Graduates have studied hard for four years to ready themselves for the wide world. But before they move on, they must linger for one last lecture, a few guiding pearls of wisdom from a speaker who represents a standard of success to which all should aspire.
This year, everyone from entertainers to government officials spoke about the path that led them to national prominence. Some jostled their audiences with humor, others stirred hearts with intensely personal tales. But many touched on a common theme: giving back to others and helping to build a community. Work hard and love what you do, they noted. But don't forget the numerous teachers, family, and friends who helped you open the windows of opportunity.
George Washington University, Washington
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Today is the day you get out of the car and your parents look at you to see if you're all right. But this is the last day. Because tomorrow, no more free lunches. No more free rides. Just a whole lot of questions. "Do you have a job yet?"
I remember our daughter following us as I was driving [after her graduation]. She had on her cap and her gown and she was bopping and she had the car we bought her four years ago, and the diploma is on the dashboard. And I pulled over. I couldn't take it anymore.
And she pulled over behind us. And I went back to her car, and she said, "Dad, what's the matter?" And I said, "Where are you going?"
She said, "I'm going home."
I said, "Really. Do you live near us?"
* * *
I'll tell you what. Meet an immigrant. Whether that person is driving a cab or picking trash or washing windows. They have a goal and they know that this is the land of opportunity. And you have to be responsible. So I don't want you to be angry today because you don't have the job you want, because you graduated from the University of Pennsylvania but you didn't get exactly what you wanted or you're not working. Because ladies and gentlemen, this is the land of opportunity. You were born into this, now work it. Work it the same way a person coming from Russia, coming from the Caribbean, coming from China, coming from Thailand, this is your country. Work your own opportunity.
Colby College, Waterville, Maine
You will think back, I'm sure, to this place, where perhaps in some class or some project of study or some all-night conversation with your friends, you touched on that deep wellspring of invention and belief which we call creativity....
That precious moment ... is the first sign and first reassurance that we can truly contribute, that out of our own individuality ... we can find the strength to give and to change and to express ourselves in ways that will change others as well as ourselves....
Each of us ... has to make our own democracy of creativity. We have to resist the pressures of a society which urges you simply to value the product ... we should also remember that the dream of creativity lives in far more people than ever get to write a poem or design an airplane or evolve a mathematical answer.
Those people who keep that dream, who are hospitable to the process of creativity even though they may never achieve its product, they keep the democracy of creativity alive.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Associate Justice, US Supreme Court
Wheaton College, Norton, Mass.
This was [my mother-in-law's] prescription for a happy, enduring marriage: "It pays," she said, "it pays sometimes to be a little deaf." I have followed that advice too, with only occasional lapses, not only at home, but in the places I have worked, even in relation to my colleagues on the United States Supreme Court.
It is important to be a good listener if you are to work with others effectively, but it also pays sometimes to be a little deaf, for example, when a colleague, or a commentator, writes about an opinion on which you have labored endless hours worrying over every word. That opinion is "simply irresponsible," "sloppy," "strange," or "profoundly misguided," and I am not making any of those up.
My mother had a similar idea when she admonished me constantly once I reached my teens, "Be a lady." To her the term "great lady" was the most honorable one. It meant hold fast to your convictions and self-respect, be a good teacher, but don't snap back in anger. Anger, resentment, and indulgence in recriminations waste time and sap energy.
Emerson College, Boston, Mass.
I think that amongst young people today, this being the age of instant gratification, everybody wants it now. Young people today stop me all the time and in the space that it takes for the light to turn from red to green as you're standing on the corner, they want me to tell them in 30 seconds what's the key....
The answer is, there are no shortcuts. You have to do the work, you have to be dedicated and kill yourselves practically to get where you want to go.... No one's going to give you anything. I found out the people who are successful are the ones that are truly in love with their art, the ones who persevere and have that grit. And the people who fall by the wayside are the ones who are in it for the money or want to be famous or what not.
TV talk-show host, actress
Wellesley College, Wellesley, Mass.
Be grateful. I have kept a journal since I was 15 years old and if you look back on my journal when I was 15, 16, it's all filled with boy trouble, men trouble, my daddy wouldn't let me go to Shoney's with Anthony Otie, things like that. As I've grown older, I have learned to appreciate living in the moment and I ask that you do, too.... Keep a grateful journal. Every night, list five things that happened this day, in days to come that you are grateful for. What it will begin to do is to change your perspective of your day and your life. I believe that if you can learn to focus on what you have, you will always see that the universe is abundant and you will have more. If you concentrate and focus in your life on what you don't have, you will never have enough....
I understand that there is a power greater than myself, that rules my life and in life if you can be still long enough in all of your endeavors, the good times, the hard times, to connect yourself to the source. I call it God.... If you can connect yourself to the source ... anything is possible for you. I am proof of that. I think that my life, the fact that I was born where I was born, and in the time that I was, and have been able to do what I have done, speaks to the possibility. Not that I am special, but that it could be done. Hold the grandest vision for yourself.
Former US President
Duke University, Durham, N. C.
A rich person is someone who has a decent home, a modicum of usable education, the access to reasonable health care, who feels that the police and the judicial system are on our side, and who think that if we make a decision, it'll make a difference....
Those are the rich people. But we have a lot of neighbors who don't have any of those things. And we don't deliberately discriminate against them. But we have been given a treasure in our life, of all those things, some greatly magnified ... and we rarely share.
How many of us know a poor family well enough to go to their house and have a cup of coffee and get to know the names of their teenaged kids? Or ... invite them to our house and maybe take them to a baseball game or a movie with our children?
Chief Executive Officer, Bell Atlantic
Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh
Look directly at what you seek and it disappears. Look away and find order, truth, even - if you're lucky - beauty.
Out of the corner of my eye back in 1958, the information age was taking shape. Of course, that's not what I saw. What I saw, along with my fellow industrial engineering students, was the lumbering form of one of the first industrial computers.... It took up the whole room....
No computer language had yet been invented.... Conditional branching - the basic "if this, then that" statement at the heart of modern computer programming - was still on the drawing board.... So along with 20 guys named Irving with glasses and pocket protectors, I spent my evenings putting jumper wires into the sockets in the belly of the beast.... In my line of sight was getting the right wires in the right holes and earning $1.25 an hour....
When I look directly at that experience ... its meaning disappears in a riot of equations, pizza boxes, and disagreeable instructors. But out of the corner of my eye ... I was watching the most fundamental principles of modern computer science emerge. While I was staring at flashing lights and red and green wires, I was helping create the idea of software....
Without even looking, I had absorbed the grammar of a new digital language. I also made $400....
The paradox of leadership is that - at least when the scientific or creative process is involved - the more directly we address a puzzle, the less impact we really have. Sometimes we just need to set up the right circumstances and allow people to follow their own stars.