Excerpts From 2012 Commencement Speeches

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

May 27, 2012

Madeleine Albright, former U.S. secretary of state, at Roger Williams University: It used to be that when coming of age, most people had a fair idea of where they would live and what careers they would pursue, many following their parents' footsteps or finding a niche in a stable profession. However, today stability is an alien concept. In the past decade alone, many of the brand names that flourished when you were younger—from Toys "R" Us to Blockbuster and MySpace—have fallen under hard times. Meanwhile, such fields as law, business, engineering, health care, journalism, and education are being transformed.

So as you look ahead, you realize that the demands of the workplace will continue to change and that maintaining a certain level of knowledge is no longer enough. Whether your primary goal is personal success, community service, or a combination of the two, you will have to keep learning because there's always more to know. For this you should be grateful because the quest to learn more is a vital part of what it means to be alive.

Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children's Zone, at the University of Pennsylvania: Today, America is at a scary inflection point. Fear for the self is everywhere. We find it hard to care for the homeless when our mortgages are under water. Seniors fear they can't afford to retire, the middle class worry about going on food stamps. The poor have no job security and too often no job. We divide ourselves by being part of the 1 percent or the 99 percent. The poor feel under attack, the middle class feel under attack, even the wealthy feel under attack.

Our team, the team that rallies us around the common good, that emphasizes self-sacrifice and altruism, is losing. Their team, the team that says "every man for himself," that makes us turn our back on the poor, feel no empathy, that feeds off of our vulnerabilities, our insecurities, our personal demons and prejudices, is winning. Their team is winning, our team is losing, and yet I offer you a wondrous opportunity, to join the losing team. ...

I know this opportunity sounds too good to be true. Yes, you can join the losing team, but not quite yet. You might need more seasoning. You see, it's not easy to be on the losing team. You have to be careful. If you are not properly prepared, you will become a loser. We don't want losers. We want winners who aren't afraid to play on the losing team. I dare say that your preparation here is a good beginning, but you need more experience. It's tougher than you think out here. There is evil out here. I'm not talking about some mystical, theoretical, hypothetical construct. I'm talking about the real thing: pain and suffering, despair and death.

So our team needs you. The other team offers you money, power, luxury cars, vacation homes, and stock options. Our team offers you challenge and struggle, a rich intellectual life, honesty as a guiding beacon and a good night's sleep. Well, to be honest, their team offers a good night's sleep also, but I just wanted to put it on our side. We seemed a little light on benefits.

But do you know why I offer you this opportunity to play on the losing side? Because in the end we are going to win. Because we are right. There is no way that our great democracy will continue to be a beacon to the free world if the rich hate the poor, and the poor hate the rich. If our middle class becomes a thing that your children will read about in their history books because it no longer exists, our country will decline. If we continue to have neighborhoods that the affluent are dying to get into, and the poor live in neighborhoods where they are just dying, we will have lost the promise of America.

Ronan Farrow, director of the Office of Global Youth Issues in the State Department, at Dominican University of California: Don't ever feel boxed into a single career or pursuit; remain curious; explore every axis and every front in the battle to make a difference. There are plenty of years for us to be stuck in our ways—to lose some of our elasticity, to grow soft and a little jaded. Hold it off as long as possible. Fight that sense of what can't happen, of accepting what has always been broken, of being fine with less than what you can achieve—and less than what this world can be.

So own those qualities of youthful recklessness—they give us the power to achieve incredible things, whether in our careers, in public service, in our communities, or around the world. ...

You may not need to revolt against an oppressive dictatorial regime—unless you buy into the whole Obama-is-a-socialist thing—but every day all of us, young and old, are challenged by limits, expectations, boundaries, bigotry. And confronting those forces will take a willingness on our part to make waves, break down old standards, and make some of our elders uncomfortable.

Leymah R. Gbowee, winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, at Vassar College: There are many social and political issues that leave a lot of us sleepless at night, from Syria to Afghanistan, to Iraq to Southern Sudan, to Darfur, Mali, and Guinea-Bissau, just to name a few.

My work has taken me to many places, and I have never been to a place or a country on this earth where my curious eyes—and trust me, I look around—have not seen a situation in need of change, even in this great America, from homeless people, to teen mothers, to drug addicts, to corrupt political leaders, to military dictatorship. All of these, in these communities, make life very gray. For many individuals, a smile is difficult to come by. Hope is lacking in their vocabulary. Like Liberians a few years ago, many of those living in these places thought life has no true meaning.

However, if you look very closely in these communities you will see everyday heroes and "sheroes." They are the ones who are symbols of hope. They are the only ones who can extract a smile from a mother who has no idea where she will get money for medication and money for food. These are men and women who have committed their lives to bringing relief to those in pain. Some are doctors, bankers, corporate managers, community workers, or peace activists; these are men and women who know where they have been planted and their purpose is to blossom. ...

It is my hope and prayer that the dreams of changing the world that many of you had in your head when you left high school and entered college will still be the driving force and passion as you deliver services in whatever field you have been called to impact.

Steve Karmen, composer, at Binghamton University: When I was growing up, "Follow Your Passion" had not yet been invented. In my parents' world, if you were interested in music—my field—it was something that you were supposed to do on the weekends, after your regular job, whatever that was. ...

So, even though I was accepted at Music and Art High School in New York, my parents insisted that I go to the Bronx High School of Science—where my brother had gone before me—so I might also pursue a career in the sciences, maybe even in the field of medicine. ...

When I graduated from Science—barely—I registered, at my parents' urging, as a pre-med freshman at New York University. NYU was the same college that my brother had attended.

I lasted a month. I hated it. ... I had always been writing music, and one day, after making lots of records that didn't sell, someone offered me the opportunity to write the background score for a low-budget movie. And that's how I learned a craft. And, later, when someone offered me the job of writing an advertising jingle for a commercial, I found a musical home.

But even after I became a successful composer, I could never quite shake the feeling that my path had been a disappointment to my mother—my dad had already passed—and for years I was constantly plagued by the need to achieve something that would win my mother's approval. ...

If your parents support your dreams, say thank you. Over and over and over again. And if they don't? Well, you'll just have to show them, won't you? You'll just have to do it yourself, won't you? That gets you there, too.

Kay Krill, president and chief executive of Ann Inc., parent company of Ann Taylor and Loft, at Agnes Scott College: When I graduated ... the professional work force was very male dominated, and today, 35 years later, we have achieved equality in the work force, but not parity in compensation. We now hold 54 percent of management positions, which has doubled from 1980, but sadly, female CEO's represent only 3 percent of the Fortune 1000 companies.

However, the past three decades have been an amazing journey for women. We have become leaders in every field, secretary of state, doctors, successful business leaders, famous artists, accomplished educators. We gradually proved ourselves and earned the freedom to be anything we wanted to be.

The path was paved for all of you by the many assertive, smart, passionate women who wanted to make a difference, who wanted to contribute, who had great talent. There are many women who have added tremendous value to the world we live in, and I ask all of you to continue building that path. Speak out, have a voice, share your opinions and ideas. The world needs to listen more to smart, insightful women.

Jim Lehrer, former news anchor for PBS NewsHour, at the College of William & Mary: Be civil; be fair. One of the most serious losses we as a society have suffered in recent years, in my opinion at least, is that of civil discourse. We are a civilized people; we should disagree in a civilized manner. We should acknowledge the right of other people to disagree with us. We should acknowledge the possibility that, sometimes—yes, maybe rare times, but sometimes—we might even be wrong. Strange as it may seem, also, we might learn more from listening, at times, than from talking—and more from talking than from shouting. ...

Please don't mistake what is happening here today. The fact that you are receiving a diploma from one of America's finest institutions of higher learning does not mean you are educated. Some of the dumbest people I know received diplomas from esteemed institutions of higher learning.

They took that diploma in their hot little hands and never read another book, never considered another fresh or new idea, and—most tragically for their society and country—never again paid attention to much of anything other than themselves, much of anything that wasn't happening around them or to others.

Please, please, please do not do that.

Bill Nye, science educator and television host, at Harvey Mudd College: Like any environmentalist, I'm a big fan of just having more by wasting less. That's akin to picking the low-hanging fruit. Great. But we can't just do less. The key to our future is instead to find ways to do more with less. ...

If you can invent a better battery, one that can store more energy with less exotic metals, one that could handle the heat without loss of performance or just plain catching on fire, you would change the world. ...

We have tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste, nuclear fuel, and nuclear weapons. What should we do? On the earth, nothing we throw away goes away. It's a problem we've ignored for the most part. It may be an opportunity for some industrialist to, I'm not kidding, change the world.

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, at the University of California at Berkeley: Life is not lived in the glow of a monitor. Life is not a series of status updates. Life is about who you love, how you live, it's about who you travel through the world with. Your family, your collaborators, your friends. Life is a social experience first, and the best aspects of that experience are not lonely ones—they are spent in the company of others.

Our landscape has changed, yes, but our humanity will always remain, and that, above all else, is what makes us who we are.

Don Shalvey, deputy director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and co-founder of Aspire Public Schools, at the University of Southern California: Here are a few lessons I've learned since my graduation:

Lesson 1. Experience disappointment and disillusionment early in your career. ... Disappointment gives you wisdom. Wisdom is like frequent-flyer miles and scar tissue; it does accumulate, and often by accident while you're trying to do something else. ...

Lesson 2. Make excellent mistakes. Work for someone who will let you fail so you'll learn to embrace the learning that only comes from failure. ...

Lesson 3. A great workplace isn't fancy technology, lattes, health care, sushi lunches, nice offices, or big compensation, but rather it's stunning colleagues. ...

Lesson 4. Remember either you're networking or you're not working. Everyone you meet offers lessons in life, insight, and endless possibilities.

Lesson 5. Don't wait for Superman, or Wonder Woman, or Spiderman, or all the Avengers, for that matter. Believe in the power of local heroes like your parents, neighbors, coaches, farmers, and the like. ...

Lesson 6. When given the choice of doing well or doing good, choose doing good.

Lesson 7. People will tell you to make a plan, get a plan, have someone help you design a plan. Take it from me, there is no plan. ... Trust the direction your heart sends you. Take a pass on the plan.

Ruth J. Simmons, president of Brown University, at the University of Rochester: I urge you not to retreat into groups of like-minded privileged individuals but to use your voice in the service of those whose rights are trampled. I ask that you speak up for the principle of openness and toleration when you hear friends and colleagues demean others. ... If your education has served you well, you will not shed those principles when you toss your hats into the air and return your academic robes.

Your education places a heavy burden upon you to use your knowledge to benefit society. And that burden is not limited to what you do in your laboratory or in your practice, in the classroom or the boardroom. It extends to where you are at every moment of your life.

Fareed Zakaria, editor at large at Time magazine and CNN host, at Duke University: We are living in an astonishing period of progress, and you only need to think about that progress in one sense to grasp it. ... The cellphones you have now have more computing power than the Apollo space capsule, and that capsule couldn't even tweet. So just imagine the opportunities you have in that sense. And they're only beginning. Moore's Law, which says that the computing power of a computer will double every 18 months while the price halves, continues to apply except it has accelerated in one very important field. The human genome is being sequenced faster than Moore's Law. So when I think of our student speaker who is a biomedical engineer, I imagine the kind of data and capacity he is going to have to help solve the problems that we all confront.

You can see this in terms of the increases in human life expectancy. We gain five hours of life expectance every day. Think about that—without even exercising. The reality is that medicine has produced almost unimaginable progress. ...

The data goes on, and you could look at and cut it any way you like. You look at the number of college graduates we will have globally. It has risen fourfold in the last four decades for men. It has risen sevenfold for women. If you are wondering whether women are in fact smarter than men, the evidence now is overwhelming: The answer is yes.