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Commencement Address 2009
Gwen Ifill
Moderator and managing editor of PBS’s “Washington Week” and senior correspondent for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer”
May 16, 2009

Thank you President DeGioia, and good afternoon Hoyas.

What a lovely way to end a year in which I have witnessed the election of the first African American president, moderated a vice presidential debate, and managed to be mocked by both Sarah Palin and Queen Latifah.

It doesn’t get better than that.

I am so honored to be here. So honored, in fact, that I plan to adhere to the three lessons of delivering a perfect commencement speech:
--- Keep it brief. No one came here to see me. They came to see you.
-- Keep it upbeat. With the economy and the job market many of you are facing, there is enough to worry about without me adding to your load.
-- And a speaker must remember her audience. The only people happier today than the class of 2009 are your parents and loved one: the folks who’ve been carrying the weight of expense, worry and pride on your behalf throughout your college careers.
Plus, I fully realize that I am practically the last thing that standing between you and a really good party.

And I am told Hoyas do not mind a really good party.

So today I bring you good news.

No matter how scary the world looks from where you sit today, you have already demonstrated that you are members of a generation that has excelled in proving the rest of the world wrong. You arrived here in the midst of one transformational presidency and are leaving at the beginning of another. Because 9/11 did transform us. It shifted our priorities and our expectations of government.

So too did the 2008 election year. In all the years I have been covering politics, I have never seen a time when people at the beginning of their adult lives have been as invested in an outcome as you all were last year. And investment is just what we need. Whether you plan to change the world at large, or just to cope with the world around you. You can celebrate the time you live in…or despair that we are on the wrong path. But now it is up to you to do something about it. From now on, it is no one else’s fault…and your responsibility. And from what i saw in 2008, you are more than ready to assume the task. But sometimes I wonder that we are counting on a magic wand…something that will take us where we want to go without much effort from us. Never happened. Never gonna happen.

Sometimes change happens overnight. Sometimes it happens over time. But it seldom happens in an orderly manner.

I have a confession to make. When i was growing up, one of my favorite books was "Winnie the Pooh." I think I found something appealing in the contrast between Pooh's nervous sunniness, Tigger's antic excitement and Eeyore's depressive nature.
Pooh's author A.A. Milne understood the benefits of the unlikely combination. "One of the advantages of being disorderly," he wrote, "is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries."

I guess what I want is for you to set out today in search of exciting discoveries:
…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 news.
…discoveries in a time when so much of what passes for inspiration lacks true insight..
….discoveries that move you to seize responsibility rather than to grudgingly fulfill obligation.

I gather you have been having one of those debates on campus that include all of the above this year…information, insight, noisy debate and friction. And at the center of it all…a hot button term: “diversity.”

Normally I would stay out of academic debates that have little to do with me. But now that this hood makes me a member of the class of 2009, I figure I can add my two cents. Because when you leave this gated community, you will discover that hot button debates are way too easy. For instance, diversity.

Are we talking of diversity only of skin color and ethnicity? Or are we also talking diversity of thought and opinion?

With your Georgetown degree, you must choose the broader definition. You must never hold so fast to a point of view that you entirely discount the opinion of someone with whom you disagree. You must allow for the possibility that someone else’s background and experience is equally as valid as yours. You have to embrace light as well as heat. If you do that, your education does not end here, or in graduate school, or in the world of work. Because if all you take away from here  is a college degree, you really haven’t been paying attention.

You are educated. You are officially among the elite. But you are not complete until you acknowledge that it is what is in your soul that will determine your life’s success, and that you are obligated to invest in the success of others as well.

That’s diversity.

The world outside our borders can seem like a collection of contradiction…distractions and conflicts that only breed hunger, war and malevolence. But you have the skills to begin to sort some of that out. You will enter this world with fewer burdens than most.

We do all have burdens of course. Real and imagined. For me, it is that I was so often underestimated.

My high school guidance counselor, for instance, advised me not to even expect to be accepted at my alma mater Simmons College, where I delivered the commencement address this year.

Georgetown never even came up.

But ignoring him, and a lifetime full of "Mister Macduffies," as my brother called him, allowed me to push ahead even when no one expected much of me.

Little did I know that Mr. Macduffie was doing me a favor. He was teaching me how much extra credit you can get for exceeding expectation…especially if the expectations were low, and you knew it.

I wrote a book this year that turned out to be about the advantages of being underestimated. I got to know a group of black leaders who, if they had anything in common, it was that people told them no…to wait their turn…to step aside for awhile.

One of them was Barack Obama.

This is not to say everyone underestimated him…or me, or you for that matter. Surely I would not be standing here today if my friend Tim Russert hadn’t dared me to leave print for television. (He literally dared me. And he won the bet. Take that, Mr. Macduffie.)

A lot of people here today saw the possibilities in you too. And now that you are graduating, the rest of your life becomes living up to those possibilities…seeing the possibilities in others…and essentially continuing your education.

Along the way, if you are smart and aware, you learn from the inevitable mistakes and miscalculations. The occasional missteps need not define you. That’s part of continuing education too.

This last election demanded more translation than most…and this presidency may as well. But it is now time for the folks who swore that young people were not going to vote last year, to admit they were dead wrong. Because the most important breakthrough last year was more generational than racial. And the optimism that comes with youth may yet be what provides the backbone for this presidency, for you, and for this nation—even if it sometimes seems as if the economy, the health care crisis, the jobs crisis, the credit crunch, two wars could be enough to sink us all.

But I do not despair. And neither should you. Being a journalist has taught me the difference between skepticism and cynicism…and how to recognize when it is a virtue to have a little of both. It taught me that the best lessons are not necessarily learned from the people with the most power and the loftiest titles, but sometimes by just keeping your ears open, and writing it all down. Talking to people who are not the usual suspects….and realizing their actions…our actions can change lives.
And none of that, as A.A. Milne might say, has to be orderly.

You need to prepare to question yourself, those around you, maybe even those you aspire to be.

As long as, at the end of the day, you are willing to keep your eyes open for new opportunities, new possibilities, new ways to claim a life out of order that can bring you joys and challenges that haven't even occurred to you yet.

Georgetown graduates…Hoyas…I give you permission to be optimistic…to embrace the true expansive meaning of diversity…to be a little disorderly…and to go out and change the world for the rest of us.

Thank you, and God bless.

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