Langevin: ‘If you get knocked down, we all have the capacity to get right back up.’

Former congressman quotes Billy Ocean and Bobby Kennedy and offers perspective on overcoming unexpected challenges in JWU commencement speech.

May 10, 2023 4:30 am

Former Congressman James Langevin addresses the graduates at Johnson & Wales University’ Graduate Studies Ceremony on Saturday, May 6. (Photo by Mike Cohea 2023/Johnson & Wales University)

The Honorable James R. Langevin shared his graduate commencement address he delivered to Johnson and Wales University graduates on the morning of Saturday, May 6, 2023, at the Amica Mutual Pavilion in Providence. The speech has been lightly edited here.

Today is a day that you will remember for the rest of your lives. I hope you will take a minute today to pause and reflect upon your tremendous accomplishments over the last several years, and what it took to reach this moment. Savor that feeling, and take pride in what you have achieved. It is no easy feat to graduate from an institution as academically rigorous as Johnson and Wales University. Whether it was long nights studying in the library, back-to-back term papers or final exams, or even an all-nighter or two, you have pushed yourself beyond the limit of what you previously thought was possible. But that’s not all!

You also enrolled in school as our nation was in the midst of a once-in-a-generation pandemic.

You transitioned into an online learning environment, which was unchartered territory for just about all of us.

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No matter how the world around you continued to rapidly evolve, you met the moment. Despite all of the uncertainty and stress that came along with it, you rose to the occasion. For that, you all deserve a well-earned round of applause.

I’m sure that I join your parents, siblings, and loved ones in commemorating today as a moment to celebrate your success. But today is about more than that.

Today is also a time to remember how challenging it was to get here. It was no walk in the park. Whether a given challenge was personal, academic, or otherwise, you overcame it. When you were exhausted, you summoned the energy to keep going. When you were confronted by failures, you mustered the courage to bounce back. When you thought you couldn’t push any further, you gathered the strength to keep pushing. No matter what life threw in your direction, you found a way to persevere. Remember these life lessons. They will serve you well in the future.

I happen to know a thing or two about overcoming unexpected challenges.

When I was a young boy, I thought I had life all figured out. From a young age, I was focused and directed, and I liked having long term goals. By the age of 12 or 13, I got involved with a cadet program at my local police department, and I fell in love with the idea of becoming a police officer, or maybe even an FBI agent one day. It was here that I began to develop a better understanding for what public service was all about. In this program, we met twice a month from January until June, learning about different aspects of law enforcement. In June, we were tested on the course material, and the top scorers in the class were given a job in the police department for the summer.

I happen to know a thing or two about overcoming unexpected challenges.

I spent four summers as a police cadet in the program, and I just fell in love with the job. By the time I was 16, I thought I was well on my way in life. I knew what I wanted, and I was doing everything that I needed to in order to fulfill my dreams.

But sometimes, life has other plans.

One day that summer, I entered the locker room to change into my uniform, as I had done countless times before. But this day was different. As I was getting ready for my shift, an officer pulled the trigger on a gun that he thought was unloaded.

But that gun was in fact loaded. And that bullet ricocheted off of a locker and severed my spinal cord, leaving me paralyzed from the upper chest down.

At first, I was convinced that this terrible tragedy had ruined my life. Not only was it difficult to adjust to my new physical limitations that I faced, but I had to come to terms with the fact that my dream of becoming a police officer was irredeemably shattered. It took time. But with help from my family, faith, and community, I refused to let this new challenge keep me down.

As I began adapting to my new reality, I learned that with the right support, patience, and hard work, I could overcome almost any obstacle. I came to understand what Hemingway meant when he said, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” In time, I began to dream new dreams. Instead of serving my community as a police officer, I sought out other ways to give back and serve my community. I also learned that through hard work and a commitment to education, that new doors would open for me.

Ultimately, I found a way to give back through a different kind of public service.

Members of the Johnson & Wales University Class of 2023 attend the Graduate Studies Ceremony on Saturday, May 6. (Photo by Mike Cohea 2023/Johnson & Wales University)

Government service and elected office became my new goal, and I eventually became the first quadriplegic ever elected to the U.S. Congress. Now, many of you may decide to pursue a career in a field other than politics. One thing is certain – life will certainly offer you many challenges. We all face them. No one gets through life without them. They come in different shapes and sizes, and they can appear at any time. Some are within your control, and others are not.

But know this. Each of us, no matter the obstacles, has the capacity to overcome those challenges and persevere. Things will not always go your way. You might encounter setbacks. And those setbacks might sting. But that’s okay. It’s okay!

There is nothing wrong with failure, so long as you use it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and succeed. So set your goals high, and do your best to achieve them.

But do so with the understanding that your journey may not always proceed as planned.

If you get knocked down, we all have the capacity to get right back up. It might even be a sign that you have to adjust course or move in a different direction. But whatever you decide, if you still believe in yourselves and the goals you set, do not quit.

As the great Billy Ocean once said, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

You all have already demonstrated that you’re tough. So as you each prepare yourself for this exciting next chapter, never forget about your ability to surmount life’s challenges Because challenges will come. But you all are more than capable of overcoming whatever is thrown your way. Of that, I’m sure.

Johnson & Wales University Providence Campus President Marie Bernardo-Sousa presents an honorary doctoral hood to former Congressman James Langevin during the Graduate Commencement on Saturday, May 6. (Photo by Mike Cohea 2023)

Some of you may have figured this out already. For others, that realization that life is a perseverance test is still a work in progress. But each test in life, each struggle, sets you up to overcome the next hurdle and hopefully pave your way to success.

They are chances to show yourself and the world what you’re capable of achieving.

Learn from those experiences. Grow from those experiences. Don’t be afraid to dream big dreams.

Bobby Kennedy said, “Some people see things as they are, and say why? I dream things that never were, and say why not?”

I hope you will all set big goals for yourselves and dream big dreams. And never, ever let anything get in your way. 

And most importantly, know that the entire Johnson and Wales community is behind you, cheering you on every step of the way.

Congratulations, graduates, on all that you have achieved, and best of luck in all your future endeavors.


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James Langevin
James Langevin

James Langevin served 11 terms in Congress representing Rhode Island’s second district in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was a senior member of the House Committees on Armed Services and Homeland Security. Langevin previously served as a state representative in the General Assembly from 1988 to 1994, and as Rhode Island’s secretary of state from 1995 to 2001. He is a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a visiting scholar in the Department of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.