Yesterday I had the privilege of delivering the commencement speech for Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
Founded in 1869, Wilson has been a pioneer in women’s education for almost a century and a half. Like many other women’s schools, it faced challenges during the 1970s as more and more colleges and universities went co-ed. But its alumnae and many of its trustees rallied to keep the school open, emerging with innovative new programs in adult education and developing a stellar initiative that embraces mothers with children who live on campus while earning their degrees.
Wilson also is a leader in environmental stewardship and organic agriculture through the work of its Fulton Center for Sustainable Living and is a founding signatory of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment with its pledge to make itself Carbon Neutral by 2040.
My invitation came from Wilson President Barbara Mistick, whom I’d met at a White House women’s event during the Clinton administration and then again some years later in Pittsburgh, where she was president of the Carnegie Library, the city’s large public library system. An entrepreneur and former professor of entrepreneurship and public policy at Carnegie Mellon’s H. J. Heinz School of Public Policy, she is leading a transformation that has included a new science, math and technology center, restoration and expansion of the historic library and a move to coeducation.
I was so impressed with all I saw — from the parents who were determined to earn college degrees as a way to set an example for their children to graduates who are headed to law school and to careers in early childhood education, from the Hankey Center and Archives to “Washed Up,” the Alejandro Duran exhibition in the Sue Davidson Cooley Art Gallery.
Here is my commencement speech.
Strategy, Service and Serendipity: Mapping a Life that Matters
GREETINGS Class of 2016!
Thank you so much, President Mistick.
Good morning Trustees, Faculty, Administration. Good morning Marybeth, Katelyn and Mit.
I am honored and humbled to receive this honorary degree from Wilson College.
What a glorious day! And finally! Sunshine! Though I could use some gloves and socks right now.
Congratulations Class of 2016!!!
You made it!!!
Congratulations to all the parents and grandparents. Sisters and brothers. Godparents. Aunts and Uncles. Your love and sacrifice made today’s celebration possible. All those hours in mini-vans. All those diapers. All those snarky, annoying teenage conversations when you refrained from going off because you were the adult. Today is the day when all that feels worth the effort!
So I read about Sarah Wilson Week! I heard about the Evens and the Odds. The close ties and the friendly rivalries. The song competition that I understand has become more like a shout competition! Class of 2016, you are now officially and forever in the Alumni Society of the Evens! And by the way, I’d love to learn more about the hayride and what goes on at Sarah Wilson’s graveside. I understand there are lots of secrets around that activity!
From the vision of those two Presbyterian ministers in 1869 and the generosity of Sarah Wilson, you now are part of a legacy that has championed women’s education for almost a century and a half. You also are part of an institution that has had the wisdom to evolve by pioneering education for adult learners, by creating a program that embraces single mothers with children and now by welcoming men in full co-education.
Rejuvenation is all around us. The redesigned John Stewart Memorial Library. The beautiful plaza that joins the library with the Arts Building and the Science Center.
As Wilson graduates, you join esteemed alumnae like Attorney Patricia Vail, Class of 1963. A role model for life long learning, she had the confidence to study a new language at 55 and the courage to reinvent herself as an advisor to the Kasakhstan Parliament. She is the personification of a Wilson alumna.
You follow in the footsteps of geneticist Xandra Breakefield, Class of 1964. A professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, she discovered the first marker for the dystonia gene. But what I also love about her story is that she wasn’t afraid to seek the advice of mentors early in her career.
You have the example of Dr. Barbara Tenney, a pediatrician and chairman of Wilson’s board of trustees, who told us last night about her shoestring budget while she was in medical school and how she talked her way into getting free room and board by offering to help her landlord. That kind of persuasiveness is what being a Wilson student means.
Confident. Curious. Smart. Brave. Receptive to new ideas.
Look around you and see the alumni who are here for their 5th and 10th and 25th and 50th reunions. Among them are the women who loved this institution so much they fought back against the forces that wanted to close the doors. Wilson always has believed in second chances and reinvention. The phoenix, after all, is your mascot.
Commencement speeches are when older people stand at a podium and do their best to try to give you the advice they wish someone had given them. Soooooo….When I look out at you and I think about my 22-year old self, I realize I had no clue! And while I know you already know a LOT, may I just suggest that it’s impossible to anticipate all the twists and turns that life will bring. In fact you might pull the covers up over your head and never, ever come out again, if you knew! Though the truth is, many of you already have encountered those punches that life throws. And your presence here today proves that you are resilient.
As I thought about what I would say to you today, I asked myself this question: How REAL am I going to get?!?! Do they really want to know the REAL DEAL?!?! Because it would be very easy to just be that person who gets invited to do the commencement speech because she can color inside the lines. And share a few platitudes. And tell you the road to success is paved with gumdrops and lollipops if you work hard enough.
But as a biographer and a journalist and a woman of a certain age, I realized a long time ago that a life story without flaws and obstacles is not an honest life story. My graduation day – a REALLY long time ago – could not have been more perfect. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a touch of humidity. A great hair day as a matter of fact! As lovely a morning as one could imagine.
My parents – and two family friends who were like mothers to me – had traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to help me celebrate. I already had a job for the summer as a newscaster at a radio station in my home town in Indiana. I had another job waiting for me in Wilmington, Delaware at the DuPont Company in September. I had just learned that I’d been taken off of the wait list at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and was able to defer, which allowed me to save some money. By living in the dorm, I figured I’d even have enough cash to buy cheap tickets for a Broadway show every now and then. And I had a boyfriend I thought was “the one.” Did I say “perfect?” It could not have been more perfect.
That summer back in Indianapolis was magical. My mother had the most amazing garden. Cucumbers and melons and peppers. Delicious fried green tomatoes. Every morning we’d go outside together and pull weeds and see what had grown overnight. And then we’d ride to work together in her fancy, copper Thunderbird. She would drop me off at the radio station and then she would go off to her job. Perfect. Right? Perfect.
But a year and a half later, when I was in graduate school, my mother died. She’d been diagnosed with lung cancer several months earlier. There was chemotherapy and all the horrible side affects that come with that. And the efforts she and my father made to protect my brothers and me from the reality of what was happening. At 23, the idea that my mother might die was beyond comprehension, outside the realm of possibility. But it happened.
And then a few years later, it was clear that the boyfriend was no longer “the one.” Which at the time seemed like a big problem but which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
So life. Life happens.
Well, at least the job was moving along mostly as planned!
But then what!?!?
When Plan A is no longer an option, you need to move on to Plan B. Life goes on and you need a strategy to get you to the next phase. You pick yourself up and you remember that Wilson phoenix!
My first decade after college was about learning and making mistakes. About figuring out how to budget my money. About realizing I had to pay my own dental bills. About balancing work and play.
I took some job assignments I wasn’t all that excited about because I knew that was the drill to get the experience I needed. I moved half way across the country from New York to the NBC News bureau in Houston, Texas…which I did NOT want to do.
But it was another blessing in disguise! And I got lucky. I was embraced by a group of talented people. I was given opportunities to cover stories I never would have had if I’d stayed in New York. And I was mentored by colleagues who were generous enough to invest in my success.
So here was the strategy I learned. Strive to do a great job every single day. Say yes even when you’d rather say no if there’s an opportunity to learn. Raise your hand to do something no one else wants to do. Be a team player. Carry your own weight. Do not let your colleagues down.
The strategy is this: Do whatever job you have at the time with as much enthusiasm as you can. I know it’s hard to be the new kid on the block. It’s tough to have to do the scut work that comes with entry level positions. But I promise you this: If you over-perform on the minor tasks, someone will notice. And the next time that person needs someone to do a major task, he or she will come find you. And when life happens, you will be prepared.
No one can prevent you from the feeling that comes from having your heart broken! No one can really warn you about a boss who is a jerk! You can’t practice how to respond to someone who is condescending and tries to make you feel insignificant. But you do have control over HOW you respond. And like the Wilson phoenix, you can rise above it all and do what you need to do.
Here’s something else I have learned along the way. Whatever success you achieve must have a purpose beyond the paycheck and the promotion.
As I researched the life of my great-great-grandmother, Madam C. J. Walker, I learned that she was said to be the first self-made American woman millionaire. An amazing accomplishment for a woman in the early 20th century before women even had the right to vote. An incredible feat for an African American when Jim Crow laws blocked progress in every aspect of life from housing to education.
But what makes her life especially meaningful to me is that she employed, educated and empowered thousands of women as her sales agents at a time when their most likely job options would have been to be maids and sharecroppers and washerwomen. She helped them become economically independent so they could buy homes and educate their children.
At her first national convention in 1917 – a year before Mary Kay Ash of Mary Kay Cosmetics was born –she told them their first duty was to humanity. By that she meant that these women who had come from all over the United States and the Caribbean must give back to their communities. She wanted then to make money, but she also wanted them to take on leadership roles and to be activists. She gave prizes not just to the women who had sold the most products that year, but to the women who had contributed the most to charity in their communities.
So I say to you, when a chance to help others presents itself, raise your hand. I know as Wilson alumnae and alumni you will never let your motivation be just about the money. Instead of asking what’s in it for me, ask “What do I have to offer?” and “What can I contribute?”
The Curran Scholars and those of you who built houses with Habitat for Humanity during Alternative Spring Break know exactly what I’m talking about. In my own life, those volunteer opportunities have led to friendships, to leadership opportunities and to the chance to make a difference. The rewards have been beyond measure.
Soooo…have a strategy. Find ways to be of service. And here’s something else I hope you’ll remember today. Always leave the door open for serendipity. Make space for the chance encounter.
Life happens in ways that can knock you off your feet. But life also happens in ways that can bring you immeasurable joy and connect you to your destiny. One of those moments of serendipity for me was having Phyllis Garland as my advisor in graduate school.
At the time she was the only black woman on the faculty at Columbia’s Journalism School. And I was lucky that she had figured out that I had a connection to Madam Walker because my name A’Lelia was the same as Madam Walker’s daughter. She is the one who insisted that I do research about my family at a time when that was the farthest thing from my mind. But the seeds she planted 40 years ago ultimately became my life’s work.
My wish for you is that you find your purpose, that you have successful lives. That you make a contribution. Every generation faces challenges. You have more than your share. Global warming. Income inequality. Tuition debt. To name just a few.
That diploma you now hold in your hand is a passport to expanding your mind and your worldview. As an educated person, you must challenge whatever prejudices and biases you see. Shine a light on bigotry and ignorance. Build bridges rather than walls.
We are counting on you Class of 2016 to rise to the occasion.
My generation needs the ideas you have to offer.
But I also hope there is some wisdom we may offer as well.
As I was preparing for today, I posted a message on my Facebook page and asked friends what advice I should share with you. More than seventy friends offered tips. And given their ages, I think that amounts to a total of at least 4,000 years of collective wisdom
Here are some of the things they wanted you to know:
“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.”
“Be kind and compassionate.”
“If you see someone who lives on the street, buy them sandwiches. Give them clean socks.”
“Love often and deeply.”
“Dispel the myth that someone else will make you happy.”
“Learn how to make the rules because that’s how you change things.”
“Make friends with people you admire so you can learn from them and improve yourself.”
To all that they have said, I would like to add some thoughts of my own.
Surround yourself with people who have your best interest at heart. Be mindful of the company you keep. Know who is in your posse.
Learn something new every day. One of my go to sources is NPR. I am inspired by TED Talks. I am moved by Story Corps. When I need a lift, those always do the trick.
Avoid credit card debt. Save something from every paycheck. Even if it’s a few dollars. When you get to be my age, it will make a difference.
Vote. Especially this year. Vote! Study the issues and hold elected officials accountable.
And finally….Don’t be a jerk. Don’t be a bully.
When you come back for your 5th and 10th and 25th and 50th reunions, I hope you will be able to say that you have mentored someone, that you have helped someone, that you have done something to make the society more just and more equal.
Each step along the way, I hope that you have danced and sung. I hope that beautiful flowers have bloomed in your gardens and that you have cooked fabulous meals for your friends and family.
I hope that you have created a circle of friends like the one I am blessed to have.
I hope you have a book club that is as wonderful and stimulating and warm as mine.
Oh, and just so you know, everything has worked out just fine. The 30 years with NBC and ABC were beyond fulfilling. I’m almost finished with my fourth book. The REAL “real one” came along in due time. My mother still pops up in my dreams with advice from time to time. My 89-year old dad is in great shape. And I am grateful beyond measure for the gifts I’ve been given and the opportunities to give back.
This is YOUR commencement. It is a beginning, not an end.
With this piece of paper in your hand, you have proven to yourself that you could complete this leg of the journey. There are many more miles to go.
May the wind always be at your back…and when it isn’t, may you muster the fortitude you need to push on.
Class of 2016! The world is yours!
May you have a strategy. May you be of service. May you have more moments of serendipity than you can count!