Gwen Ifill

Wake Forest University Commencement Address – May 20, 2013

Gwen Ifill
May 20, 2013— Winston-Salem, North Carolina
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Congratulations, to all you Demon Deacons out there. Congratulations – it's a big day.

And thank you, President Hatch, for having me. I’m happy to be here – actually, I'm happy to be anywhere where they don't confuse me with Queen Latifah. Saturday Night Live impersonations can be a blessing and a curse.

I have been blessed over the years to share days like this on college campuses all over the country. Along the way, I have learned a thing or two about commencement speeches.

Among them: everyone’s in a pretty good mood. That's good. And almost no one is here to listen to me. That's good.

In fact, there is an excellent chance that you will not remember a word of what I say today…or that I was here at all. In fact, I may be one of the last things that stand between you and a good party – or should I say, another good party.

So it is my challenge to work with that, to keep it short – I promise – and, with some luck, memorable in a good way.

I am not confused. This day is about you – the expectations we have of you, and even more important, the expectations you have for your own lives.

I know, for instance, that eleven of you have been chosen to be Fulbright Scholars. Congratulations on that. I also know that you’ve been debating among yourselves as a class which is more valuable – business or liberal arts.

But I also know that for you, higher education means more than getting an advanced degree, and that liberal arts is about more than gazing at the clouds – the lowering clouds. It all will have practical impact on the lives you are now launching. You know that.

Four years ago when you arrived on this campus, Lehman Brothers was collapsing, the housing bubble had burst, and college seemed more like refuge than opportunity.

You were not alone in your fears and your uncertainty. In fact, it made you part of a world, of a shared human experience, where the challenges are right in your face…and that makes the options before you extraordinarily clear even when the choices can seem so murky.

I get that the world outside this campus, and outside our borders can seem like a collection of contradiction…I get that distractions and conflicts that breed hunger, war and malevolence are deeply disappointing.

But you’ve had the gift of time while you’ve been here at Wake – the first world luxury of being able to consider what comes next, not just grasp at the first passing opportunity. I hope you’ve used it well. Because now, it’s on.

And I’m not just talking about getting a job. That’s important, but if you haven’t already, you have to decide what you care about, and then be prepared to act.

You know how, when you’re traveling, the TSA likes to tell you, “If you see something, say something?” My charge to you today is, "If you see something, do something.”

I don’t care if you’re Tea Party or Occupy. Do something. It doesn’t matter to me if you want marriage or career, both or neither. Do something about it. It is not essential that you care about everything. But it is essential that you have to care about something.

This is that moment when it helps to think back to what brought you here today.

Somewhere along the way you should have acquired a mission. Sometimes it just means thinking about how and when you speak, not just speaking.

I’m on Twitter, as you've heard, where a lot of people speak without thinking, but of course that reminds me [holds up phone toward audience to take a photo] – I've got to take a picture of you guys because this is the best possible view ever. I'll be tweeting that in just a moment.

But on Twitter, it can lead you to a lot of interesting insights, but also to a lot of nonsense.

Earlier this week, I went on Twitter to ask some of you what you wanted to hear from me today. I got two responses that are worth sharing, because they dovetail with exactly what I wanted to say anyway.

The first tweet said I should speak about how to contribute to real public discourse in an age of extremes. Funny that I should have come across that in the middle of a stream of Twitter argument about whether the President of the United States should allow a uniformed Marine to hold an umbrella over his head. That's what we've come to.

We live in a world of extreme, often petty, argument, where we hide behind our devices to insult one another in a way we would never do face to face. Technology is fabulous, but this is not what it is for. We have to harness our thinking, and our expression, to add to the debates around us…not to debase it. You can change that.

Another response I received on Twitter hit on that same theme. The tweeter worried that technology is surpassing humanity, and asked that I speak of the need for communication to be the medium, not the message.

You can do something about that, too. But here’s a hint: don’t take your guidance from what you see in Washington. I hate to admit it – it's often the worst possible example of how to make change.

Real change comes from the people who make up their minds that if they see something, they will do something. Politics doesn't always – you may have heard – lend itself to that.

Listening to me, you would think I have become cynical about it all, after all the years I’ve spent in Washington. But I am not. Skeptical, perhaps – that’s an occupational hazard. But I am not cynical.

You see, cynics think they know all the answers already, and then they stop listening. Skeptics always have more questions to ask, but we are willing to be persuaded to the honesty of an alternate point of view, even if we don't share it.

Is it possible to be skeptical? And optimistic? And ambitious? Open? Excited at possibility? And willing to change the world too? I think so.

Some people think you have to be lucky for all of this to happen. But I only believe in the luck you make with the tools you have. You have a lot of tools leaving Wake.

My parents were immigrants to this country. I was not supposed to be here today, receiving your honorary degree. Were they lucky, or did they make their luck by choosing to be Americans?

Are you merely lucky to be going into the world with a Wake degree? Or are you going to shape your own success with the tools you have gained here?

The only questions, it seems to me, is if you will bring your humanity to the task and if you will take into account the possibility of unlikely outcomes.

That means you have to be prepare for life to knock you off course. You have to stay curious after your formal education ends. You always have to have another question in your hip pocket, a follow-up question, we call it in the business. Something that will take you – and hopefully the person you are questioning – out of your comfort zone.

A lot of people get to college thinking, “I’m going to be a scientist,” "I'm going to be a doctor," "I'm going to be a physicist," and then they discover, “Oops – I hate biology.” Or “I will be an engineer,” and then they realize they don't like math. So you have to be open to the possibility of a change in direction. That stays with you throughout your life.

And you have to consider the possibility that the first answer to the question might sometimes be no. It's not the answer you wanted, but it is the answer.

I wrote a book a couple of years ago, as you heard about, about breakthrough political candidates. They had a lot in common, but most of all that they said yes. Especially when they were told no. They were always told to wait their turn, that they were not something enough, that they would never, ever win. They each heard no, but they said yes. And they broke through.

But I want you to be so successful that you won’t even hear no – that your children will never remember a time when it was unusual to see an African-American president, or a woman as secretary of state, or a Latino on the Supreme Court. They’ll be shocked to read in their history books; they'll be shocked that it took so long. They will be prepared for sudden change, even when it seems like it takes forever to get there.

I have a small confession to share with you. When I was growing up, one of my favorite books was Winnie the Pooh. I think I found something lovely about it. I found something appealing in the contrast between Pooh’s nervous sunniness, Tigger’s antic excitement and Eeyore’s depressive nature.

Pooh’s author was A.A. Milne, and he understood the benefits of the unlikely friendship between the stuffed bear, the dancing tiger and the sad donkey. They were disorderly, but as a trio, they made sense.

“One of the advantages of being disorderly,” Milne wrote, “is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.”

I guess I became a journalist because I always think there are new and exciting discoveries to occur just around the corner. If you saw my desk, you would know that I live that every day.

Discoveries in an age where everyone has an opinion, but so little is new and so much is trite. Discoveries in age when we are bombarded with so much information and so little actual news. Discoveries in a time when so much of what passes for inspiration lacks true insight. Discoveries that move us to seize responsibility rather than to grudgingly fulfill obligation. And discoveries in a time when we demand the right to ask questions, to get answers, and then do something about it.

I wish several things for you today, not least of which that you, too, one day have a mentor like I had in my career. His name was Tim Russert. He was the Washington NBC news bureau chief. He passed away in 2008 just before he was to deliver the commencement speech here at Wake the next year.

He was someone everyone should have as a mentor. Someone who will talk you into something you ought to do that you are too scared to do. In my case, it was leaving print for television. Someone who will watch out for you once you do it, and make sure that you succeed. Someone who will then turn you loose when it’s time – in my case leaving NBC News for PBS – and talk you into doing something else if you need to.

Tim taught me all those things. And though I don’t think I ever told him how much I appreciated it, I think he would love it that I am telling you instead.

Up until now, you have probably been keeping promises made to other people – to your parents – that's good, gotta keep those promises – to your professors – that's almost as good as the parents – and to your friends – very important.

Today, I ask you to make and keep a few promises to yourselves. A promise to find a mission for your life. A promise to fix and explain and investigate, and understand – mostly understand. A promise to care about more than just yourself but also to affect the lives of those around you. A promise to use what you have learned here about potential – the potential of rebuilt bridges and healing words – to create new relationships where none existed before.

Oh, and also don’t forget to laugh along the way. It’s the only way any of it can come together. It's the glue. You can’t be happy unless you’re laughing, especially at yourself.

If you have learned all that… If you understand that your learning does not end today – that it only begins – that's all it will take to make the rest of us proud.

Families, faculty, graduates, thank you for the honor of including me in your graduating class of 2013, because I like to think I’m still learning too.

Have a wonderful day. Thank you.

PBS (2013, May 22). Gwen Ifill Gives Wake Forest University 2013 Commencement Address (Video File). Retrieved on May 22, 2019 from