Dr. Ruth Simmons, former president of Brown University, delivered my commencement speech. Honestly, I donâ€™t remember a thing she said. Iâ€™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. Thatâ€™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 donâ€™t remember things that well when I donâ€™t write them down. And no, I had no mobile phone/device with recording apps. I donâ€™t think flip phones even existed when I graduated from college.
Still, Iâ€™m fairly sure that as a the president of a university addressing newly minted bachelorâ€™s, masterâ€™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 accomplishmentsâ€”obtaining a degree at any level is a monumental step, and right now in 2002, itâ€™s still fairly rareâ€”but really, you have no idea.
Well, you masterâ€™s and doctoral grads and JDs and MDs might, so let me just address the undergrads. You BA babies, you think youâ€™re grown, that youâ€™ve been grown since you moved off campus. But youâ€™re about to see: that rent payment and those utility bills will look petty compared to that Sallie Mae statement. And youâ€™ll either spend the entire salary of your first â€œrealâ€ job paying back your loans, or youâ€™ll choose the â€œmanageableâ€ payment option, and prolong the payment of your priceless education indefinitely.
That is, if youâ€™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 isnâ€™t. Itâ€™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. Youâ€™re good.
Your relationships are about to change, too, especially if youâ€™re going home. Donâ€™t go home. Itâ€™s a bad idea. You and your parents wonâ€™t know what to do with your independence, but you wonâ€™t know what to do without their love and (cough) financial supportâ€”and youâ€™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 youâ€™re the one who doesnâ€™t have either. Itâ€™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 shouldâ€™ve majored in engineering or computer science. All of you.
Additionally, some people you hardly ever talked to will become your closest confidantsâ€¦ for a season, anyway. Everything is only for a season. Thatâ€™s important to remember. Because if the past four to six years have been a bad season, rejoice. Itâ€™s over. I havenâ€™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 donâ€™t be sad that itâ€™s over or mentally stay in it. As soon as you turn your tassel, itâ€™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 doesnâ€™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, youâ€™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 donâ€™t give up.
And since you wonâ€™t remember a thing Iâ€™ve said, I hope you find a nerve-wracking friend who always says, â€œDonâ€™t give up.â€ Youâ€™ll want to hit that person. Often. But that friend is giving you the best advice.