November 26, 2018
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Editors’ note: The following is a transcript of the address that award-winning journalist Martha Raddatz H’15 P’15 gave at the Commencement ceremony on May 16, 2015. The address that Royal Rhodes, the Donald L. Rogan Professor of Religious Studies, gave at the Baccalaureate ceremony is available here.
Good morning and thank you President Decatur, graduates, parents, family, friends, faculty, coaches and the people who make those great lattes at Wiggin Street.
But most of all, congratulations to the 431 members of the Kenyon College Class of 2015. It is an honor to be among you on this campus that has become so dear to me and so dear to my family. And to my own son, Jake, we are so proud of you, and I am sorry you have to get your degree on the same day your mother is given one as well, without doing any of the work.
I do find it pretty remarkable to be standing up here as your commencement speaker and not just because Jake is graduating. I will admit that I have been agonizing over the speech, filled with self-doubt and fear, my experience in war zones aside.
But last week Jake offered some calming thoughts. “Mom," he said, "no one will remember what you say anyway.” Thanks, Jake. That really helped! But he is probably right.
As I look back I can’t tell you one bit of advice I was offered by my college commencement speaker. In fact, I don’t know who the commencement speaker even was. And not just because it was 40 years ago. I have a better excuse. I wasn’t there. I had dropped out of college a year earlier to head out on a different path.
Having grown up in Salt Lake City, Utah, surrounded by hard-working, deeply earnest classmates and parents, I had one simple goal in mind. I said to myself, “There are sinners out there somewhere, and I’m going to find them.”
Reaching that goal proved to be pretty easy. Deciding what to do with my life after that, minus a college degree, was not.
So take heart — if you think the future is daunting, at this point in your lives you are way ahead of where I was at your age.
But I know that for many of you the remarkable education you have received here at Kenyon has already launched you on a rewarding career path. Zach Hardin, an English major, will head to Los Angeles to work for ICM Partners. Meaghan Brennan will work for City Year Philadelphia, a national AmeriCorps program. Lillian Spetrino, a molecular biology major, has been offered a job in Madison to work as a project manager at Epic Systems; Katherine Goodwin will teach in France for the next year; and Garrett Stalker will be joining Jefferies LLC in the investment banking division.
Let me offer you all some very quick practical advice on how to succeed in the workplace. Eight simple words. "Of course, I would love to work late!" Now I want all of you to practice — turn to your neighbor, and say it. "Of course, I would love to work late."
My own Jake, I am sure, will take that to heart. Just a few weeks ago, he succeeded in landing his first entry-level grown-up job back home in Washington, D.C. Every parent’s dream. We were thrilled for Jake, and he was pretty excited too.
That night, sending us a text telling us that the new job means he would be taking care of his own expenses... “Wow,” we thought. “It’s really happening. He’s going to be off the payroll.” Well, not so fast. We continued reading — “I would very much like to celebrate and buy dinner and drinks tonight, but I currently have no money.”
So parents, be real. They’ve still got a long way to go.
And all of you know it is not easy. That I ended up traveling the world, with a career I love and new challenges every day, without that college degree, was a result of my mother’s relentless nagging, a need to always keep moving forward, a bit of good luck, recovery from a few bad decisions, including a desire to right my educational wrongs, and very hard work.
But as informed as I am, as much as I have seen and done, I still feel uncomfortable giving advice, except for motherly counsel, which will never end. Advice to and from strangers has become so prevalent, so easily offered and tailored for mass appeal — “Chase your dreams, find your passion.” It’s on Pottery Barn pillows and jewelry and buses, and don’t get me started on the social media advice mush.
There is nothing wrong with getting up in the morning to “seize the day,” but being told you will “change the world” sets a pretty high bar and creates the added stress that you are lagging behind in some perceived race to the top.
Perhaps that is why the commencement speech given by former Navy SEAL and leader of the raid to kill bin Laden went viral. His starting advice, as you may know? “Make your bed every morning. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”
But my hesitation aside, it seems a near requirement to offer some sort of wisdom at Commencement. I am not, however, going to recite lists, top 10 anything — nothing like that.
The fact is that any wisdom I have gained comes from the inspiring people I have had the privilege of meeting and the history-making moments I have had the privilege of witnessing up close.
I have seen the sun rise over Kabul with young American aid workers taking unimaginable risk to educate the children of Afghanistan, and watched the moon rise over Baghdad with U.S. soldiers helping voters make their way to the polls. I have stared down our own U.S. Marines who doubted my resilience.
I have smoked cigars in the palace of former dictators, have seen shoes hurled at a U.S. president.
I have heard howls of pain from the wounded in combat zones, flown home with flag-draped coffins at my fingertips, and I have been serenaded at dusk by the crew of a Blackhawk helicopter who thought singing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” while we flew across the Tigris River would cheer me up after a particularly long day.
Every one of those days and nights I thought how lucky I was to be there to see the courage of others, to test my own. And to have my family back home that understands why I do what I do. In all of those days there were lessons to learn.
You likely have very different goals and seek very different experiences. There is no single definition of success. That is unique to each of you. You are the only ones who can really define success and happiness.
But all of the people who I truly admire have attributes in common. They seek a life of learning, asking questions and making complex judgments both morally and professionally. They do not seek power or wealth, but if they achieve those things they use it for the good of others.
They connect their brain and their heart, which makes them better colleagues, better leaders, better partners, better parents and better human beings.
The best reporters make that connection. Yes, we should be tough, and hold feet to the fire, but we can still care about human suffering, the challenges facing the world, and sacrifice and service. My colleague Bob Woodruff not only covers the globe, he has helped raise millions of dollars through his foundation to help wounded veterans after recovering from his own traumatic brain injury, which changed the course of his career. He has defined his success.
The best educators make that connection. Cassie Pergament is the young principal at a D.C. charter school, where three-quarters of the students live below the poverty line. She will never make a lot of money in that job, but she has helped her students achieve goals they never thought imaginable. She has defined her own success.
And the soldiers and Marines who have most inspired me all make that connection between heart and brain, caring just as much about helping those they are fighting for, as the fight itself.
You have spent more than half your lives with this country at war. And yet the huge majority of you, and those your age, the huge majority of all people in this country have not been affected by these conflicts.
I can imagine all of you as 9- or 10-year-old children, huddled with your parents on 9/11, scared or just confused. Your parents surely thinking, as I did, that our lives would never be the same, your lives would never be the same. But while threats remain, we have come so far in our healing, and so much opportunity has come our way, your way. And here we are today. But in that decade plus, while you grew and studied and became the promising young people you are today, more than 6,500 young men and women died in those wars, more than 5,000 children lost a parent or sibling, and tens of thousands have life-altering injuries.
None of the veterans and their amazing families who I know want credit or special attention for what they do for this country. None of the wounded want pity or see themselves as victims. One young Marine veteran I know who lost both legs in Iraq went on to earn a law degree and an MBA. As for the loss of his legs? Andrew Kinnard has not let that define his success. It is part of his life but not all of his life.
I surround myself with people like Bob and Cassie and Andrew. As you choose opportunities and ideas, the people you work with, and those you choose to love, those who animate, inspire and energize you will define the quality of your life’s experience. Do not waste your time with people who do not help bring out the best in you.
And the reverse is true. You have to respect, inspire and energize the ones who are with you. To do that, you must contribute. I don’t say that in some lofty shoot-for-the-stars, devote-your-life-to-the-poor kind of way, although that is certainly a noble path.
I mean every day, you need to contribute, whether that means to a conversation, a joke, cooking a meal, planning a trip, sharing thoughts from a good book or a good piece of music, finding a new hiking spot, or baking pies, contribute. To make your own life richer, and those around you, you have to work on it every day.
Sustain your friendships. You will meet new people when you leave Kenyon, but some of those you met here will be part of your lives forever. Your bridesmaids, your best men, your fishing or theater partners. It may not be constant, you will drift in and out. But you cannot imagine how much it will mean to you to see those people as the years pass by, or to celebrate your life events together.
And look to those people who find balance. I am proud of my career, but I am prouder that I have raised two children who are kind, loving, funny and who try to contribute every day. Whatever path you take personally, whether a parent, an adventurer, a writer or an executive, that personal part of your life should be paramount.
Find a way to fit it all in no matter how exhausted you may be. No matter how many times you have to say, "Of course I would love to work late," fit in the part of your life that matters and do it with energy and enthusiasm.
Some of my happiest times in recent years have been coming to this campus. Yes, crammed between trips, or stories. But screeching into the football field parking lot after a seven-hour drive, to see Coach Monfiletto guide his team through what were some pretty tough days, to see those other parents who made the same effort, meant more to me than any awards or accolades I have ever received. There is no place I would rather have been on those Saturdays than here. I was pretty proud that I made it to eight of 10 games over each season, although I later learned, this is how Jake described what I thought was a good effort on my part: "My mom missed my best game."
When you walk off campus today, you may forget this speech. You may forget some of what you learned at Kenyon. But I know you will remember how you feel about this campus. And that feeling of self-discovery so engrained in life at Kenyon, and so engrained in me, will keep you moving forward. Finding the right path, your own definition of success, contributing every day and striving for balance, will be jarring and unsettling at times. But take it from me, who finally holds a college degree in my hands, you can take the scenic route.
Go Ladies. Go Lords. Go get ’em. Thank you very much.