The Graduation Speech I Wish I had Heard
panda grad

A happy alum

Dr. Ruth Simmons, former president of Brown University, delivered my commencement speech. Honestly, I don’t remember a thing she said. I’m pretty sure I paid attention to her words. I remember laughing or otherwise responding in some way to some of them, and besides, she was the first black president of an Ivy League institution. That’s a role model for a 20-something black college grad. But I was out there with no notebook, no pen and no purse to store them in, and I don’t remember things that well when I don’t write them down. And no, I had no mobile phone/device with recording apps. I don’t think flip phones even existed when I graduated from college.

Still, I’m fairly sure that as a the president of a university addressing newly minted bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree holders, she practically was required to say something about excellence and using our degrees to change the world. I think I would remember if she had something like:

There are some really shitty times ahead, and you have no idea. Not to put a damper on your accomplishments—obtaining a degree at any level is a monumental step, and right now in 2002, it’s still fairly rare—but really, you have no idea.

Well, you master’s and doctoral grads and JDs and MDs might, so let me just address the undergrads. You BA babies, you think you’re grown, that you’ve been grown since you moved off campus. But you’re about to see: that rent payment and those utility bills will look petty compared to that Sallie Mae statement. And you’ll either spend the entire salary of your first “real” job paying back your loans, or you’ll choose the “manageable” payment option, and prolong the payment of your priceless education indefinitely.

That is, if you’re fortunate enough to get a job. I know they told you when they admitted you that a degree is the ticket to prosperity, a job and job security but it isn’t. It’s really a feeder for graduate school programs. Only about one percent of you are going to obtain employment in what you majored in or a related field. Some of you will wonder why on earth you bothered to go to college. Unless you majored in engineering or computer science. If you did, forget everything I just said. You’re good.

Your relationships are about to change, too, especially if you’re going home. Don’t go home. It’s a bad idea. You and your parents won’t know what to do with your independence, but you won’t know what to do without their love and (cough) financial support—and you’ll need that because of Sallie Mae.

Also, the friends you met here, got close to here, will disappear with jobs and significant others, and it will really suck if you’re the one who doesn’t have either. It’s going to feel like everyone else is progressing, and you missed something. You might have. Or it could just be luck, or timing, or your major. Because you should’ve majored in engineering or computer science. All of you.

Additionally, some people you hardly ever talked to will become your closest confidants… for a season, anyway. Everything is only for a season. That’s important to remember. Because if the past four to six years have been a bad season, rejoice. It’s over. I haven’t said a good season is coming, but be happy anyway, because it could be better than this one was. And if this season was good, I hope you savored it. But don’t be sad that it’s over or mentally stay in it. As soon as you turn your tassel, it’s over, and your mind must be in the present to get all you can out of the present.

I know I was supposed to say something more uplifting. I would have, but it doesn’t matter what I say. There are countless things you just have to learn from experience. And the way I handled it in the past might not be the best way for you to handle it now or in the future. And some of you are hard-headed.

But the good news is, if you got through this without cheating, without your parents bailing you out of bad grades and high credit card charges and without drug-induced study sessions, you’ve proven you have some tenacity. If you needed lots of help from humans and substances, a big downfall is probably on its way, so good luck with that. But you tenacity people, all of you really, just don’t give up.

And since you won’t remember a thing I’ve said, I hope you find a nerve-wracking friend who always says, “Don’t give up.” You’ll want to hit that person. Often. But that friend is giving you the best advice.

Congratulations, graduates!

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