Former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, will be its winter commencement speaker on Dec. 18, the university announced today.

King, who teaches in the College of Education, said in an interview that he’ll encourage UMD graduates to use college degrees as a foundation for meeting their responsibilities as engaged citizens. Beyond voting, he said, those duties include attending rallies, engaging in dialogue with opponents and writing letters to representatives.

“It’s about being of service to your neighbors, community, state and country,” he said. “This is a moment where you can see the intensity of political divisions.”

King is president and CEO of the Education Trust, a nonprofit that works to close opportunity and achievement gaps. He led the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama, who called King “an exceptionally talented educator.”

“Throughout his career, John King has fought on the front lines of education reform to make the system more equitable and help all students succeed,” said UMD President Wallace D. Loh. “As one of our visiting professors, Dr. King is inspiring a new generation of leaders, and will similarly inspire our graduates and their families.”

King, whose parents both died before he was 12 years old, credits his teachers in the New York City public school system for putting his life on the right path. He started his career as a high school social studies teacher in Puerto Rico and Boston, then served as a middle school principal before eventually becoming the first African American and Puerto Rican to be New York State education commissioner.

While the price tag and borrowing often necessary to obtain a college degree remain controversial, King said “earning a bachelor’s degree is the best path into the middle class.” And as universities, advocates and judges continue to wrangle over how diversity can be considered in admission decisions, every school needs to increase outreach to different races and income brackets.

“There’s a lot of talent that institutions miss out on when they aren’t recruiting in diverse communities,” he said.

King received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and a Master of Arts in teaching social studies and a doctorate in education from the Teachers College at Columbia University. He serves as a member of multiple boards, including the Century Foundation, former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative and the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement at the University of California.

King lives in Silver Spring, Md., with his wife, a former kindergarten and first-grade teacher, and his two daughters, who attend local public schools.