Commencement Speech by New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof
Congratulations to Chancellor Cantor, the members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, parents, guests, and most important of all, members of the Class of 2013!
Now, I hope that you students now appreciate that ancient wisdom “the tassel is worth the hassle.” It sounds a little better in Latin, but you get the idea. And a special congratulations to all you moms out there, Happy Mother’s Day!
It’s a pretty awesome way to celebrate, isn’t it, to watch your little baby get that great big degree? Pretty awesome.
And to you graduates, just a little tip, this is coming from a dad, but your parents are so, so proud of you today and if you’ve learned anything at all in University you know that means that this is the optimal moment to ask for a loan. Go for it!
I’m especially happy to be celebrating with you in Syracuse for a couple of reasons. One is that my late colleague, William Safire, of the New York Times, was just a devoted Syracuse man.
Even in our black and white pages, as Jaime would say, he proudly bled orange, and this year what with Syracuse’s success in basketball and lacrosse, Bill would be completely insufferable.
I’m just a little bit jealous. Nevermind.
But the other reason is that what SU is doing, what all of you are doing along with Nancy Cantor through Scholarship in Action really is something truly important in terms of reaffirming the University as a public good.
And I promise not to bore you with a discussion of public good, you can put away your economics textbooks, but that idea of a public good is something that is so central to our history, to our identity, everything from public schools to national parks, like Yellowstone, Sesame Street, cancer research, and yet we as a country have, I’m afraid, been inching away a little bit from that vision of the public good as a unifying force.
Partly that is as America has become more polarized as a nation, politically and economically.
Today the top 1% have a greater collective net worth than the bottom 90%. And in this period we have seen American schools go from number one in the world to, according to one recent study, number 17. Universities are maybe the most important public good we have, and I really do thank Syracuse University for leading that effort to emphasize that point, and for democratizing tertiary education as a whole.
But granted, look, it’s a tough time to graduate given the job market these days, we know that.
There is a story, maybe apocryphal, of a commencement at another University. A couple of graduates still in their cap and gown went out of graduation ceremony, jumped into a taxi and the taxi driver looked back at them and the saw them in their regalia and said oh, congratulations, and they beamed and said, “Class of 2013!”
And the taxi driver beamed back and said, “Class of 2003.”
In journalism we call those kind of stories “too good to check.”
Well, in a larger perspective though, whatever the challenges of this job market, the truth is that, frankly, we’re so damn lucky to be in this time and place and enjoying this public good of a University education. Let me tell you about a friend of mine, a Zimbabwean woman named Tererai Trent. She grew up in rural Zimbabwe. She was not allowed to go to school because she was a girl. So she herded the family cattle in the fields. But Tererai was truly brilliant and so she learned on her own, she learned math and reading by doing her brother’s homework.
And actually after a few years of this he got in trouble because the teacher didn’t understand how her brother, who was mediocre in class, kept turning in this brilliant homework, so he beat the brother until he confessed it was his supposedly illiterate sister who had been doing his homework.
That could have been an opportunity for her, but instead everybody just got mad at Tererai.
So Tererai was married off at the age of 11. Married off at the age of 11 to a man who beat her and was jealous of her intelligence. But Tererai is also a reminder of the human capacity for resilience. And I hope that when you find your own dreams blocked that you will think of her and how she pursued her goals.
What she did was she wrote down three goals on a piece of paper, the first goal was that she would go to the United States to study. The second goal was that she would earn a B.A. and a master’s and the third goal was that she would earn a Ph.D.
These are completely absurd goals for a married girl who has had no formal education and who is a cattle herder in rural Zimbabwe.
But she took that piece of paper with those three goals, put it inside a piece of plastic, put that inside an old tin can and buried it in a field under a rock near where she was herding her cattle.
Then she began to study on her own and took correspondence courses and did brilliantly.
And after some years of this she was accepted to Oklahoma State University.
She then dug up that tin can, took out that piece of paper and checked off goal number one.
She then earned her B.A. and master’s. She went back to Zimbabwe, dug up that tin can and pulled out that piece of paper and checked off goal number two.
Finally, just a couple of years ago, she earned her doctorate.
She went back to Zimbabwe, went back to that old field where she used to herd cattle, found the stone, dug up the tin can, pulled out the piece of paper and checked off goal number three. And now she’s used her education to set up a school in the village because she feels lucky and wants to give back that opportunity that she had. Her school is going to open this fall.
Well, let’s all give Tererai a hand, actually. She deserves it! I called her and told her I was going to tell her story here and she was very proud and I will relay your enthusiasm to her as well. An amazing woman.
And people like Tererai, I think, remind us of a basic truth in the world, which is that talent is universal, but opportunity is not.
Talent is universal and opportunity is not.
And I hope that you can use your education to help chip away at that challenge, that the truth.
The truth is that we have all benefited from opportunities that others extended to us and many of you are receiving degrees in part because you had the chance to receive financial aid. Now, in the coming years as you—as you pay down those debts too—I hope that you will have the chance to pay that forward as well.
Now, I’m not saying that you should all enlist as aid workers. You don’t all need to become Mother Theresa. But I do hope that you will find some space in your life, some space for engaging in a cause that is larger than yourselves.
And just keep your mind open for those opportunities where you can make that kind of a difference. Think of the Cleveland story that has riveted us for the last couple of week, the three young women kidnapped and locked up inside a house for ten years. Now, when Amanda Berry’s hand snaked through that front door and she began screaming for help, there were a couple of men in the street.
Now, I think it would have been very easy for them at that point to think oh, there is some crazy woman, maybe involved in some domestic dispute. I think plenty of people would have moved on rather than get involved in somebody else’s mess. And I think all of us would have felt a little uncomfortable about trespassing on somebody’s private property to go up on that front porch and ask what was going wrong.
And those two men, of course, did just that, and then they also took it upon themselves to break down that front door to let her out. And everything changed.
For most of us, the chance to intervene is not going to be that dramatic. But you too are going to encounter needs and pleas and you’ll frankly have the same sense of uncertainty about what the right thing to do will be. You’ll be busy. You’re going to have plenty of demands on your time and on your wallet. And you can’t help everybody.
But one thing I have learned is that it is possible to change other people’s life trajectories almost in your spare time, almost as dramatically as those rescuers did in Cleveland. Maybe it’s through mentoring a kid, maybe it’s through after school tutoring or helping a kid figure out college options. Or maybe it’s through paying a girl’s textbook fee so she can attend a school like Tererai’s in Zimbabwe.
But the point is that every now and then I hope you’ll use your education to go toward those pleas for help and climb on those porches and break down those doors. And I’m hoping that for your own sake too because, and this is going to sound trite, but I think it really is a road to personal fulfillment.
Now, think about what we want in life.
A major component is happiness. And we sometimes think oh, if we can just win that Powerball lottery, you know, boy, we’ll be set forever. We’ll be sitting on a beach in the Caribbean, sipping pina coladas.
But that connection between money and happiness is actually somewhat tenuous, and that’s partly because wealth is on the one hand empowering, but it can also be isolating. In one University of Minnesota study, research subjects were primed by being exposed to a screen saver that showed dollar bills floating around on the computer screen. And those people who were exposed to that screen as opposed to one of fish swimming on a screen saver, those exposed to the money were more likely to choose to work alone, to choose solitary recreational pursuits and when somebody else came in the room to sit farther apart from that person.
Something similar happened to a fellow named Jack Whittaker, who I don’t know if the name rings a bell, but back in 2002 he won a $315 million Powerball lottery jackpot. At that time it was the biggest jackpot payout ever to a single individual. He was a business owner in his 50s and he said that his only aim was to use that money to make his wife happy, his daughter happy, and his granddaughter happy.
His granddaughter especially was the light of his life. He gave generously to his church, he set up a foundation, he seemed very well grounded. Then after about six months everything just seemed to go wrong. He began to patronize strip clubs. He began to drink too heavily. He ended up divorcing his wife and getting involved in litigation with her and involved in several hundred other lawsuits. His daughter died, cause of death was not fully established, possibly a drug overdose. And then the hardest blow of all, his beloved granddaughter died of a drug overdose as well.
And at that point she was just 17 years old.
And at that point Jack Whittaker told reporters in tears that he just wished he had torn up that lottery ticket when he had the chance. Now, I guess the lesson is to be careful what we wish for.
I certainly wouldn’t want to argue that money can’t buy happiness, and it’s equally true that poverty can’t buy happiness either. But I think the connections are more complicated than we sometimes assume, and in fact, there is pretty good evidence emerging about a more dependable way to raise one’s happiness level. And that is to engage with others collectively in a cause that is larger than yourself.
Think of it as the selfishness of altruism.
Now, one study in Massachusetts found that this kind of generosity, this kind of social engagement correlated more strongly with longevity than low cholesterol levels. So there’s a real physical dimension of this as well. So if you’re worried about your heart, then, well, take your statins, but also maybe think about reaching for the checkbook, volunteering, climb onto those porches when you see those outstretched hands, and help break down doors.
Now, in a larger sense I think that all of us can in some measure become a public good. Yup, little old you, in some sense can become like Yellowstone, like Sesame Street or like SU, a public good serving the public providing a broad public benefit.
Let me leave you with a story of a friend of mine, a young American woman who not much older than those of you who are graduate students here. I met her when she was working in Darfur, she saw cruelties that no human being should ever have to see. But she was unbelievably strong. She never showed fear, she never showed weakness. And then she was back in the U.S. over Christmas vacation, she was in her grandmother’s backyard and she totally lost it.
She was just weeping uncontrollably.
And you know what it was?
Her grandmother had set up a bird feeder in the backyard. And my friend was sitting there reflecting on all that she had seen in Darfur, thinking particularly about a family, about two sisters who had been seized by the militia and turned into sex slaves, and their father had gone and begged on his knees, begged the militia commander to “let my daughters go.” And the commander had then called everybody in front of him, including the two girls, and then had beheaded their father in front of them.
And my friend was thinking about this and then her eyes fell on that bird feeder. That’s when she lost it, because she had suddenly thought how incredibly lucky she was to be—to have grown up in a country where we largely take security for granted. And where even in an economic downturn we can pretty much count on having enough food and clothing and housing to get by, and even have a little left over to help wild birds get through the winter.
She thought about the responsibilities that come with that good fortune. In the same way, the fact that we are all here right now, truly means we have won the lottery of life. And when you have won the lottery of life, I think the question becomes how do you discharge the responsibility that comes with it?
So the fact that we were all born in the right place at the right time, the implication is that we have some responsibility to pay it forward.
My advice is to find some issue that resonates with you, that you care about, and then work to get engaged in it. If only in your spare time. It may sound sanctimonious and earnest, but I think you will see it’s also self-interested. There are plenty of selfish pleasures in the world, but maybe the most selfish of all is altruism. The blunt truth is that all our efforts to help other people have a pretty mixed record of success. But they have this almost perfect record of helping ourselves.
So congratulations, graduates on this Mother’s Day.
Go out and change the world just a little bit. And as you bleed orange go one step further and become bleeding hearts, orange bleeding hearts, and go and be like Syracuse University itself, a public good! Congratulations!