, vote for historic LGBTQ+ protections, and enshrine environmental justice in the Code of Virginia.
Do you know where this all started? Many years ago, I was in the position you are all in right now. Looking out into the world, wondering or planning or plotting what’s next. I would not have believed you if you would have told me that I would have gone on to break barriers and help change the face of the Commonwealth.
I got a start at Mason, just like the start each of you have gotten here. I found my voice at George Mason, and that is something for which I will be eternally grateful. Now you are our future. People armed with knowledge and ready to go out into the world.
My hope for each of you is that to find your voice, and once you have found your voice, don’t stop using it. When I was where you are, I spoke out on the issues I cared about – about equality for women, helping the homeless population, and fighting for our environment.
I hope that passion sparks in you and turns into something powerful and lifechanging, as I know that it can. So I charge you now with finding that passion, with finding your path to change the world. Build a business or build a family… speak out or lift someone up… vote, run for office… or do all of these things. I want to make sure none of you ever feel like you can’t make a real and true impact.
So hear me when I say this: I believe you can change the world. I have confidence that you are sitting here today having absorbed the lessons this institution has provided you. I believe you will leave here today and chart a course that will make each tomorrow better for all of us.
Congratulations, George Mason Class 2020. You have achieved something amazing, and I am so excited to see what else each of you can accomplish in the future!