Commencement Speech

Last Wednesday, I had the honour of delivering the student commencement speech at my graduation from Columbia Journalism School. You can read my prepared remarks below, or watch the livestream (from 17:30) here. Thank you again to everyone who helped make this possible, and congratulations class of 2012!

I get ready to start my speech. (Photo by Fatima Muneer)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Thank you.

Deans Lemann, Grueskin, Sree, and Huff, faculty, families, and friends.

It is an incredible honor and a privilege to address you here today.

Rebecca lied. The real reason I ran for SPJ President is because I didn’t think I could win any of the other positions.

And that’s why it’s so unbelievable to me that I’m the one you all have to listen to. In this room sits a class of some of the most courageous, caring, thoughtful, generous, insightful, curious, and creative people I have ever met.

A class that this year lost family members and colleagues, but that also got engaged, and found lifelong friends.

A class that braved the batons of the NYPD and beat back against corruption.

A class that waded into the unknown, into public housing projects, prisons, and precincts, onto the streets of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, Harlem, and in my poor case Staten Island—it takes forever to get there, it’s ridiculous—and when we were rebuffed, ridiculed, or even mugged, we dove further. Worked harder. Dug deeper.

This is a class I am so proud to be a part of. I’m so glad I deferred my acceptance for a year.

So what the hell do I tell you, who have already done so much? You, who made my year the best year of my life.

Well, I should start by saying: CONGRATULATIONS! We made it!

Next, since the Huffington Post won its first Pulitzer Prize this year, I figured I could start by stealing other people’s advice and passing it off as my own.

I urge you to go back to the original sources to explore them in full, but, since I am providing you with convenient snippets now, let’s be honest, you’re probably not going to.

“Nothing worthwhile is easy.” A couple of days ago, another president said that at this university. And he was right. Nothing worthwhile is easy. And this year is no exception.

From sleepless nights to stubborn sources, from infinite edits to publication, from breaking down in a professor’s office after another had threatened me with academic probation to this moment, I know that nothing worthwhile is easy.

And you can’t do it alone. So on behalf of the class, I’d like to thank all of you: professors, parents, mentors, friends, for being there for all of us, even when we weren’t “all there.” I’d also like to thank SPJ for putting so much work into making this year so memorable. Thank you Mohammed, Raisa, Jillian, Purvi, Mollie, Bianca, Nigel, Cassie, John-Carlos, Janet, Carl, Elaisha, Russ, Colin, Annie, Nathan, Keldy, Ravi, Travis, Ben, everyone I have no doubt forgotten…

And of course Andrew Katz, who I think should change his Twitter handle from @katz to @c-a-t-s.

Second piece of stolen advice:

“The questions are always more important than the answers.” That comes from the book and viral video The Last Lecture.

It’s a sentiment that’s great news for a room of journalists—we’re always asking questions, after all—but tough to hear for a room of graduates.

Venturing into uncertainty, we desperately want answers. Answers to questions like: “So, what are you going to do now?” or “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

In a profession that is constantly evolving and a world that is constantly changing, these are not easy answers to come by.

More importantly, we’re people, and our priorities, interests, philosophies, and opportunities do and should change.

“One’s dream is constantly evolving,” scholar Conan O’Brien said at Dartmouth, one year after losing The Tonight Show.

Who are we to have all the answers?

We should never have all the answers.

Having all the answers means we’re too afraid to confront the questions.

Having all the answers means we’re content, complacent, satisfied.

Having all the answers means we’re living for an end, not just living.

At the beginning of this year, I put enormous pressure on myself to have a job by graduation.

A few days ago I filled out the end of year survey—meant to assess our relative worth as we head out into the world. And under “post-graduation employment” I checked off “no job.”

If you also don’t know what you’re doing tomorrow, it’s ok.

Just as studying at the top journalism school in the world does not make us better than other people, just as that does not dictate where we can and should end up, neither should our job titles ever define us.

Foreign correspondent. Graphic designer. Unemployed. These are all opportunities.

I can’t wait to see you seize them.

Don’t settle, keep exploring, keep asking questions. You never know where you might end up.

That’s how we all got here. We applied. We asked.

And that brings me to my last thought, on this big moment of our graduation:

Life is not made up of big moments. It’s made up of the infinite small moments that connect the big ones.

Who said that? I did.

And I say it because we’re storytellers. In our stories we plot big moments on an arc to tell a narrative. But you and I both know it’s never that simple.

Every moment is important. Every moment is an opportunity for positive change. Every story, every compliment, every smile.

For in reality, the tides of history are not giant waves. The tides of history are ebbs and flows, steady, unassuming, determined. And if we direct them in our everyday actions, we can erode injustice.

We can erode intolerance.

We can erode ignorance.

We are brothers and sisters bound by a common passion, determined to inform, explain, and expose. We are central to any functioning democracy.

But we’re also friends, parents, children, and people.

We have chosen a calling that allows us to witness and to effect great change. But the best asset we have in bringing about that change is not a pen or a camera, it’s not a recorder or a phone, it’s a heart.

I was raised by two incredible parents. They carved for themselves successful careers. Got good educations. But they were always home for family dinner.

I was raised by an amazing nanny, who came over from the Philippines with nothing but conviction and the kindness in her heart—and who was hired because, when she came in for her interview, she didn’t go over to meet my parents—she came over to meet one-year-old me.

I have been incredibly lucky.

I was born into a loving family. I was imbued with idealism. And I was given every opportunity to succeed.

I don’t have an inspiring story.

I don’t have a tale of perseverance or hope.

But I do have three messages, and the conviction to carry them out when I leave here:

Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

The questions are always more important than the answers.

And life is made up of small moments.

I hope that as you leave here, as a part of the class of 2012, you can take one or two or even all three of these messages with you, to be as great as I know you are, to inspire others to be as great as they can be, and to change the world, one small moment at a time.

Thank you and congratulations.

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