Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
Commencement Reunion

Keynote Address 2012

Posted on May 19, 2012

JANET L. ROBINSON:

Hi. President Crutcher and the members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, distinguished guests and beaming parents, most importantly the Class of 2012, congratulations to you all. You look great.

Four years you made it all the way through your classes at Wheaton, all the way through to this wonderful commencement, and all the way through that long, elegant procession and not one of you has a single wrinkle on your face. I am very jealous. I am thrilled to be here with you today and I am grateful for that warm welcome and I am certainly grateful for this wonderful honor. I have great respect for Wheaton and the unwavering commitment it has exhibited for 177 years to developing and broadening the minds of the best and the brightest. I am honored to share the stage with distinguished scholars and I am very honored to receive an honorary degree with two of Wheaton’s finest graduates.

It is clear I am addressing a very impressive class of Wheaton Lyons. President Crutcher told me you were lyons with very big hearts. He told me that some of you have managed opera houses, researched how lava flows from volcanos, and yes, won national awards for synchronized swimming. (Applause.) Those are the swimmers. Some of you have earned scholarships to study everything from Buddhism in Southeast Asia to the ways in which different cultures empower young people all around the world. And this is just a small sampling.

But before you take that next step or start your next adventure you may want to say one very important thank you in a very special way. Graduates, I ask you to stand. I ask you to face your audience. Ready?

Mom and Dad, your children would like to express their appreciation for all you have done by giving you a very loud and a very enthusiastic standing ovation.

(Ovation.)

Not bad. You do have big hearts. Today we celebrate what you have accomplished and what you will accomplish beyond Wheaton because yes, for you the time has come to leave behind the Chapel, Chase, Emerson, to leave behind the Dimple and the Loft, and to leave behind the fattening Buffalo wings at Wendell’s and to discover new landmarks, and perhaps some new food choices.

Today is a departure, a commencement, it’s a beginning. As you set out I would like to share just one lesson I have learned over the years. You have been fortunate beyond measure to attend Wheaton. You have families who love and support you, people who have worked hard and sacrificed so much to ensure that you are able to attend a college of this caliber.

You have had professors, coaches and mentors who have nurtured your talents, helped you recognize your abilities, and fostered your commitment to lifelong learning and to service. Now you can apply all you have learned here and venture out into a world full of possibilities. You are blessed. And may the odds be ever in your favor. In a world that is ripe with opportunities, but also in a constant state of change and challenge, it is important to remember that life is not just about chance, it is about choice. Chance is what the world brings to you, but choice is what you bring to the world. As William Jennings Bryan once said, “Destiny is no matter of chance, it is the matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.” Already in your life you have made important choices that have guided your destinies. What college to attend. What course of study to select. What internships to apply for. What volunteer opportunities to pursue. What classes to skip. Okay, you can admit it. The professors know who you are. What parties to attend and what to remember the next day or what not to remember the next day. What calls from your parents to return and when. And the lasting friends. What lasting friends to make.

Soon you will have choices to make in your professional lives. You will grapple with the question of doing what you love or simply keeping a job; following your true passion or simply following a paycheck; pursuing your dreams or simply pursuing a career. Ultimately it is not chance that determines one’s destiny, it is choice. And so a fair question to ask on a day such as this is how can you choose wisely?

I was in the news media business for nearly 30 years so I naturally believe that living your life, particularly as you leave college, is like writing a story. A front page, home page, feature profile. The major moments are put in the lead, which is the very beginning passage of the story. In both living and writing there are deadlines and they always seem so far away until they aren’t. At one point or another in our lives we all wish we could start over with a blank page. But the major similarity between living and writing is this:

When your work is finished, a well written story, like a well-lived life, is remembered and leaves a lasting impression on the lives of others. It is a story that is read and reread, a story that inspires, a story that others strive to emulate, a story that paints a picture and, most importantly, a story that touches the soul. In other words, it is a story, it is a life, that makes a difference. Graduates, in my experience, the best way to make a difference in the world in which we live is to follow your true passion because when you do what you love, it will bring out the very best in you and it will bring out the best in the world and in the people around you as well. Let me give you a poignant example.

At The New York Times Company I had the privilege of working for many years with Anthony Shadid, a renowned current affairs correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and finally The New York Times. Anthony was widely known and universally respected for his coverage of civilians caught in the crossfire of the Iraq War, for his extensive coverage of the Middle East and for, as many noted, writing poetry on deadline.

Over the course of his reporting career he stared down unimaginable danger. He was shot and wounded in Ramallah. He was held captive and abused in Libya just last year. Anthony won two Pulitzer Prizes for his breathtaking work for introducing us to real, everyday people like the cleric who washed the bodies of the civilian dead, or a father who was forced to choose between his pro-American son and his village’s anti-American rulers. These were people who Americans really did not know a great deal about; that is, until Anthony Shadid captured their perspectives like a magnificent photographer showcasing their rich complexities and raw emotion.

As you may know, Anthony died just a few months ago at the young age of 43 from a severe asthma attack while on assignment in Syria. In the days that followed, his colleagues tried to pinpoint what made Anthony such an extraordinary journalist. Almost universally the word that Anthony’s colleagues kept returning to again and again was passion. Infectious passion was the perfectly chosen phrase of one photographer with whom Anthony worked closely. He had a passion for the Middle East, the place his ancestors called home. He had a passion for bringing light to people, places, events and forces that seemed so far away but have affected and will affect our lives so powerfully and so profoundly. He had a passion for making complex subjects easy to understand, for helping people in one part of the world understand and empathize with people in another. In short, because Anthony followed his passions, he did not take just joy from his work, he lived a life of tremendous meaning and greatly impacted the lives of many who read his well-chosen words.

He served others through his writing. He was part of something much greater than himself and even greater than his profound talents as a lyrical writer and an intrepid reporter.

Anthony was not content to leave life to chance or simply hope for the best. He actively chose to do something he loved. Chance dictated that Anthony would have the opportunity to attend a great college, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But he made the choice to study hard, to work hard, to pursue his passion with little promise of success or reward. Chance afforded Anthony the opportunity to write about topics he was interested in, but he made the choice to do it with boundless fervor, contagious energy. He made the choice to write about what he did with courage, with clarity and with emotion. Anthony chose to do what he loved and in doing so he lived a life of great impact, purpose and service. And I should add, he lived a life of great happiness.

You can as well. And I have no doubt you will. But please do not think that following your passion is a one-time decision. It is not about making one important choice at one special moment. Far from it. It is about making hundreds of choices, some big and some small. It is a series of choices made over a very long period of time. It is a lifelong process. And I am here to tell you that it never ends.

The lead of my story begins when I graduated from college and became a teacher, a profession that I deeply loved. Education is one of my passions. But after ten years I decided to make a slight change. I decided to educate, but to do so in a different way. I pursued a career in publishing. I wanted to continue to educate, but I chose to do so through the news media and to educate on a larger scale and to do so with an army of exceptional journalists.

I joined The New York Times Company and there I was part of an organization that created and distributed quality news and information rooted in its core purpose: to educate and enhance society. The work was important. It was fulfilling. And I loved every minute of it.

Like you, I am at an exciting crossroad in my life. I recently retired from The New York Times Company and have begun a new chapter, one in which I will continue to follow my passion for education, for communications and for philanthropy. Graduates, the very best decisions I have ever made have been the consequence of choosing to follow my passion. In doing so I have found tremendous fulfillment, happiness and a sense that I have contributed in a small way to the lives of others. But it is important to remember that happiness, fulfillment and service to others are not to be found only in one’s career, but also in the company and through the love of family and friends. After all, your family and friends will give you the strength and the encouragement to pursue your passions.

Indeed, many of you will earn important titles in your life’s work. But the titles that will give you the greatest joy may very well be that of good son or daughter, cherished spouse, loving father, mother, or loyal friend. No one here today could ever be considered a failure should one of these phrases be their only title. Whatever title you seek, my sincere wish for you on this very special day is that you will always choose to lead lives of joy, of purpose and of service. Do not leave your journey to chance. Choose to do the thing that fires your imagination, that sparks your spirit, that makes you happy and makes you proud. Choose to do whatever it is that you love and do it enthusiastically, relentlessly and unapologetically. Choose to serve the world by following your dreams and no one else’s. Do not chance life. Choose it. And if you so choose, then you too will write a wonderful story indeed. Congratulations, Wheaton Class of 2012 and Godspeed.

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