Oprah Winfrey

Agnes Scott Commencement Address - May 13, 2017

Oprah Winfrey
May 13, 2017— Decatur, Georgia
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Morning, Agnes Scott! [cheers]

I gotta give it to y'all, Y'all do it, y'all do it right. I gotta say this. You get up, you get out, you get it on, you get it over, and out into the world. By noon today, you'll be launched into the world. Congratulations, class of 2017. [cheers and applause]

I'm really happy to be here. As President Kiss said, this this isn't my first visit. I was here in the summer filming for "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" over, I think it – was it Rebekah Hall? – and it was 104 degrees. [laughter] We were pretending it was winter. [laughter] So when I woke up and saw the clouds this morning, I was like, thank you, Lord. [laughter]

I want to say a special thank you to the Board of Trustees. Every one of you who I met today and said "thank you" to me, well, thank you to you! Thank you, Board of Trustees, and especially to you, Beth Daniel Holder, thank you so much as a chairman.

Thank you, faculty. I love what you do. All my life before I became interested in television, I thought I was going to be a teacher or a professor. I think it is the most noble profession there is. [applause] I think to do what you do changes the world on a daily basis, so I thank you.

And all of you gorgeous women of Agnes Scott. [cheers] Thank you for having me. But the truth is, I was coming anyway. Whether you had invited me here to speak or not, I was coming. This was my year to come.

Because as President Kiss said, one of my daughter-girls – I call them all daughter-girls because when I was calling them my daughters on social media, people like, "Oprah, you didn't raise daughters. You didn't have no daughters. They're not your daughters." [laughter] They are my daughter-girls. They're my daughter-girls, and I didn't raise them from birth – God knew that that wouldn't work out for me – but I got them at the perfect age, when they were like 12. So I've – all potty-trained and stuff [laughter] – so my daughter-girl has had the great privilege of growing and blossoming here at Agnes Scott.

And I want you to know that at my school – the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls – every year we're graduating another class of girls. I now have 179 girls in college. [cheers and applause] Twenty of them came to the United States. Ten are graduating this year. [applause] Five – I have five graduations next week in four different states. So Agnes Scott – you got me fresh. [cheers and applause] This is the fresh version. See how I'm holding up around June 18, after the ninth one.

One of the ten called me recently, all tentative, like, "Oh, Mom, oh I'm so sorry. I'm so stressed. I wasn't able to complete one of my courses so I'm not gonna graduate." I went, "YES! You are stressed and you can't graduate in June and I only have nine graduations? Fantastic!" I sent her three dancing emojis. [laughter]

So let me say, when I say I'm happy to be here, I really am. I'm thrilled to be here. Not like, you know, most people, they get up here, "I'm so very happy to be here. [laughter] Distinguished guests, I'm so happy to be here." I'm really thrilled because one of my girls who's graduating next week sent me this message saying, "Mom-Oprah, we've been through a lot. Thank you for believing in me and seeing what others couldn't, and when I walk across that stage this is for us. We did this."

And I would like to say that goes for every parent in this room, every guardian, [cheers] every trusted loved one here today – this is for you. Those of you who are here and those who are passed, even. Thank you for encouraging and supporting and being there for our daughters, for being often a balm in Gilead for them, for these daughters who've grown into these incredible young women that you barely, I know, recognize when they come home, right before our eyes.

Because let me just tell you this. My daughter-girl came here and when she came her name was a Pretty and I knew her as Pretty. I found her in a township in South Africa and she was known as Pretty. And so when I was meeting here in the president's office – this is after they had sent me every possible Scottie piece of merchandise you could…[laughter]. I had Scottie hats and scarves and gloves and Scottie towels and Scottie…I had a Scottie microwave. [laughter] I mean there's just lots of Scottie merchandise. So I was stopping in to say, "Thank you, you can stop now." So I was sitting in President Kiss' office and she was telling me about Sotoca. Sotoca, who's such an inspiring student and Sotoca has gone overseas, and I'm thinking who the hell is she talking about? [laughter] She must have me confused with someone else. It turns out Sotoca is Sotoca Mele, who used to be Pretty when she came to the school.

So that's what happens when you come to Agnes Scott. Heretofor a girl who was just happy to be called Pretty – she gets educated here and thinks more deeply about what really matters to herself. She learns to live more honorably, engage in the intellectual and social challenges of our times. She comes through this process and wants to own herself in the fullness of her name. She wants to lay claim to her calling and have the fullness of her name spoken out loud, even if you can't pronounce it. Sotoca Mele. [applause]

That's what happens when you come here to Agnes Scott. You leave a more deepened human with higher standards, striving to realize your social and your academic responsibilities to the community and our world, and whoa – does the world need you right now. Really. The struggle is real out there. It's real. [applause] The struggle to remain compassionate and the struggle to remain committed and the struggle to be constructively engaged – that's the challenge that you're in for, Class of 2017.

But I'm betting on you. Agnes Scott women, I'm betting on you, particularly this class of 2017. I'm betting that you will break new ground to move us all forward. And we need your passion, we do, we need your passion to serve. And I was so thrilled to hear that so many of you have signed up for the Peace Corps and many of you have signed up for Teach for America, all of these service-oriented opportunities.

But I say this to you also: I'm here to tell you that you don't have to necessarily join the Peace Corps or Teach for America or go work for an NGO in a third world country to live a life that's full of service. You don't have to do that. [applause] I was not your age, but about 30 years old I started to realize that it was my whole life, not just parts of my life, just not parts of what I was doing, but my whole life was a prayer. My whole life is an offering in service. First to yourself, to become a fully actualized human being. And you do that through your actions and your interactions with others. But when I started to realize it's not just what I do but it's how I do it, it's how I'm not just praying on my knees but I live in a state of humility on my knees in service to the higher calling of my life, that things started to change.

You know, so many people are worried about building a brand. I hear kids on social media talking about their brand and I used to really resent the word when people would say to me, "Oh, you have this brand," because I never never even thought about a brand. I just thought about day in and day out making the best, right choice for me. But now I embrace it, because I recognize people see me as a brand.

But for me it's not a business. It is a question of, what do you stand for? And I will say this – you're nothing if you're not the truth. So I have made I've made a living, I've made a life – made a fortune really, it's fantastic [laughter and applause] all good – from being true to myself.

And that's the…if I could leave you with any message today that is it. The biggest reward is not financial benefits – though it's really good, you can get a lot of great shoes [laughter], nothing wrong with great shoes. But those of you who have a lot of shoes know that having great shoes and a closet full of shoes or cars or houses or square footage doesn't fill up your life. It doesn't. But living a life of substance can. Substance through your service, your offering of your whole self. And the baseline for how do you live a life of substance is whatever is the truth for you, what do you stand for.

So when I was saying to my girls last night – some of them have come in to support Sotoca Mele – what should I talk to you about, they were like, why don't you just any one of the things you've told us over a hundred times will work? I usually go to my school in South Africa once a year and I teach a class called Life 101 where for a week I just talk about what I think you need to know to go out in the world. So I'm trying to distill it for you today, and I would say that having compassion for other people is at the top of that list. I would say commitment is at the top of that list, and also a spirit of constructive engagement.

And by compassion I don't just mean sympathy. It certainly isn't pity. It's being present and it's also feeling with other beings. You know during the years of the Oprah show I interviewed over 37,000 people one-on-one. So whenever I'm telling my girls anything and they say, eh, and they start rolling their eyes, I say, "I'm the only person you gonna talk to that's talked to 37,000 people, so if I were you I would pay attention." [laughter]

But during all those years of talking to over 37,000 people one-on-one, I could feel what they were feeling so strongly, sometimes it made me sick, literally. So I had to learn how to feel how others were feeling, feel with others – which is what it means to be compassionate – to feel with others without taking in all of their stuff.

Being compassionate means, I feel with you. It is one of the greatest qualities in the world to have if you're going to be majoring in what it takes to be a great human being. "I feel with you" means I'm not only willing to walk in your shoes, it means my heart beats with yours. It means I see myself in you. It means I may not have shared that circumstance but I know what heartbreak feels like, I know what pain feels like, and all pain is the same. It means I can feel your will to want to do better and be better and I feel and I am with you. In spite of everything that's happened to you, I feel your need to rise. I want to help you rise. I want to rise with you.

So compassion is one of them.

Commitment is another. You know one of my favorite quotes is Dr. King, who says, "Not everybody could be famous but everybody can be great because greatness is determined by service." I am committed to service – service through my work, service through my life's purpose. And if you make a commitment, a conscious intention to be committed to the work that you do, to the relationships that you have, your life will unfold with such beauty and grace through that commitment.

You know, every day for…until the very final shows of the Oprah Winfrey Show, I would have the producers come in and tell me ahead of time what their intention for every show was, because I figured out around the second year of doing that show that it wasn't just about being on television and performing, that here was this opportunity, this offering I could give to people through the service of a television show to better see themselves through the stories that we're telling, and through those stories help themselves to improve their lives. So I started using television as a tool of service.

So as you're trying to figure out, What do i do? How should I do it? First of all I will say this – that when you don't know what to do – my girls have heard this over a hundred times – when you don't know what to do, you do nothing. You get still until you do know. Because when you have to ask everybody else should I should I should I do this, should I should I – and that's whether it's buying a pair of shoes or going with a guy, buying a house, taking a job, should I should I should I should I – when you have to ask everybody else it means you don't really know the answer fully yourself. So you get still, be still and know the answer will come.

And more than ever I would have to say I miss the Oprah Winfrey Show. I chose to let it go. I felt that I said everything I needed to say after 25 years and I wanted it to be my decision when I let it go. But I will say this past year and now more than ever I miss it, because I miss the opportunity for the spirit of constructive engagement that that platform offered.

So two weeks after the election last year I went to a diner in Queens for Oprah magazine with a group of women. Half of them were Trump supporters, half of them were Hillary supporters. Nobody wanted to come to breakfast. I was like, it's gonna be so great, great, great – croissants, we're gonna have some nice jams, ladies. Nobody wanted to sit down and have the croissants. So everybody came in the room all tight and hardened and so we were able to, I was able to…they were like, "Why I've never been this close to these Hillary elitists. I've never been this close." And there are other people saying, "Well I've never sat this close to a Trump supporter before. But we're going to do it." I will tell you, after two and a half hours I had those women not only eating croissants, sitting around the table listening to each other's stories, hearing both sides and by the end they were holding hands exchanging emails and phone numbers and singing Reach Out and Touch. We're all pretending to be Diana Ross. Which means it's possible, it can happen.

So I want you to work in your own way to change the world in respectful conversations with others at a rate and a rhythm that's in tune with the source from which you have come – your truth. And I want you to enter every situation aware of its context, open to hear the truths of others, and most important open to letting the process of changing the world change you. That is the spirit of constructive engagement.

So that's the goal – to be a compassionate woman of substance, to be committed, to have constructive engagement, to live this life of substance. Substance. What I know for sure is if you focus on the substance, the success will come.

And most importantly, let failure be your friend. There are going to be times, of course, where you're going to win a lot, a lot of things are going to go your way, and it's wonderful to bask in that adulation and to feel proud of your successes. But there are also going to be times…. The satisfaction that those moments bring, nothing can compare to that. Those victories will feed you for years to come and help you stake a minute when your tank is sometimes empty. Winning is great. It's fantastic. I love it. I love being number one. I love winning. But it's the times when things go wrong, when you fall or fail, that you're actually going to learn the most about yourself.

You know, all those years on the Oprah show – 25 years – we were the number one show for 25 years, and that's because I lived with the intention to serve the audience. The audience came first. Every show I would sit with the producers and say, "Well, I can't do that because I can't find the truth of myself in that show. I have to have a thread of truth to be able to hold on to." So I knew so well the audience. I felt like I was the audience, the audience was me, and I felt so connected.

And then I ended that and started a new network. And I flailed for a while, and I was really upset with myself. But I will tell you that when I was able to shift the paradigm to start to looking at wow what I have instead of what I don't have, what I have instead of what I thought I'd lost, I was able to begin to turn things around. But it's those moments of uncertainty, it's the moments where…. You know, all of my mistakes show up on the evening news. You can make a mistake. I can tell if I've done something wrong – it's on the CNN crawl, I can read about it. But learning from the moments where things weren't going so great, being able to get still to connect with that which I know is God, the force, the power greater than myself and to come back and realize that in order to move forward, you move forward by taking the next right step. You don't have to know everything to do, you don't have to know all the steps to make – just what is the next right move.

And then there's this. I leave you with this. Nobody makes it alone. Nobody. I don't care what they look like. I don't care what their Insta posts say. Nobody makes it alone. And so you will get nowhere without a spiritual practice. You need a spiritual practice. And by that I mean not necessarily religion. For some people it is church, for some people it is meditating, for some people it's dancing, some people is singing. But you have got to find a way to nurture that which is the essence of you. You've got to find a way to continually give back to yourself so that you are a full woman. You want to be a woman who's full of herself.

I used to fear that, you know. When I first started out, people used to say, "Oh, she thinks she's just so full of herself. She's so full of herself." And I now say, "Yes, I am. So full." [applause] I am so full my cup is running over. That's what you want. You want your cup to be so full it's running over so you have enough to offer others. If you do not, if you do not have something – a spiritual practice – maybe it's music or dancing or just time for yourself to feed, nurture your own spirit, you'll run out. Your tank will become empty. You will burn out and not have anything left to give. So set aside space every day to make space for that aspect of your being which no other single activity you engage in can fully express. That's all I mean by spiritual practice – nurture that thing that is the essence of you.

And I leave you with the words of my mentor-teacher, Maya Angelou, I'm thinking of her a lot because it's Mother's Day tomorrow. I'm going to have her own SuperSoul Sunday, those of you who watch, but I learned so much from her and when I had finished my school – and I was so proud of myself for building this school in South Africa – and I went to Maya I said, "Maya, that's going to be my greatest legacy, the school." And Maya said, "You have no idea what your legacy will be." I go, "I know, I know, I know that, but I really, I really do think that the school's gonna, you know, be my, like, greatest legacy," and Joe "You have NO idea." So I go, "Yes, ma'am." She said this and I leave this with everybody in the room – graduates, friends of graduates, family – she said, "Your legacy is every life you touched. Your legacy is every life you touched. [applause] It's not just the big school with your name on it. It's not the awards that you received. It's not the acclaim. It's every single human being you've ever come in contact with. You have left your heart spring and your legacy."

I remember the story of a man who was a police officer who had, his heart had stopped and they weren't even able to get him to the emergency room and just cut him open on the floor of the hospital as he was entering the hospital and massaged his heart, he said, for nine minutes trying to bring him back. Sounds incredible and unbelievable but the story he told of having a near-death experience, whether you believe it or not, the impression it left with me was something happened there. I don't remember his name but the story has lingered in my spirit and abides with me. He said, "I didn't see Jesus, but I did have what I thought was my own life review. I was able to feel in a way I cannot explain," he says. "It felt like real time but I know it couldn't have been because I wasn't gone for that long, but I was able to feel in what felt like to me real time every single thing I ever did, and I was able to feel the feelings that I created in other people. I was a wife-beater," he said. "I used to beat my wife, and I could not only feel the physical pain I caused her. I felt what I did to her spirit. I broke her heart. So when I came back and realized I wasn't dead, I decided I'm gonna feel things differently. I'm going to try to feel everything with love. I'm going to feel everything with love so that I can live everything with love."

So that's my wish for you – feel everything with love because every moment you are building your legacy. [applause]