May 23, 2008

U.S. Treasurer Anna Escobedo Cabral Speaks at SMU

Cabral (front row, left center) with SMU students
See a slide show

As Treasurer of the United States, Anna Escobedo Cabral’s signature appears on all paper currency printed since 2005. But the first time she was asked to draft the signature, her hands shook so badly with nervousness she could not write her name.

“Then I thought of my grandparents and great grandparents who came to the United States from Mexico,” she told an SMU audience. “My hands quit shaking when I realized my signature was really honoring them.”

Cabral spoke to SMU students, faculty and staff Thursday, May 22, at the invitation of SMU’s Office of Multicultural Affairs.

U.S. Treasurer since 2004, Cabral is the highest ranking Latina in the Bush administration. She heads the Department of the Treasury, which includes the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the United States Mint, the Internal Revenue Service and the Bureau of the Public Debt.

In a question and answer session at the Hughes-Trigg Student Center, she shared her experiences as the daughter of a third-generation farm-worker family and her passion for education.

What is your educational background?

I come from a family where no one had completed high school, let alone college. I decided I would graduate from high school early to get a job to help support my family. But my high school math teacher, Mr. Lamm, taught me there was a much bigger world out there and encouraged me to apply to college.

I would encourage you to make a lifetime commitment to education. We live in a world that increasingly expects change. To remain competitive you will need to acquire new skills. That may involve another degree, it may involve taking a couple of classes at a community center, or making a list of books that you need to read over the next year so that you have the knowledge it takes to succeed.

I will let you in on a secret – I am going to law school at night right now. I am two classes away from graduation. I am trying to live what I say.

How has your success affected your extended family?

I was grateful for the opportunity to attend college, but shortly after arriving on campus I became very angry because I noticed that there were very few people there who looked like me. There were still too many people in the neighborhoods I left behind who didn’t have a teacher like Mr. Lamm to encourage them. This gift of education that I received has to be used to open additional doors – that is what propelled me to government service. Once I learned about the importance of higher education, I made sure that everywhere I went, people would hear the pitch on why they should go on to college.

I have started a new higher education tradition in my family. My four children have all gone to college, two are in graduate school. My brothers and sisters all finished high school and have gone on to some kind of post-secondary education.

I have spent a lifetime building a career in public service, but the most difficult task I have ever had in my entire life came the day I had to sign my name on a piece of paper to create the metal plate that would print my signature on paper currency. I could not get my pen to the paper because my hand was shaking so much. Then I thought of my grandparents and parents and their sacrifices. I realized that when I made that signature, I was really honoring them. Then my pen went straight to the paper, and I signed my name.

Is the penny going to be eliminated?

No, we are not eliminating the penny. In 2009 to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial birthday, we will introduce four brand new pennies. There is a big constituency out there that supports the penny – the charities that raise money with the boxes on the counters. When they collect those pennies they add up to quite a bit. And they actually make a difference in the work of those charities.

Before becoming U.S. Treasurer, you served in key Senate staff positions. Why did you leave the Hill to become president of the Hispanic Association for Corporate Responsibility?

Sometimes the federal government cannot solve the problem, in fact, sometimes the federal government is the problem. I felt it was time to move beyond the Hill and see how we could build better collaborations between the public sector, the private sector and community-based institutions to solve some of the issues that were facing our communities.

What are your plans for the future?

In the next seven months I’ll be out of a job. When President Bush leaves I’ll be leaving with him.

I know my next job will be about serving. It may not be in the government, you can do a good job of serving in the private sector as well. I never imagined I would be treasurer of the United States, it’s not something you wake up and dream about as a little kid. But I think people take notice and honor your work,

Whatever it is, it will be about finding a way to make communities better.

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