Oprah Winfrey

Smith College Commencement Address – May 21, 2017

Oprah Winfrey
May 21, 2017— Northampton, Massachusetts
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Wow. Wow, wow. [cheers] It feels good. Feels good to be with you and just to be here in this quad. Such great vibrations from all you Smithies. Thank you. [cheers] Thank you. Thank you.

President McCartney, I told you to invite me. Took you four years. [laughter] We were sitting on a stage at Harvard and she said, "I'm going to Smith. I'm going to be president." I go, "Invite me!" [laughter] Thank you! [laughter and cheers]

To the Board of Trustees, chairwoman Deborah Duncan, the Provost Katherine Rowe, to the faculty and staff, to all of you parents – will all the parents please stand? Just stand. [cheers] Let us look at you. Let us look at you. [applause] This is our day. We did this along [laughter] with all these Smithies.

I was coming anyway, so I'm glad President McCartney invited me. I have a daughter, a daughter-girl – I call them daughter girls because when I was on the web saying they were daughters everybody's like, "Oprah, you don't have daughters. You didn't raise children. You haven't been through the suffering. You never changed any diapers." No, I didn't. I picked them at the age of 12 so I wouldn't have to. [laughter] But my daughter, Morgan, [cheers] when we found out that she got accepted at Smith, we both wanted to go streaking through the quad, I have to tell you. [cheers] Well, I contained myself. I didn't want to become an international news story, streaking through Smith's quad.

But her mother is here today, her mother who had never been on a plane in her life [cheers] found her way to graduation. Dancing in the golden…Pearl, thank you so much. [applause] Her mother and her brother came from Durban, South Africa, to share in this fantastic, glorious moment today.

You know, as I watched the sunrise this morning, I was walking my dog, Sadie, downtown. We walked to get a GoBerry last night – it was so fun – and got up this morning, Sadie said she wanted to go by the GoBerry again this morning, so we were up in time for the sunrise. And I watched, like, the golden hue – you know, you ever watch it, sunrise? I love to watch sunrises – how first it's just a little prick of light. And I watched the golden hue prick the surface of the horizon and then extend and expand its warming glow over an already beautiful Northampton. And I thought of it as an allegorical symbol of actually what's happened here at Smith these past four years with my daughter Morgan and with every other daughter of Smith.

I've watched Morgan blossom and I've watched and seen her flourish. She came here a young girl from a tiny community in Durban, and she learned to thrive here at Smith, living abroad for a year studying architecture in Copenhagen. She came here as an articulate, ambitious, open to learning, a kind and a giving girl from my school, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa. And Smith, you are giving her back to us as an exquisitely developed, cooperative, curiously inquisitive, open and global- minded woman for the world. [applause] I thank you, and her mother thanks you.

And there will be a time when all of South Africa will one day thank you, because you have shaped her into a thoughtful contributor. She came here, I know, thinking about herself and her own career and what she could do for herself, and she leaves convicted – as do all of you – to do something for the world. With a bold and bodacious desire Morgan has now, to create and design low-income housing to serve the underdeveloped communities from whence she came. She entered Smith an anxious and aspiring young girl with hopes and dreams that she would just be able to compete with all of you here in America at such a prestigious university. She came praying that she'd measure up. She came with this desire that every single human being holds in their heart – that I'll be good enough, worthy enough – and she leaves confident and assured with her heart on fire to serve a cause greater than her own. A woman of the world. That's what you all do here at Smith.

So I want to thank you, Smith, because you've helped me to fulfill my dream, the real reason I created the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for girls, aside from being a gift to Nelson Mandela. See I've gone to South Africa to spend weeks giving away toys and clothes and books to young orphans and children who never would have had an opportunity to have a Christmas, because I remembered that when I was a poor girl on welfare with my mother and brother and sisters the kindest thing someone ever did for us. Nurses and nuns showed up at our house on the eve of Christmas when I was 12 years old. My mother had said there wouldn't be a Christmas. There was no Santa Claus. I found all that out in one day. "There won't be a Christmas. There isn't no Santa Claus. And you will not be getting any presents." But at midnight these nuns showed up. I thought it was such a generous thing. I never forgot it.

I wanted to extend that generosity to other children in South Africa. And Nelson Mandela himself said, "You must come to my house. You must stay at my home." I was nervous. I didn't know what to say. Steadman said, Why don't you try listening? It's Nelson Mandela." [laughter] So I did. I listened. We talked. I listened. And at the end of the stay, we were talking about…I was saying, "What can I do for you?" Because you can't leave a candle or send flowers after 10 days and 29 meals. I said I wanted to build a school, because having been raised a poor girl myself, growing up in Mississippi, Nashville, Milwaukee, I know the power of education. So I want to build a school for girls because I believe that when you educate a girl, you not just educate her you educate her to create opportunities for her family, her community and eventually the world.

So I did. We created this community, this school, this Leadership Academy that would allow young girls who had come from challenged backgrounds, no opportunities provided to them, to see that the world was a big wide-open place.

So Morgan comes to Smith and not only sees but gets to experience how big and open and wide it is and opens her heart, as have all of you, to know the power of service that which has been ingrained in you since the day you came to Smith. And that truly is the secret to my success I want to share with you.

For many years, I was in television. I've been in television since I was 19 years old. I started anchoring the news in Nashville at 19. And in the beginning, when you're 19, you're just happy to have a job. I was happy to be on TV. And I would run into people in the grocery store, and they would say, "Oh, you're that lady. You're on TV?"

"Yeah, I'm on TV."

It wasn't until I was about 30 years old, coming to Chicago, that I realised that I no longer wanted to just be on TV. I was actually interviewing members of the Ku Klux Klan one day, skinheads in the Ku Klux Klan. You can learn from everything. No opportunity is wasted. And in the middle of the interview, I saw them signaling each other. And I recognised that I thought I was having a conversation, exposing how crazy their ideals were. And watching them signal each other, I could see that they were also having a private conversation. I thought I was using them to expose hatred and vitriol. But they were using me as their recruitment platform.

So I made a decision that I would no longer be used by television, that I would figure out a way to let television be used by me [applause], to turn it into a platform that could be of service to the viewers. And in the moment of that decision, my life changed, because I no longer was just doing a show. I was no longer just being on a show. I made the clear intention to use every show to inform, to encourage, to inspire, to uplift, and entertain at the same time. And I decided that the notion of intention, knowing why you want to do something, not just doing it, but understanding the why behind the doing, could also change the paradigm for every show.

So I said to my producers, I will only do shows that are in alignment with my truth. I will not allow myself to be put in a chair, talking to somebody, who I am not aligned in some way, that I can present myself in truth. I will not fake it.

I will not fake it. [applause]

This understanding that there is an alignment between who you are and what you do is what real authentic, what authentic empowerment is. It's what Gary Zukav calls in his book, "Seat of the Soul," the real, true empowerment. The only empowerment is when your personality, when you use who you are, what you've been given, the gifts you hold, to serve the calling that you have been brought to earth to serve.

So when I figured that out, the show took off. The secret is, how do you use yourself? How do you use your whole self, your being, your full expression, as an offering really, as a full, open prayer to life?

That's what I've learned to do. My entire life is an open prayer to that which is the greatest, highest calling for myself.

So you actually do what Smith has been encouraging you to do since you entered the gates. You shift the paradigm to service. Service, you say. You say to life. You ask this question. Everybody who is still exploring where to go next, you ask the question, "How can I be used? Life, use me. Use me. Show me, through my talents and my gifts. Show me through what I know, what I need to know, what I have yet to learn, how to be used in the greater service to life."

You ask that question, and I guarantee you, Smithies, the answer will be returned and rewarded to you with fulfillment, which is really the major definition of success for me. If you ask the question, "How can I be used," and then get still enough for the answer. Because what I've discovered in all of my years of conversations and interviews with people, anytime you have to go and ask everybody else what is the answer to a question, it means you haven't gotten still enough yourself to quiet out the noise of the world, to listen to your inner GPS, your inner guidance that always knows, that knows right now what is the best next right thing for you to do.

It's your calling to serve because you are a woman of the world. And whatever your chosen field, I know this, that when you shift the paradigm to how can I be used? How can I use my art, my painting, my music, my medical skills? How can I use my listening, my caring, in service to that which is greater than myself? You shift the paradigm to service and the reward comes.

What I love about what has happened with all of the Smithy girls here is that you've learned to see the other. Don't think I didn't notice all the Black Lives Matter signs on all the houses [applause], which I'm told you all, each house through discussions and discernment, came to the conclusion that that would be the banner that would be carried throughout all of the houses, that you all understood that social justice for all really matters.

I appreciate that. [applause] I appreciate that you see the other, notice the other, and recognise that our differences make us whole, that our differences make us a whole nation. Differences make us a whole wide world.

You know, the reason why I could talk to over 37,858 people, but who's counting, in individual conversations from every place and station in life, is that I figured out early on what Maya Angelou had taught me, and that is, we are more alike than we are different.

And the most important thing I learned, I want to share with you. I learned it through thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of conversations, every day, where I tried to be so fully present with every person, to see them, to hear them. And I started to notice early in my career, that after every interview, no matter who I was talking to, the person would say, when I finished the interview, "Was that okay? Was that okay? How was that? How'd that go? Did I do all right?"

So I started to think about, what is that? Why does everybody, including Beyoncé, with all her Beyoncéness, at the end of dancing on stage, hand me the mic and say, "Was that okay?" It's because every person, every argument you've ever been in, every confrontation or conversation, every person just wants to know they were heard. Every argument you have with your friends is not about whatever it is you're arguing about. It's ultimately about, "Do you hear me?" And many of you have even said, when you don't feel you're being heard, "Can you just hear me? Can you hear me? Can you see me? And could you understand that what I'm saying to you actually matters?"

And I have found that no matter what the conversation or the confrontation or the experience, if you can mirror back to that person, "Yes, I hear you, and this is what you're saying." Whether you choose to do it or not, just being heard makes all the difference, being validated, because everybody wants to be heard.

And what I've learned is, when you can do that, and create your work and your life based on an intention to serve with purpose, make it your intention to serve through your life with purpose, you will have a blessed life, especially if you learn first and foremost to take care of yourself.

Long before you were even thought of being conceived, in the early days of my show, when you were just an idea in the mind of the cosmos, I had a woman who was a life coach on named Cheryl Richardson. And she was trying to tell the audience of women that they needed to take better care of themselves. So she asked the audience, let's make a list of priorities and see where you are on the list. And this was an audience of 350 women who come from every place in the country, as eighty percent of our audience did every day. And in that audience of women in the early 90s, there was not one woman who actually had herself on the list. So I said, as Cheryl had iterated, "Listen. You need to put yourself on the list." And the women would argue in confusion, "How can we do that? That's too selfish. You must not have any children because your children have to go first and your husband has to go before you and everybody else and all the things you have to do have to go first." And Cheryl was trying to explain to them that you put yourself on the list so that you will have enough care for yourself to be able to give to others. And as the women were arguing with her and even started to boo her, I said, "She asked you to put your name on the list. She didn't say 'abandon your children in the streets.'" [laughter]

So over the decades women have learned to put themselves on the list, but not to give themselves the priority. You have to give yourself top priority to fill up your life with a full, emboldened, spiritual life that gives back to you.

You know I try in every way to get my daughters to understand the importance of a spiritual life. And I don't mean religious life. I mean nurturing and taking care of that essence, that fullness of expression that is you with a capital Y. So I brought in this guy named, we call him Meditation Bob, to try to teach them how to meditate, how to be still, how to sit with themselves, how to go in to find the deeper I. And I realize now one or two of them still do it. I realize that everybody has to find their own way, so meditation may not be the way for you. It may be music for you. It may be painting for you. It may be dancing for you. It may be walking with your dog for you. It may be sitting in silence for you. But you must find a way every day to develop the spiritual muscle that is the interior, that is the deeper I that is you. You make yourself full so your cup runneth over so that you live this full, emboldened life with so much to give to others because your cup is running over. You can only do that by taking time to give back to yourself. So I encourage you – take care of yourself. Love yourself. Love fully yourself because only people who love themselves have enough love to give to the rest of the world, as a woman for the world. [applause]

And in closing I leave you with this story. I had so many lessons from the Oprah show. I mean I never, I never had to go to a therapist. I was blessed to have my therapy in front of all of you. All those years, all of my "aha" moments I had in front of millions of people. "Oh, that's how you do it." But there was a story of a man named John Diaz who had come to the show for people who had endured, you know, tragic circumstances. John Diaz was on a flight, a Singapore Airlines flight, in the year 2000 and the airplane went down the wrong runway on takeoff and crashed and imploded and exploded. And he said he had about 12 seconds to get off that plane and it was a burning Inferno, that he looked back – he happened to be sitting in first class – but looked back into the fuselage and saw all the other passengers sitting in their seats, their bodies on fire, strapped in their seatbelts. And he saw coming out of the tops of their heads with the flames what he thought were auras, and he said that some were burning brighter than others, the light coming from people was burning brighter than others. I said, "Did you think that that was a divine moment? Did you think that this was a divine experience?" He said, "No, I'm not a religious man. I didn't think it in terms of divinity. I just knew that when I got off that plane I was going to try to live my life with more empathy, that I was going to be open to more love, because I knew inside myself that the people whose auras were burning the brightest were people who'd lived the brightest lives, so I wanted to live more brightly."

So that's my closing prayer for you, Smithies, that you leave here and live the brightest life.