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July15, 2009

Vol. 109, No. 16

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‘Give something back – you’re graduating from Princeton!’

Posted on July 15, 2009


(Following is a transcript of the Class Day talk June 1, 2009, by Katie Couric, anchor of the CBS Evening News. As Couric came to the podium, a hawk flew from behind the stage, sweeping across the crowd and toward Clio Hall.)

What was that? Was that a bird? Did that bird just crash? Oh, a hawk, how lovely. That is the strangest introduction I’ve ever had.

Neal, thank you very much for that wonderful introduction, and President Tilghman, deans, parents, and most of all, graduating Class of 2009.

I want to first mention Jason Gilbert [’09] of Marietta, Ga., home of the big chicken, which I’ve seen, and Jackie Bello [’09], I think my fellow northern Virginian. I have three words for you: Damn you both. Where do you get off setting the bar so high? But Jason, TMI on the toilet paper.

It is such an honor to be part of your Class Day. When Princeton called to invite me, I was absolutely thrilled. It also gave me a perfect excuse to turn down Harvard and Yale, which were my safety schools! And lately, since I’ve been called a cougar in the tabloid press, today I’m very happy to be an honorary tiger instead! Actually, coming here was a complete no brainer! After all, I can see New Jersey from my house!

But I have to tell you about the funny thing that happened on my way to Class Day. You know, I was pregaming in the Slums when there was a “noise complaint” and P-Safe busted me and took my Prox. Luckily, though – very relieved – I wasn’t McCoshed, so I headed to the Street, where I tried to complete a Prospect 10 but was sidetracked playing ROBO at TI. Very savage! Then I headed to Hoagie Haven and enjoyed a Fat Lady and polished it off with a donut from the Wa. I tell ya, you Princetonians really know how to live.

But, actually, I do have a bone to pick with you. I have discovered I am the first female Class Day speaker in Princeton’s history. OMG, WTF? (Thank you for the LOLs.)

All these years, seriously, and only one woman? Now, I understand this isn’t Lilith Fair, and there are plenty of great men out there. But you actually asked Bradley Whitford of The West Wing before you had a woman? Now, I understand the concept of casting a wide net and all that, but great women like Madeline Albright, Sally Ride, Mother Teresa, Ellen Degeneres, all bested by a fake political adviser to a fake president!? And then you actually had Stephen Colbert, a fake TV anchor? With just a little more product in his hair, I think he could actually be a real one. I’m shocked you didn’t invite Doogie Howser this year, a fake doctor and graduate of Princeton Class of ’83. Or maybe you did, but he was too busy on the set of How I Met Your Mother. Or as we call it at CBS, My Favorite MILF.

So I’d like to officially welcome Princeton to the 21st century. You’ve embraced the female gender at the perfect time because it has been quite a year for women. After all, a Latina has just been nominated to the Supreme Court, only the third woman in history. And I heard she graduated summa cum laude from a little school in New Jersey! Hillary Clinton was the first serious female presidential candidate and made 18 million cracks in the ultimate glass ceiling. And then, of course, there’s Carrie Prejean, Miss California. No one has done more to motivate gay-rights activists since Anita Bryant. (Your parents know who she is.)

In any event, it is an honor to be here, and I am moved to be sharing this special moment with some parents and professors who may have woken up to me on the Today show and with students who may wake up in time for the CBS Evening News. Although based on the average age of our viewers, I think you’re probably watching A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila instead.

But seriously, thanks for inviting me, and congratulations to you on your graduation or, more appropriately, your commencement, because as many of you know, the fun is just beginning.

I’m sure you don’t need a news flash that getting a job is no stroll down Nassau Street these days. I read a study recently that said only 20 percent of graduates who’ve applied for jobs have one right now. That’s down from 51 percent in 2007. I mean in this economic climate, graduates of the Wilson School might actually have to get a job in government!

I wanted to mention to you all, though, there actually may be some opportunities in the Republican Party. They’re still looking for an effective spokesman, and the only person they can find so far is Rush Limbaugh. And he reportedly won’t take the job because he doesn’t want to give up his prescription plan.

But as you head out into this daunting job market, at least you have many illustrious alumni lighting the way.

Like the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama – Class of 1985, and now wowing them in Washington.

Or Queen Noor [’73] of Jordan, who has traveled so far and done so much in the name of humanitarian causes since her days here on this campus.

The prolific and brilliant writer, Joyce Carol Oates, now a Princeton professor. Wendy Kopp – Princeton ’89 – founder of Teach for America, who has placed 20,000 teachers who have impacted the lives of more than 3 million students in this country. And for 200 please, Alex – who is Larissa Kelly? The third all-time Jeopardy! winner – Class of 2002! There are a few noteworthy men who were proud to go to Princeton, a list that reads like a who’s-who of American history: James Madison [1771], John Foster Dulles [1908], F. Scott Fitzgerald [’17], Malcolm Forbes [’41], James Baker [’52], and Lyle Menendez [’92], who’s currently serving a life sentence at the Mule Creek State Prison in California. Hey, you can’t win ‘em all!

I would also like to salute notable Princeton grad Mayor McDaniels of South Park. An impressive number of technology giants have also graduated from Princeton. From the father of modern computing, Alan Turing [*38], to Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt [’76], who went to my high school in Arlington [Va.], to eBay founder Meg Whitman [’77]. And I understand Amazon’s Jeff Bezos [’86] is offering to replace the Firestone Library with a Kindle. All these names really make you wonder why they even built Stanford!

Also doing his part to advance Princeton’s impressive technology footprint – Class of 82’s David Duchovny, who has single-handedly supported a major segment of the online industry. Apparently, these days Agent Mulder is really into the Triple-X Files.

And topping off the list, there’s former New York governor Eliot Spitzer [’81]. Given his status as client number nine, it does seem particularly fitting that he’s a graduate of “Woody Woo.”

They told me I could be racy here – work with me, people!

Yesterday, of course, you heard from another impressive graduate, someone I respect so much: Gen. David Petraeus, who earned his Ph.D. here in 1987 and is the architect of the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy and has had a brilliant career in the U.S. military. And I understand Class of ’54’s Donald Rumsfeld has been charged with guarding the big cannon. Is that right? I don’t want to say he’s taking his job too far, but he’s reportedly been telling President Obama there are weapons of mass destruction hidden at Rutgers.

There are certainly many successful graduates of this wonderful university. And now, of course, it’s your turn. I think more than ever in my lifetime, this nation needs some big, bold thinkers. We need innovators. We need people who look beyond a paycheck and actually see possibilities.

You’ve got your degrees. Now, you’re about to enroll in a new kind of learning experience. There are plenty of lessons along the way if you keep your heart and your mind open on the journey.

First, success only knocks on your door if you win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. All the rest of us have to work for it … and work hard.

There’s that old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. That’s a major point Malcolm Gladwell makes in his book Outliers. He writes that to truly master something, you need to spend at least 10,000 hours doing it. Take Bill Gates, for example. He dropped out of Harvard, and he still became Bill Gates by devoting his every waking moment to building and understanding computer codes. The Beatles might have seemed like an overnight sensation, but they played together more than a thousand times before that famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show back in 1964. For them, it really was a hard day’s night, night after night after night, for four long years!

I’m no Beatle or Bill Gates, but I’ve learned the importance of hard work as well. I was a desk assistant at ABC News in Washington, where my major responsibilities were Xeroxing (yes, it was the dark ages, thank you) and making coffee. When I moved to what my network colleagues referred to as Chicken Noodle News in 1980, I finally got a chance to do some reporting, and the president of CNN said he never wanted to see me on air again. Yeah, it was rough. Now this could have been demoralizing. Instead I found it motivating. And rather than let the turkeys get me down, I just kept practicing. And I actually got better.

Even today I spend hours preparing for interviews that sometimes are edited down to only a few minutes. It takes a lot of effort to make things appear effortless.

This year I had the privilege of interviewing Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the man who successfully landed a flight on the Hudson River after birds knocked out both his engines. He saved all 155 lives onboard. While his story is about heroism, it’s also about experience and hard work. He said to me: “For 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education, and training. And on Jan. 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a sudden large withdrawal.”

In other words, practice, practice, practice. It always pays off.

Next, don’t be a hater. Princeton has taught you to think critically, to approach things with a healthy dose of skepticism, and as Martha Stewart would say, that’s a good thing. But you really must guard against the cynicism and nastiness that are so pervasive today, particularly on the Internet. It can be a wonderful, powerful, and equalizing tool, but it’s also populated by haters and trolls. People think they can say or do anything online under the cloak of anonymity. Don’t get sucked in. In his book entitled Snark, David Denby writes, “Snark often functions as an enforcer of mediocrity and conformity. In its cozy knowingness, snark flatters you in assuming that you get the contemptuous joke. You’ve been admitted or readmitted to a club, but it may be a club of the second rate.” Rise above the collegial nastiness, and instead celebrate excellence. The joy of reveling in someone else’s success is much sweeter than the bitter vitriol of sites like Juicy Campus. By the way, Juicy Campus, RIP. Shutting that Web site down, in my view, was a huge moral victory for civility.

Third, I have a message particularly for all you young women here today or, as Beyonce might say, all the single ladies. John Lennon once wrote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

I’m sure you are all graduating with big career goals. Now you may also have a dream of being married and having a family, and at some point the career may take a backseat. There is no more challenging, rewarding, or important job than being a mom. I have two daughters, and I know that. But I just want to say this, to all of you young women out there – sometimes dreams of domestic bliss are interrupted by reality. People get divorced. People die. You need to protect yourself. I was very happily married to a wonderful man who was diagnosed with colon cancer, and nine months later, he was gone. I was a single mom with two very young children, and this was not part of the plan. Luckily, I had a career and therefore the financial independence to support my children. Many women in my situation are not nearly as fortunate. And while I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, I want you all to be prepared for the unexpected and approach some of the big life decisions you’ll be making with your eyes wide open.

And another thing you probably need to realize: It’s not all about you. Obviously, public service is a big part of Princeton’s DNA, but I don’t want you to leave the concept of it back here on the Princeton campus. As you venture out into this big bad world, I hope you find a way to make it better. As anchor of the Evening News, I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan. I was there for a matter of days, not months or years. No matter what your opinion may be about the wars this nation is fighting, the men and women of the military are making sacrifices every day, and deserve our respect and support while they’re deployed and when they come home.

But there are many ways to serve. When my husband Jay died, I felt I needed to do something. I needed to educate Americans about colon cancer, the second-leading cancer-killer of men and women in this country. I needed to help them understand that this cancer can often be prevented entirely, if only people were screened. I didn’t want others to experience the pain and loss my family had endured.

So, I did what any self-respecting journalist with a built-in bully pulpit would do: I had a colonoscopy on national television. At one point, loopy on anesthesia, I believe I told the world that I had a pretty little colon. I was fortunate to be able to reach a large audience, and colonoscopy screenings increased by 20 percent. Researchers call it “the Couric effect.” I think it’s the Katie and Jay effect. There are people I may never meet who are now living healthier lives, with emphasis on living, simply because I helped bring colon cancer out of the closet.

I think for me personally, this is going to be the most gratifying accomplishment in my life. And I was also so happy to be part of a team that helped organize an event called Stand Up 2 Cancer, which raised over $100 million to fund the unsung heroes of this country: Scientists who work day in a day out without fame or big checks so many more people can live with cancer and not die from it.

There are smaller, quieter ways to serve that are just as important. I recently interviewed two adorable sisters for a series we’re doing called “Children of the Recession.” They are 9 and 5, and their parents both lost their jobs. One was a college professor, and one was an accountant. And the girls ended up walking the streets and riding the trains of Chicago with their mother. Then an organization called “Safe Families” stepped in, and now they’re being taken care of by a wonderful couple until their parents can get back on their feet. I met many families who have opened up their homes and hearts to kids in distress. That is service. So is tutoring a child. Working at a soup kitchen. Or driving an elderly neighbor to the grocery store.

Never underestimate the contribution each and every one of you can make. It was once said: “If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.”

So give something back. After all, you’re graduating from Princeton! And you are so fortunate. And do me a favor – thank your parents or whoever helped you achieve this goal. Then transform that gratitude into action and give back to a world that has already given you so much.

When President Obama announced he was choosing Sonia Sotomayor [’76] for the Supreme Court, it was a reminder that the American Dream is alive and well that a young Puerto Rican girl who grew up in a housing project in the Bronx could earn a seat on the highest court in the land. She congratulated the single mother who raised her to be a judge and her brother to be a doctor. Parents, your children, too, can achieve anything because you gave them strong shoulders to stand on and the tools they’ll need to succeed. You just need to remind yourselves of this when they ask if they can come home and live with you while they look for a job!

But maybe the silver lining of these tough economic times is that it’s wake-up call that can help us recalibrate our values.

The ’80s – thank God – are long over. Luckily, none of you remember them. Gordon Gecko from the movie Wall Street was wrong: Greed is not good. We can finally burn the bumper sticker that says: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” The truth is closer to the old Italian proverb that says: “At the end of the game, the king and the pawn go back in the same box.”

What really matters in the end is how you’ve played that game of life that you’ve lived it with honor, integrity, and character – old-fashioned qualities that never go out of style, whether you’re a fan of Ella Fitzgerald or Lady Gaga. (I just wanted to be able to get Lady Gaga in there somehow.)

Finally, take some chances. Get out of your comfort zone, even if that’s extremely uncomfortable. Make some noise, be a rabble-rouser. We’ve seen such extraordinary change in this country in the last 10 years. Now it’s your responsibility to build on that change.

Mark Twain once wrote, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

When I left the safe confines of NBC News, a friend wrote me a note that said, “Boats are always safe in the harbor. But that’s not what boats are built for.” So sail away. Even if the waters are choppy and the territory uncharted, you’ll be amazed at what you learn about the world and what you learn about yourself. And through it all, cherish the handful of people you can always depend on to throw you a life preserver when you need it the most. And don’t forget to wear sunscreen.

To the Class of 2009, congratulations, safe travels, good luck, and I can’t wait to feature you in the future on the CBS Evening News.




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Comments
1 Response to 'Give something back - you're graduating from Princeton!'

Laurence C. Day '55 Says:

2009-07-20 10:29:13

I think she was right on the mark about giving back, hard work, thinking of others rather than yourself. Her personal example and the example of others was fine. If she was told to be racy, OK, but a few names mentioned I thought better left unsaid, e.g. Menendez, Spitzer. (I happen to admire his ability and smarts and guts - forget his indiscretions; he was trying to live up to the ways of Republican Congressmen, a tall order). But I can't complain when she put Rumsfeld in his place. Too bad she didn't laud Aaron Burr (who came within a hair's breath of being President) and a few other older alumni worthy of mention - George Kennan, Norman Thomas, Adlai Stevenson, Ralph Nader et al. But she is still a veritable kid and many seniors wouldn't know who they are. Unfortunately she isn't a feminist. Was she mad or sad she was the first female Class Day speaker? That is surprising, considering that Princeton is run by women. Well, from now on I am sure she has opened the door for Dolly Parton and Serena Williams to enliven Class Day. Overall I liked her talk. "They told me I could be racy - work with me people." Well said - if many current Princetonians lack anything it may be a wild sense of humor. They invited her - then get with it.
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CURRENT ISSUE: July15, 2009
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A cult in college clothing
The text of senior Jason Gilbert's Class Day talk.
'Our wonder years'
The text of senior Jackie Bello's Class Day talk.