Amid Washington’s graduation season, we look at the craft of writing and delivering commencement speeches. What advice sticks — and what doesn’t?
Twenty-somethings wandering in caps and gowns, “Pomp and Circumstance” playing in the breeze. There’s no doubt about it: Washington is knee-deep in graduation season. And while the class of 2019 celebrates the end of this educational chapter, they’re being inundated on all sides by advice, from graduation speakers to professors to family members.
For recent graduates, what advice sticks — and what doesn’t? How important is it for universities to land a high-profile speaker? We talk about the genre of the commencement speech and the art of advice for recent college graduates.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIDo you hear that? Why is it so familiar? Why is it you only seem to hear it at this time of year? It's graduation season, that's why, and we're seeing flowing robes and mortarboards all over. Local colleges and universities invited all kinds of public figures from politicians to novelists to chefs to address the new graduates on their celebratory day to talk about the craft of the commencement speech and the art of giving advice to recent graduates. I'm joined by Jeff Selingo. He is a journalist covering higher education and the author of "There is Life After College." Jeff Selingo, thank you for joining us.
JEFF SELINGOIt's great to be here.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Peter Starr. He is the dean of the college of arts and sciences at American University. Peter Starr, thank you for joining us.
PETER STARRWonderful to be here.
NNAMDII should mention that American University holds the broadcasting license for WAMU. Amanda Scott is a 2018 Truman Scholar, who graduated this past weekend from Georgetown University with a BA in government. She was also a student speaker at Georgetown's senior convocation. Amanda Scott, congratulations and thank you for joining us.
AMANDA SCOTTThank you so much for inviting me.
NNAMDIJeff, you've covered higher education for two decades. Tell us a bit about this graduating class. They're graduating at a particular moment in time. What makes the class of 2019 different from the people who graduated five or ten years ago?
SELINGOWell, this is the leading edge of Gen Z, right. These are students that were born in 1995 or beyond and so some of the earliest memories of this class are the 2008 recession. And so we've been seeing, in the last couple of year, a real push at all types of institutions about selective and nonselective institutions of students majoring in things that they find practical, right. So majors that they think will lead to jobs are kind of in vogue now. And we've been seeing a flight away, unfortunately in my opinion, from the humanities and things that they don't think will lead to a job.
NNAMDIAmanda, what do you think of Jeff's assessment of your class and how do you think your class compares with previous years?
SCOTTYeah, so I definitely could see that that is good characterization of this particular class. You know, coming from Georgetown, I think we really do emphasize the humanities. We are a traditional liberal arts college. You know, most of my peers are, you know, in the government program or studying English or history or something like that, but I definitely think there is something unique about this particular class and really looking at job opportunities. You know, really looking at selective colleges, looking at the postgraduate outcomes in making their decisions. So even if they do, you know, choose the humanities, they're still very much looking forward to that postgraduate outcome.
NNAMDIPeter Starr, universities go through a huge amount of work to prepare for commencement ceremonies and to book graduation speakers. First, what do you look for in a commencement speaker?
STARRYou look someone, who will be funny, be wise, insightful and sit down. So you want someone, who's going to be brief, but who's going to capture the life lessons that they themselves have had and learned. And hopefully some of that will take. I mean, commencement is a strange time. You're dressed up in these funny, funny robes, people are playing funny music. It goes on too long. You might be in the sun. It's tough on one level, but you really hope that those life lessons that commencement speakers convey are going to resonate for the rest of their lives. And sometimes they do.
NNAMDITell us how American University handles keynote speakers, because I imagine it can be fraught when considering big names. What is the process and who chooses the invitees?
STARRSo many universities, as you know, will have one big ceremony. I believe George Washington does that. USC where I was for many years had one big ceremony, but a very big marquee speaker. We have six and having six means that you can tailor the speakers to the specific goals of the school in question. Our speaker this year, as Amanda, actually as it turns out was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who was magnificent. That goes without saying. So that's what you try to do. You try to find a speaker, who will speak to your students and encapsulate the values and the goals for your institution.
NNAMDIAre graduation speakers typically paid? I can answer that. No. Been there, didn't get paid. But can they be expected to pay off the graduate's debt like the Billionaire Robert Smith said he would do at the Morehouse this week? You can only come if you have a billion dollars.
STARRI think it's a rhetorical question.
SELINGOWell, it's definitely going to raise the stakes for every other billionaire speaker now.
NNAMDIExactly right. Jeff, you've been a commencement speaker yourself. You've received four honorary degrees at different colleges. How do you approach writing commencement speeches and what do you think makes it successful? I got to tell you I have done a couple of commencement speeches and it's turned me away from speechwriting, because they are the most difficult speeches that I've ever written.
SELINGOThey're hard, yes. Yes, they're definitely hard. I think, as Peter said, you want to make it about the graduates. I think that too many commencement speakers -- and no offense against all the politicians that are invited to speak at commencements, but I think sometimes they make it about them or policy. So I always try to learn something about the university if I know nothing about it, right. So I call up students and I call on others and I say, well, what are you going to miss or what did you love about this place? So there's a little personal anecdote.
NNAMDIThis is a reporter's approach to speechwriting.
SELINGOYeah, and then, you know again, it's about making it about them, providing some advice from my own life, some stories and having one solid theme and I think Peter is right, making it short. I think ten minutes, twelve minutes at the max, but not anything longer than that. They're there to get their degree and get home.
NNAMDIYou gave the commencement address this past weekend at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. What pearls of wisdom did you share with the graduates there?
SELINGOWell, it ended up pouring rain. We were outside so --
SELINGO-- I tried to make the speech a little big shorter as a result. But I told them to -- you know, I think most students at this time of year, most graduates are kind of uncertain about what's next, right. They've just spent these great four years in college. And while some of them have jobs and graduate school on their mind, others don't, and so I talk to them about embracing that uncertainty. You know, we're living in a world now where they're going to have multiple careers and multiple jobs. We're living in a world where artificial intelligence is going to change the workforce as we know it.
SELINGOAnd I think that in some ways, being uncertain about the future is a good thing and being comfortable in that ambiguity is a good thing. And I told them some stories about my own life where I was unsure about things and took different paths as a result and it ended up being good in the end.
NNAMDIThe whole thing about just following your passion doesn't always work, does it?
SELINGONo, it doesn't. First of all, I think it could blind you to other opportunities. I tell this story in other speeches about meeting Steve Ballmer when I was an intern at the Arizona Republic. And at that time he was a low-level executive in Microsoft. And we spent a lot of time together and he gave me his card with his cell phone number and I promptly lost it, because I didn't care about Steve Ballmer. I cared about becoming a reporter, right. And so I think that it could blind you.
SELINGOAnd I also think there's a certain amount of talent and, you know, I wanted to be a broadcast journalist. I think I wanted to be on your side of the microphone, Kojo. And I met my college roommate, who ended up being David Muir of ABC World News Tonight, and he had a lot more talent at the age of 18 than I did. And I realized that and I said, you know what, I could do other things.
NNAMDISpeaking of favorite commencement speakers, here is Murray Horwitz, the host of WAMU's The Big Broadcast. Murray, your favorite commencement speaker?
MURRAY HORWITZWell, you will relate to this, Kojo, as much as we're both hosts. Of course any commencement speech I've ever given is my favorite, but not everybody shares that opinion. But I just came back from my alma mater of Kenyon College where, on Saturday, Wynton Marsalis gave the commencement address. And, as you know, he and I did a lot of work together on NPR. So I went out for him. And Wynton, who apparently started writing his speech like about 3:00 in the morning on Saturday morning, gave one of the best commencement addresses that I've ever heard.
HORWITZJeff your, guest hit the first thing, which is you have to talk to the kids. You know, most people -- unless you're Winston Churchill and you're going to coin the phrase "the iron curtain," you know, you really have to address the graduates. And Wynton said -- can I read you just a little bit of what he said?
HORWITZHe said, "Graduates," I could kiss him for this, "you will hear that an education in human ideas is impractical, foolish and a waste of time and money, but I will submit to you that your relationship to the ideas and ideals you've developed here at Kenyon is the very thing that will deepen in meaning and enrich your lives as you mature. It saves you from an all-consuming bitterness over left- or right-wing politics you were never taught to evaluate from an innocuous future of binge consumerism or a cultish enslavement to online cookie-cutter predators that surround you with a curated world tailored to your endlessly devolving tastes, because everywhere you look you only see yourself."
HORWITZAnd he went on to say, we need you to save the environment, we need you to do this, we need you to do that. He said, "In short we need you to do all of the things Alexa is not and will not be able to do.
NNAMDIExactly right. Wynton Marsalis, a trumpet solo in words.
HORWITZExactly. And I have to tell you, when I was back at Kenyon, two people came up to me and said, we remember your commencement address from 1992. And one of them had been a graduate. And the one thing -- I think you want to give these kids confidence. I would like to go to each one of them and hold them by the shoulders and look in their eyes and say, it's going to be cool. I don't how. You've got to be lucky, but it's probably going to be cool.
HORWITZAnd one woman said, she said, you said something so valuable. She said that you had worked at NPR in the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute and that when you graduated from Kenyon none of those institutions existed, but you were ready to take jobs there. And I think that's the key to an education.
NNAMDISure. Thank you very much for sharing that story with us Murray Horwitz.
HORWITZThanks for having me.
NNAMDIThe two people who remember my commencement speeches are my wife and me. Amanda, you were a student speaker at Georgetown senior convocation this year. You end your speech with a call to action for your peers. Let's take a listen.
SCOTTOver our past four years at Georgetown, we've been told that we are heirs to the Jesuit tradition of social justice, that we are people for others. What that means to me is the command to use my education and my privilege to challenge oppressive systems and stand with and among marginalized communities. I hope you all will join me in the fight. (applause)
NNAMDIAmanda, why was it important to you to end on this message to your fellow graduates?
SCOTTI think it really came from my own story and my struggle to get an education, because I have a really, you know, nontraditional background. I was barely homeschooled. I got a GED. I went to community college and then I finally came to Georgetown and so my experience wasn't necessarily typical of most. And so my experiences at Georgetown interacting with my peers really allowed me to see that education is ultimately a political issue, that it is very much a social justice issue. And I wanted to be able to really, really impart that, you know, not only to our graduating class, but to the parents and anyone who might be listening, that we need to make education more equitable. That we need to consider education as part of a larger, you know, political and social context.
NNAMDIChimamanda Ngozi Adichie also addressed you and the other graduates at Georgetown this year. What did you think of her speech?
SCOTTI thought she was amazing, absolutely amazing. You know, I had seen her TED Talk before and already knew her. So when we found out that she was our commencement speaker, we were very happy. Yeah, I loved her speech. One thing that really stuck with me was she said something about, you will fail at something in your life. That was, you know, very relatable to me. And then she said to everyone, if you have not already failed at something, you will fail at something. And I thought, you know, coming from an institution like Georgetown and, you know, a lot of the pressures that come from that, it was really good to ground ourselves in realizing that, you know, failure is, you know, inevitable in our lives.
NNAMDIPeter Starr, Adichie was also, as you mentioned, the keynote speaker for AU's college graduation ceremony this year. Is that common for one speaker to be invited to multiple colleges or universities in the same year in the same town? Is that something you seek to avoid or does it really matter at all?
STARRI don't think it matters. It's not terribly common, I wouldn't think, but let me talk a little bit briefly about her speech for us.
STARRShe had us at hello. She came in. She's Nigerian by birthright, hello. And one of the things that's really amazing about the really successful commencement speeches is that hook, that first thing that you say. Bono said, "My name is Bono and I'm a rock star." He went on too long but it was a great opening. Chimamanda Adichie at the end, right at the end said, "Make your piece with discomfort, especially in a world that is standing askew." And I think the commencement speeches now are even more important than they were five, ten years ago, because they embrace values in a value system that is increasingly under threat. Not just because of the 2008 economic crisis but also because of social media, rampant consumerism, a lot of the things that we heard from Murray Horwitz's quote.
NNAMDIBefore we go to break, the commencement address is a genre in its own right. It often contains platitudes along the lines of, you should be proud of the work you've put in, look at your bright future. What do you think of that template? Are clichés difficult to avoid?
SELINGOClichés are difficult to avoid, but you can't forget, and Chimamanda said this for us, and I don't know if she said it for you, there's truth in clichés. And sometimes you have to embrace the clichés, when they're the right clichés. She also went into a very long wonderful disquisition about the value of reading and reading long stories, not just because she herself is a novelist and makes money with long stories.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
STACEY ABRAMSHear me clearly, do not edit your desires. (applause) You are here in this space, you are entering this world to want what you want regardless of how big the dream. You may have to get there in stages, you may stumble along the way, but the journey is worth the work.
RAHM EMANUELDon't be reckless with what you've been given. Take what you do and how you live your life seriously.
OPRAH WINFREYAnd sometimes you find out what you're supposed to be doing by doing the things you're not supposed to do. So don't expect the perfect job that defines your life's work to come along next week. If that happens, take the blessing and run with it, but if not, be grateful to be on the path where you eventually want to live.
NNAMDIWhat you heard first was Stacey Abrams addressing American University School of Public Affairs this year, then Rahm Emanuel at George Washington University in 2009 and lastly Oprah Winfrey at Howard University in 2007. Advice, that is another key element of a graduation speech. Peter, are graduates ready to hear advice at graduation or are they done with all that after so many years of school?
STARRI think a little of both. I think we hope that it will resonate throughout their lives. One of my favorites sort of (word?) Stacey Abrams's "do not edit your desires" is what Stephen Colbert said. "If we'd all stuck with our first dream we'd all be cowboys and princesses." And so, you know, the tone and the rhythm of a commencement speech is absolutely important. You can't be entirely humorous. You can't be entirely ponderous. It needs to go and flow organically from one to the other, ideally, as Jeff said, in ten to twelve minutes not twenty-five, not an hour, as one law school graduation of ours reputedly did years and years ago. So it's all about the timing and that's why it's so darn hard to write.
NNAMDIFirst you Jeff, what would you tell to new graduates, who are overwhelmed with the amount of advice or conflicting advice that they're receiving?
SELINGOWell, there's a lot of conflicting advice at this time of year. And I think that the twenties now is a period of learning and earning. And so I would tell them, you know, first of all, become lifelong learners just because college is over. Most jobs now require you to kind of continue to learn as much as you can. And so I tell them to kind of embrace that. And also don't think that your first job is going to be your only job and your first career is going to be your only career. Again, I think, when I graduated 25 years ago, most people said well, you know, you have to stay in that first job for a couple of years. I now tell people that that advice is kind of old school and they should move through jobs as often as they can, because, again, I think this is a period of time where you're going to be learning a lot in your twenties.
NNAMDIAmanda, you're a new graduate. What would you tell others about all the advice you've been receiving?
SCOTTYeah, I would say that there is no one size fits all. You know, a lot of peers are going straight to graduate school. A lot of them are taking time off. And I think it's really very difficult to do especially when you're giving, like, a commencement speech, because you are speaking to so many people. But, yeah, a lot of times, you know, a lot of platitudes, a lot of the advice doesn't necessarily translate to every individual person. I think that's really why it's so important to also have mentors in life, to have, you know, counselors and professors that you, you know, know and trust, to speak with them about your individual plans. And, yeah, so that's the way I would look at it.
NNAMDIAnd Jeff, where do you think college graduates right now need the most help? What advice would you give them broadly as a class?
SELINGOWell, broadly, you know, and I talk about this in my last book "There's Life After College," that I sat in on a lot of interviews with college seniors going into the job market. And when an interviewer had asked them what they learned in a class or on an internship and how that can apply to this job, they were very good at describing what they did, but not what they learned. In other words, they were very good at essentially repeating what was on the resume or in their LinkedIn profile.
SELINGOAnd I think the best advice that I give them is to figure out, like, how do you translate what you learned in that history class in your sophomore year. And this is where, again, I think the humanities could really help students be benefitted in the job market by taking the underlying skills that could then be applied to the job market. And I think that's something that we learn over life as we move through different jobs and different careers, but I think that for college seniors it's very difficult.
NNAMDIIn your book "There's Life After College" you divide students into three categories, sprinters, wanderers and stragglers. Can you tell us what these three groups are?
SELINGOYeah, so we did a national survey of people in their mid-twenties to figure out, okay, if we reverse engineer their last ten years, how did they end up where they are? The sprinters, that doesn't necessarily mean they moved fast, but they moved with determination, much like we just heard, right, where students are going right onto graduate school or already have a job.
SELINGOThe wanderers were students, who tended to wander through college, right. They changed majors often. And I'm not saying that's a problem, but they didn't really quite know what they wanted out of college except that somebody told them they had to go and then they wandered after college. And they're the ones who ended up as baristas at Starbucks or just doing any job to get a job, largely, because they were in debt and had to take a job. And then they wandered and took half their twenties to figure out where they're going.
SELINGOAnd the stragglers were the last group, some of whom, didn't graduate from college, others who really just took most of their twenties to get going. I don't make an opinion on the last two groups. Many people think, well, it's terrible if you're a wanderer or straggler. I think we probably know many of us were, right?
NNAMDII am a wanderer straggler.
SELINGOYeah, exactly. I think the problem, and particularly in the U.S., is that we've created a system, go to high school, go to college, get a job. And if you get off that at any point it's hard to get back onto that track. And I think we just have to help people. And I think colleges and their career centers are really good at this in helping students even after graduation in trying to find that pathway.
NNAMDIWell, graduates of D.C. area universities, Peter, are kind of a unique breed. Many of them want to go into law, government or public service. What advice do you think is important for D.C. graduates in particular to hear?
STARROh, wow. I mean, we have at AU and certainly at Georgetown, we have a lot of students, who want to do that. You know, my sense of law, politics in general is that they're becoming much more multifaceted. You know, our political problems are scientific problems, they're educational problems, they're legal problems. And so one of the things that we always say to people is, you know, educate yourself widely, not just on the political process, not just on American government, but on the various fields that are going to be ancillary, but ultimately very contributory to the kind of work that you're going to do.
STARRAnd so Stacey Abrams -- no, Chimamanda Adichie said, at one point, be open. Be skeptical but not cynical. And I think that is an incredibly powerful message today in this time, but it's particularly a particularly powerful message if you're going into politics at a time when things are so polarized, so contested and so heated.
SELINGOAmanda, what was it about either your life or your experiences at Georgetown that makes you want to work with and identify with marginalized communities?
SCOTTYeah, so, I mean, a lot of it is just like my nontraditional background. You know, also coming from Mobil, Alabama I'm a long ways from home and just seeing our struggle for civil rights, you know, the civil rights movement. But even the abortion issue right now, Alabama, I would say, has really, really bred me to be a person, who wants to fight for civil rights.
NNAMDIWell, my wife happens to be from Birmingham, Alabama so I kind of know a little bit about that history myself, but thank you so much for joining us and good luck to you.
NNAMDIAmanda Scott is a 2018 Truman Scholar who graduated this past weekend from Georgetown University with a BA in government. She was also a student speaker at Georgetown Senior Convocation. Peter Starr, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIPeter Starr is the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University, which holds the broadcasting license for WAMU. Jeff Selingo, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIJeff is a journalist covering higher education. He's author of the book "There Is Life After College." And that's it for today. Today's show on the art of advice for recent graduates was produced by Cydney Grannan. And our discussion about how local school districts handle reading disabilities in the classroom was produced by Julie Depenbrock.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, ready or not, Metro's largest shutdown to date is almost upon us. We'll find out what options commuters will have once all of the stations south of National Airport -- that's all -- are shut down for the rest of the summer beginning this weekend. And we'll hear about the unintended consequences as well. Plus local author and National Book Award winner Elizabeth Acevedo joins us to discuss her latest novel. That's all for today. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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