Ithaca, N.Y. — Down 20 points in the polls, Nate Shinagawa hit a low point in his bid to unseat Rep. Tom Reed in 2012.

“I floundered. Lost momentum. Had trouble raising money,” Shinagawa said in an emotional speech to New Roots Charter School graduates at the State Theatre Friday night.

“The problem was that Washington told me I needed to be a certain way, and I followed their expectations instead of my heart. Don’t rock the boat. Put your politics in the middle. Watch your every word.

Nate Shinagawa

While not saying explicitly that he moved his rhetoric leftward, Shinagawa said it was at that point that he decided to speak “straight from the heart.” He gave a speech that filled his campaign coffers.

“By the election, our long-shot campaign was rocketed to being one of the closest in the country,” said Shinagawa, who lost by a 52-to-48 percent margin.

Shinagawa, a Tompkins County legislator and hospital administrator, also spoke extensively about the roles his ailing grandmother and a Cornell professor played in turning his life around at various points.

Here’s the entire speech, reprinted with Shinagawa’s permission:

It is a great honor for me to be here at New Roots as the commencement speaker for the 2014 graduating class! Congratulations seniors!

I had difficulty thinking about what I would say to all of you today. I thought – Should I talk about politics? Maybe health care reform? What could I say that relates to a bunch of high school grads? Then I realized that one thing we have in common is that we’re pretty close in age.

Don’t get me wrong, I know the difference between 18 and 30 sounds IMMENSE to you. Unfathomable. But ask your parents. They’d give anything to be 35 again! Am I right? Our age difference really isn’t that big – just three leap years. For example, when I was 18, people around the world were still obsessed with Harry Potter and Jay-Z and Beyonce were still coming out with hit singles. Even though I’m 30, I still listen to modern music, and in fact, if you have ever liked the cool hipster alt rock that my brother Grant listens to, he probably stole it from my Spotify playlists!

Anyway.

About twelve years ago, I remember being in the same position you are in now. Excited for the future. Open to new challenges. And at the same, totally and utterly terrified about the future.

Back in 2001, I graduated from Elsie Allen High School. I was, and am, as awkward as they come. I made up for my nerdiness by studying a lot. I ended up going to Colby College in Maine for a year, and then transferring to Cornell.

The first two years at Cornell were very, very rough. But they were rough by my own doing. See, I had a plan. It had several steps. And I was hurt every time I made a mistake.

1) Get 4.0s every semester.
2) Work every summer in Congress
3) Become Student Body President of Cornell
4) Get a 180 on my LSATs.
5) Attend Yale Law School.
6) Get a cool girlfriend

It went on and on. This approach gave me a lot of direction, but it also gave me a lot of anxiety. After a few ulcers, losing every election to student government, having a lot of uncool girlfriends and many semesters below a 4.0– I thought my life was in disarray. I fell into a bad spot, where I let the anxiety paralyze me. I saw my grades slip away.

Then something tragic happened that put it all in perspective. My grandmother, Fusako, who had raised me for a large part of my life, got lung cancer. I immediately dropped everything and flew to California to be with her and my grandfather. For three months, I spent day after day cooking Japanese food for her, taking her to the mall, and most importantly, listening patiently as she told me stories, and often the same stories, each day.

For most of my childhood, my grandmother’s stories were about the times before World War II — going to school, sneaking away candy at her aunt’s candy shop, and playing with other children in her neighborhood. The other stories took place in the US in the late 1950s – where life was hard, but happier. I always asked her about the times during and after World War II. She’d often freeze up and change the subject. She didn’t tell me anything about that time until that last summer I was with her.

As she got sicker, the stories flowed out of her memory, as if her memories wanted to survive by attaching to my heart, rather than passing away with her. The stories were immensely sad. Her mother and father died right before height of the war. Her home was destroyed during the fire bombing of Tokyo. Her remaining family scattered. She remembered escaping Tokyo and seeing the bodies of the dead flowing down the winding river as her train followed along its banks. After the war, she raised my aunt as a single mother, with only her meager wages to survive with before she met my grandfather.

What was amazing though is that my grandmother was a happy, bright, social, outgoing person. Until that summer, those stories were never part of her narrative. She knew someday she’d have a family, make enough to survive and have choices, and someday be able to share her wisdom to her grandchildren.

When the fall semester came around again, my grandmother urged me to leave to go back to school. I fought the idea, but she told me that it was important for me to return. A week after arriving back at school, she passed away.

What followed was the toughest year of my life. My previous plans I made seemed so meaningless. That summer with my grandmother made me realize how superficial some of my aspirations were, without giving me guidance on how to making them deeper and more purposeful. I knew I wanted to do something different. But I didn’t know what. Every job I could think of seemed so meaningless at the time.

So on a whim; I took a class on Native American Literature. One day, the professor noticed how distracted I was and said to me, “Nate, meet me in my office.” He started the conversation with, “Nate, how are you doing?” And I broke down. I told him my plans were ruined. I couldn’t make it to law school. I’d never work in Congress. And surely, at this rate, I was destined to be a failure in life. I told him that after my summer with my grandmother, nothing seemed to have meaning anymore.

He told me to calm down. Then he told me about his life. Dropped out of college. Joined a band. Dig a gig on a Native American reservation. Liked it. Lived there for several years. Decided that he wanted to be a professor. Got into Johns Hopkins and got a PhD. Now he’s a named professor at Cornell, well known published author, and has a good life. He told me that it took him all those years to realize that he could be successful not by the jobs or titles he held, but by the values that he lived everyday. He told me he valued teaching young people, introducing people to diversity, and helping his community. Any job that could do that would make him happy. Being immensely successful was an added bonus. He told me to think of what I valued.

So I went home and made a list.

1. I value my supportive and loving family.
2. I value contributing to a community I love, and having compassion and empathy for the people who live in it.
3. I value experiences that keep me humble, that remind me that I am a mere mortal among mortals
4. I value having a job that is personally rewarding – where I can always help people, have the satisfaction I’ve made a difference each day and never stop learning
5. I value authenticity– not being who people think I should be, not doing things because it’ll get the most likes on Facebook – but doing it because it’s true to my heart.

Those values have guided me ever since. I’ll admit though, there have been times when I’ve strayed from those values. Like all things in life, it only works when you’re committed.

When I first decided to run for Congress, I ran my campaign my-way. I was authentic. Community focused. I had a lot of fun. After I won my Primary to be the Democratic Nominee, I floundered. Lost momentum. Had trouble raising money. The problem was that Washington told me I needed to be a certain way and I followed their expectations instead of my heart. Don’t rock the boat. Put your politics in the middle. Watch your every word. In late August, our polls showed us 20 points behind. I didn’t understand what was wrong …. until I was staring at my bookshelf looking at a book by Sherman Alexie, a Native American Author. I remembered that professor. I realized I lost my values.

A week later, I was invited to a major political conference in NY. I asked for a spot, pleaded for a spot, and they added me to the speaker list. They let me speak along with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congresswoman Kathy Hochul. I had three minutes. I decided that it would be the three minutes where I’d tell the world my values. Straight from the heart. I was nervous when I got on stage. But when the words came out, they were so real and authentic, I felt like I was talking to my grandmother. I ended up bringing down the house. In the next week, I raised over $100,000. By the election, our long-shot campaign was rocketed to being one of the closest in the country. My values saved me.

Two months later, my life took another turn. I was asked by the leadership of the House Democrats to run again. This time, they said, I’d get money and support, big names behind me. I was excited about the idea. But I was already being weighed down by the consultants and expectations. I also realized another campaign would mean I’d violate my other values – especially my commitment to my family. Our family ended up going through some unexpected tough times, as all families do, and I had to make a choice. Another run for Congress or Family? My heart told me Family and I’ve never regretted the decision.

You all know Grant. It was a year and a half ago that Grant moved in with me in Ithaca. He was this kid who didn’t believe he was a good student. Didn’t like to read. Didn’t think he was college material. Today I’m so proud of him. He’s become a student leader. An intellectual. And now he’s going to Hobart and William Smith in the Fall. Values saved me, and saved my family.

Today I work at a hospital and one of the departments that I am in charge of is Environmental Services, which is Housekeeping. One night in the cafeteria, I had a conversation with a housekeeper on break. She told me she loved her job. Her daughter recently underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor and that, thanks to Guthrie surgeons, the tumor was completely removed. She said that experience made her realize how important her job is. For a moment, I was a bit confused.

We then talked about how one can have the best surgeon in the world, the best nurse in the world, the best technology in the world — but all of that matters very little if the patient goes to an unclean room and gets sick. She’s a crucial part of the team whose role is just as necessary, and important, as anyone else. She said she always valued having a job where she’d make a difference. In her job as a housekeeper, she does and she saves lives.

As you now move forward, some of you will go straight to work, others to college, and likely a little of both. In your journey though, I encourage you to know your values and to stick to them, instead of seeking a position or a title.

In life, It’s not enough to want to be a doctor, nurse, a congressman, a mechanic or a teacher. You need to ask yourself why you want these jobs. You also need to know in your heart and mind what kind of teacher you will be.

What kind of nurse? What kind of congressman? How will you treat your patients? How will you inspire your students? Will you be cold or kind? Compassionate or dismissive? True to yourself, or beholden to your paycheck? The answers to these questions will tell you what your values are.

Now is the time. You’re closing one chapter in your life and you are starting the next. When you’re a teenager, you spend your life doing what’s expected of you. Now that you’re an adult, you need to do what you expect of yourself. The only way you can do that is if you know who you are and what your values are. Let your values guide you. Let your head and heart be one.

Congratulations Class of 2014. We’re all proud of you. Thank you very much!

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.