On May 20, 2017 I had the rare privilege, for me at least, of giving an important speech to an audience of critical thinkers, that is, young people less than 24 hours away from officially becoming graduates of my alma mater, Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.
I was deeply moved to be asked to be the baccalaureate ceremony speaker. So much emotion, so many memories. I've been a part of the Dickinson family for a very long time.
The speech made me ask myself: what would I want to hear from a speaker on the weekend in which I crossed from college undergraduate to graduate? The answer came fairly readily: you can never wrong with a message of hope. Read on for a transcript.
Thank you Savannah for that very kind introduction.
I am profoundly honored and moved by this opportunity to speak to you, the Class of 2017, today.
During my many return visits to our extraordinarily beautiful college as a member of the board of trustees, I have enjoyed meeting many of you in the Class of 2017.
You have deeply impressed me – with your intelligence, your passion and your poise. I have no doubt you will also impress the world beyond these limestone walls.
As I stand here looking out at you, my mind travels back to my own commencement exercises here nearly 40 years ago.
It's so hard to believe it’s been almost forty years since I descended Old West’s time worn steps.
I recall that Hanna Holburn Gray, then President of the University of Chicago, the first woman to lead that institution, was our commencement speaker. I can't remember a word she said. I went on YouTube to see if I could find archival footage of her speech that day. No luck.
You in the Class of 2017 won’t have that problem. We record and live stream all our commencements now. Forty years from now you'll be able to call up the video of
Adm. Stavridis's speech tomorrow and watch it as you sit in your living room, maybe on the planet Mars, in Elon Musk City.
My strongest memory from that commencement day in 1979 is a moment I still deeply regret.
It involved one of the most lovable professors at the college for many years, Joe Schiffman. He taught English and American Studies. There's a memorial to him by Bosler, a Japanese maple tree and a marker. The marker gives his life span: 1914 to 1999. In quotes are the words: “beloved teacher, husband, father, friend.”
He was my teacher, mentor, friend and father figure. Besides being his student, I was his research assistant.
Professor Schiffman was quite a character.
When he taught Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, he would enter the classroom wearing an old-fashioned fisherman’s rain slicker and carrying a harpoon.
I don’t think a professor could get away with carrying a harpoon around campus these days. Maybe that’s progress --- I’m not sure.
As if that weren’t enough to make him a campus legend, on the first day in his class, you could count on him to walk around the room, peer intently into the faces of first timers to his classroom and announce to each what his or her name was.
With his full head of white hair, he would lean over toward a student and say "You must be Rebecca. Can I call you Becky?" He would do that to every new student to his class.
You see, he had memorized their faces and names from photos he had his research assistants like me cut out from the yearly booklet that contained pictures of all first years. He cared for his students enough to do that. He wanted to make everyone feel that they belonged.
Anyway, after the end of the 1979 commencement exercises, a beaming Professor Schiffman, his wife Bess at his side, approached me, my mom Enid and my dad Vincent. The Schiffmans invited us to join them at a local restaurant for lunch. It would be their treat, they said.
My parents were willing but I wasn’t. I haltingly declined the invitation. “Uhhh, thanks, but we already have a lunch reservation,” I said, which was true. But that wasn't the real reason.
The actual reason was I was afraid my salt-of-the-earth, Jamaican immigrant, non-college educated parents might embarrass me in front of the Schiffmans.
They might've misconjugated a verb or something. I couldn't take that risk.
I can still remember the look of disappointment on the Schiffmans’ and my parents’ faces. What a missed opportunity. Those two couples should’ve had the chance to break bread together, to celebrate my achievement together.
Looking back on it now, I find it hard to believe that I feared my parents could possibly embarrass me in front of a guy who wore a rain slicker and carried a harpoon to class to teach Moby Dick.
Even without college educations, my parents were smart, friendly folks who loved to talk and laugh and knew, in their own way, how to put strangers at ease. There was really nothing to fear.
But my 21-year old brain was blind in that moment to anything but my parents’ potential to embarrass me. My fears won out that day.
Fellow Dickinsonians, do not repeat my mistake tomorrow. If a beloved professor offers to buy you and your family lunch, say yes. It’s a free meal. F---R---E---E.
But seriously, it’s remarkable how, even on a day that epitomizes so much hope, like the day of your college commencement, fear is right there too.
In fact, it seems like those two always travel together, fear and hope. They are like conjoined twins -- where you find one, you find the other.
My fear of the potential for my parents to embarrass me in front of my learned professor wasn’t my only worry on my commencement day.
I was also anxious about what came the day after commencement. I didn’t have a career path figured out. I wasn’t going to graduate school. I didn’t even have a job lined up.
I had hope that once I started really looking for a job I’d get one. But hope wasn’t going to pay my share of the rent in the house I lived in on South Street. Those were nervous times.
I’m guessing that for many of you, this weekend of hope and joy, this commencement weekend, is also a time of some fear and anxiety.
Even for those of you with jobs, or seats waiting for you in graduate or professional schools, there is still uncertainty. There are still questions only the future can answer.
Will you be as successful at the next level as you were at Dickinson? Will you find meaningful work that pays well?
And then, there are the big, cosmic worries, issues like global warming, our dysfunctional national politics, or the dystopian future in which, some experts say, artificial intelligence will take all our jobs.
So, yes, there’s much to be anxious about even at this time of hope.
But I think you have every reason to allow your hopes to vastly outweigh your fears. Here’s why.
You are among the fortunate few who have ever lived who are getting bachelor’s degrees from a first-rate liberal arts college.
Now, I don’t know how many people have gotten liberal arts degrees in human history but it’s been a relatively paltry number. The Population Reference Bureau estimates that 108 billion people have ever lived, seven billion being alive right now.
Given that maybe four percent of U.S. graduates of not-for-profit colleges get degrees from small liberal arts institutions, you can see that you are indeed among the fortunate few.
To earn that degree, you’ve shown curiosity, persistence and empathy. You’ve also demonstrated creativity, critical thinking and superior communications skills.
Some of you have been innovators. Many of you have been leaders. You have a global perspective, strengthened by studying abroad. You think creatively, critically and flexibly. And you’ve learned how to keep learning, a skill that will allow you to better adapt to an uncertain future. That means if the industry you’re in implodes around you the way journalism did around me due to the Internet, you’ll just climb out of the smoking ruins and move on to whatever’s next.
Experts say it’s precisely college graduates like you who are most likely to thrive in a world ever more reliant on technology.
Then there’s the confidence that comes from having been in a place like this where scholars like Joe Schiffman know your name and, indeed, become lifelong friends. With professors like these standing behind you, believing in you, it’s hard to not believe in yourself.
I’m sure the knowledge of how much my professors believed in this kid from The Bronx, gave me the chutzpah to write and talk my way onto The Wall Street Journal.
And, by the way, Dickinson got me in the door there. The Wall Street Journal’s national editor at the time, the guy who hired me, was a Haverford College graduate who, of course, knew of Dickinson.
All right --- I’ve debated with myself about whether I should tell you one of the reasons Dickinson left such a strong impression on this guy. I’ve decided to tell you.
It just so happened that editor not only attended Haverford College but also grew up in the town of Haverford.
Among his favorite childhood memories, he told me during my job interview, were the times Dickinson’s football team would visit Haverford.
He told me that Dickinson students who traveled to Haverford to cheer on the Red Devils would essentially run amok in his neighborhood, jump over backyard fences and throw people’s patio furniture into their swimming pools. This enraged all the homeowners, including his parents, but amused the child who later became that editor who interviewed me for my first journalism job.
Now you see why I wasn’t sure I should share that story with you. Not so noble Dickinsonia.
Anyway, that began a 33-year career in journalism where I witnessed amazing history and got to tell many great stories for a living.
To think that the skinny young man with a big afro (yes, I had a big afro as hard as that may be to believe today) that the skinny young man who sat there 38 years ago with no job lined up would become a successful journalist at three of the nation’s top news organizations still amazes me.
To think that the skinny young man who sat there would one day cover South Africa’s first truly Democratic presidential elections in 1994, and even get to meet Nelson Mandela, and shake his hand, still amazes me.
To think that the skinny young man who sat there would become a pioneering newspaper blogger and that I’d live-blog the scene at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver when Sen. Barack Obama officially became the first African American presidential nominee of one of the two major political parties still amazes me.
To think that the skinny young man who sat there would go on to become a writer at NPR, and friends with Nina Totenberg, the network’s famed Supreme Court reporter, still amazes me. And that after my journalism career ended, Nina would mention me to a legendary lawyer friend of hers at WilmerHale, one of the nation’s top law firms, and that I would get the chance to do public relations for that firm, still amazes me. By the way, WilmerHale was in the news this week. The Justice Department named one of our partners, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, special counsel to investigate the alleged Russian influence on the 2016 Presidential election. It’s been a busy week for me.
And all of this happened for a guy who didn’t have a clue what his first job would be when he sat right there.
But it worked out for me. It will work out for you.
Dickinson Class of 2017, enjoy tomorrow. Savor it. You’ve earned every twinge of pride you will feel.
And, remember, try not to do anything tomorrow that you’ll regret for the next 40 years. I still can’t believe I turned down that free lunch!