A warning and an assurance
Remarks, as prepared, for the 2017 Ohio University undergraduate commencement
Good morning, Ohio University class of 2017. To President Descutner, thank you for inviting me to speak for a few moments at the microphone today.
And to today’s graduates, let me be the next, if not the first, to congratulate you on making it here, to commencement this morning. I say that because, having attended Ohio University myself, I know it’s unlikely that everyone who was supposed to be here today in fact made it to The Convo this morning. I’m sure at least a few of you spent most of this morning frantically texting a friend or two still out wandering Court Street somewhere. At least, that’s how I spent my commencement morning.
But today’s not about me, it’s about you — about your last four years of growth, of your accomplishments, and about your futures.
My job today is to impart some type of knowledge. Some wise, sage advice to help you navigate the scary and changing world you’re preparing to enter. But I’ll admit I’m not actually convinced I’m the best person to be giving that advice.
It’s only been five or so years since I was sitting where you were sitting. I’m no economist or philosopher, no politician or celebrity. My day job is that of a reporter. I listen to people who are smarter than I am, and I write down what they say and try not to screw up the quotes.
Now, how well I do at that is up to interpretation. I’m proud to be working for what I consider the most exciting team in journalism right now. Then again, in interest of full disclosure, there are some who would be quick to point out that I work for the failing, fake news Washington Post — so maybe you shouldn’t even believe anything I’m about to say.
Either way, after a few years away from campus, I do think there are two things I’m qualified to tell you — two kernels of guidance I can impart regarding what is to come: a warning and an assurance.
First, the warning: Everything is about to change. And a lot of it is going to be terrible.
When I left Athens in 2012, OU hadn’t switched to semesters. There was no Snapchat, and I didn’t know anyone who binged on Netflix or used Uber. Jon Stewart was hosting The Daily Show. The Cavs had never won an NBA championship. The nation was getting ready to re-elect its first black president. Donald Trump was just a guy who hosted a reality TV show that no one really watched anymore. Life, even though it was uncertain, felt a little less scary. Osama Bin Laden was dead, and most of us had never heard of ISIS. There had been no terror attacks in Boston or in Orlando, or in Charleston. A young man named Trayvon Martin had been killed, but we didn’t yet know the chorus of other names: Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland.
Your careers, and the industries you work for, they’ll change too. Back when I was on campus, studying journalism, we would be told over and over how we’d never find jobs and how the industry was in crisis. Journalism has changed in the past five years as I’ve transitioned from working at The Post here in Athens to The Post in Washington, D.C. There have been firings, layoffs and buyouts. Some storied media outlets have closed their doors and shuttered their presses, while faster-paced digital outlets have popped up in their place. Those of us who remain have been forced to innovate and use technologies, whether they be livestreaming video or virtual reality, that we once considered distance fantasy.
In a more micro sense, your lives are going to change. You’ll move to new places, and meet new people. Your metabolism will slow down and the extra pounds will be harder to keep off. You’ll have to figure out how to pay taxes and, maybe later, mortgages. There will be disappointments. The breakups won’t get any easier. And your friends from Athens will, believe it or not, make other friends.
And there will be mistakes. You’ll send a dumb tweet that almost gets you fired, you’ll forget to set up the autopay on your students loans and ruin your credit — these are all hypotheticals. None of them happened to me, I promise. And there will be funerals, for friends, and loved ones, gone too soon.
You’re leaving the confines of this beautiful campus to enter the real world. And a lot of it is going to be terrible.
But that brings me to the only piece of advice, the only reassurance I can to muster in the face of the uncertain future in front of you: You’ll be fine — I promise.
And the reason you’ll be fine is not because it won’t be terrible — like I said, it will be terrible. And you’ll be fine not because the pain and disappointments won’t sting. They will.
You’ll be fine because there’s no challenge that lies in front of you that you haven’t been prepared for by the experiences that lie behind you.
The last time you were all gathered here was likely your freshman convocation four years ago, which was an assembly of thousands of kids who thought they were ready to be adults. Now, four years later, you sit here as adults, molded and matured by four years of learning, who wish that, even for another week or two, they could still be kids.
As you leave this place, things you’ve learned about your world and yourselves — your faith, your worldview, your moral compass — will increasingly be a guide, telling you when to extend grace to someone who has wronged you, when to stand up for yourself in the face of haters, and when to let it all roll off your back.
Your time here has also taught you that progress is not inevitable, success and triumph are not guaranteed. Not for you, not for me, and not for this nation. And that moral compass is only as meaningful as the hand that holds it. And in the days to come, if that compass directs you to stand up for the marginalized, to speak out in the face of injustice, to run for local office or pour into city streets in defiant protest, it is your moral obligation to heed its guide.
Some of you will leave here today and depart for your dream jobs — earned after years of rigorous work. Enjoy every moment of them but remember the key lesson you’ve learned here in Athens: Work isn’t everything. There is more to who you are than your career, your job title, the degrees and accolades that come after your name.
Others of you, like so many of my journalism classmates a few years ago, don’t know what comes next. I promise you that’s OK. Remember, even as your parents pester you one more time — do you have a job yet? — that it’s OK. Some of the people who end up in the best places do so by taking the longest routes. Uncertainty and adventure make for better stories.
Part of professional success is preparation, which you have. But a large part — I’d argue a majority of it — is having the curiosity and the intuition to say yes when opportunities present themselves and knowing it’s going to be fine.
The day after my commencement, I drove to Boston for an internship at a time when most of my friends were taking full-time jobs. I hoped I’d be fine. A few months after that, I moved to Los Angeles for a fellowship — at a newspaper and in a city where I knew almost no one. I figured I’d be fine. Later on, I took a job covering Congress for The Washington Post. Now, at the time, I didn’t quite know how Congress worked, or if it worked, or what it did. I’m still not sure if I do. But I took the job. I knew I’d be fine.
And about one year into that job, an editor stopped by my desk. Protests had broken out in a small town in Missouri following a police shooting. Thousands of people were in the streets. We needed a reporter on the ground.
I couldn’t have imagined I’d end up spending three months in Ferguson, Missouri, and then three years covering the stories that would come to define this era of my career. I couldn’t have imagined that these street protests would cascade into a broad social movement and that I’d travel the country to write about it. There was no way to foresee the projects my colleagues and I would work on about policing in America, which ultimately won us the Pulitzer Prize.
To be honest, I was kind of cranky that day, I didn’t want to get on the plane to Missouri. I was unsure of how the story would turn out, if it would even matter. I was unsure whether it was the right story for me or if I was the right reporter for it.
But I got on the plane. I swallowed those fears and those doubts. And I knew that I’d be fine.
So with that, Class of 2017, thank you for allowing me to speak to you today, congratulations on taking the next step in the journey of your lives, and remember, you’re going to be fine. Thank you.