MERIDEN — Miguel Cardona, a city native poised to become the next U.S. Secretary of Education, had a few words of advice for students and staff Monday morning.
Cardona, noting he will always be “a teacher at heart”, urged students to follow their passions, and to stay humble and hungry, during remarks that very well could have been delivered during a commencement ceremony for either Maloney or Platt High School.
But, instead of a valedictorian or salutatorian speaking to fellow graduates, Cardona spoke in what was a video-streamed send off of his own — as he awaits confirmation from the U.S. Senate for his upcoming post.
“Don’t chase money, don’t chase power. Don’t chase titles,” Cardona said. “Find support from dedicated teachers and educators around you, like I did. If you come across people who doubt you, or have low expectations, prove them wrong.”
Cardona, who is currently Connecticut’s commissioner of education, spoke from a lectern in the auditorium of Maloney High School, flanked by his wife Marissa and his two children, along with Meriden School Superintendent Mark Benigni and Board of Education President Robert Kosienski Jr.
His audience was district students and staff who were tuned in from their school buildings and classrooms via the video conferencing platform Zoom.
“This has been an amazing journey,” Cardona said. Then he recalled his first day of kindergarten, at John Barry School. It was a difficult day. He remembered sitting in the school nurse’s office crying.
“I never wanted to go back,” Cardona said. “Here I am, 40 years later. And I’m having mixed emotions about leaving the place I love.”
Students give hope
Seventeen years after Cardona had first enrolled in the Meriden Public Schools, he became a teacher in the same district. He would go on to become principal at Hanover Elementary School, then join the central office of the Meriden Public Schools as assistant superintendent. In 2019, Cardona became state commissioner of education, the first Latino resident appointed to the position.
Cardona acknowledged the transition from state commissioner to U.S. Secretary of Education-designate comes with numerous challenges.
“... Such as a divided nation, the challenge of being in the middle of a health pandemic, and expected economic downturn for our entire country,” Cardona said.
Other challenges include “college debt that is preventing upward mobility for so many students, and an exacerbated achievement gap in the last nine months,” he said.
Despite those challenges, Cardona said he remains “hopeful that America’s best days are still ahead of us.”
Cardona said that hope comes from speaking with students.
“Any time I talk to a student I’m reminded of the promise of this great country. You give me hope, students. You give me inspiration. As a scared five-year-old that was afraid to go to school or as your Secretary of Education, I am one of you. And I always will be. Despite the challenges that will face me when I head to Washington, D.C., I know that together we have got this.”
He thanked his family, fellow educators in Meriden and the community at large, saying they “have shaped me into who I am today.”
He added, “testimonies are better than titles,” in urging students to seek to leave a positive impact on their community. Cardona also advised students to “learn how to work with people you don’t always agree with.”
Cardona’s last lesson that morning: “Stay true to who you are and never change. You are unique,” he said. “I often had a hard time fitting in and I was OK with that. I stayed true to who I was. Now I feel just as comfortable from the barrio to the boardroom.”
Cardona said that when he interviewed with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and VIce President-elect Kamala Harris, he sought to show them who he was.
“And I hoped that’s what they were looking for... thankfully it was,” he said.
‘In their corner’
Cardona’s address followed other remarks from Benigni and Kosienski and a video montage, which included footage from when Cardona was Hanover’s building leader, along remarks from other city educators, officials and families, who recalled the partnerships that Cardona had forged with them.
One clip showed Cardona at Hanover as he welcomed students into the building on the first day.
“Good morning, you’re the first one at Hanover. Isn’t that cool?” he said, with a smile, to one young boy.
Benigni, during his remarks, described Cardona as “an outstanding educator, an exceptional leader and an even better person.”
Benigni said he is thrilled for his now-former colleague.
“We know you will do an amazing job as our country’s education leader. With you at the helm, all public school students, staff and families will have someone to advocate for them, someone in their corner,” Benigni said to Cardona.
Cardona, after the event, was asked by a reporter how he would continue the collaborative and student-centered approach that has defined his educational career.
“It’s too late for me to change my stripes now,” Cardona said in response. “I’m student-centered and that’s always going to drive my work. I got into this field because I wanted to help children and I’m blessed to be in a position now where my decisions can positively impact students across the country. I plan to listen to students. I plan to structure it so that I’m listening to them regularly throughout the country. And their perspective will most certainly influence how I lead as Secretary of Education.”