Thank you President Gearan, and thank you trustees and faculty here at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. It is wonderful to be here today, and not just because the weather cooperated so marvelously. It's a thrill to receive an honorary degree from such a fine institution. One that knows the value of single-sex education and co-ed education and can find a way to make it co-exist, just like the real world.
I also want to join Mark Gearan in thanking the parents. You're probably happier today than your children are. Maybe not. It was only a couple of decades ago when you brought them into the world screaming, kind of like they were last night. I heard about it. You nursed them. You bandaged their scraped knees. You thought you would never survive it. Wasn't it just yesterday that all these bright, young, soon-to-be college graduates were crying all night and rushing off to soccer practice and assuring you that there was no way you could ever understand. Oh, that was last night, wasn't it. So, here's to the parents and especially to the mothers, the grandmothers, the aunties, the play-mommas and everybody else who's here-Happy Mother's Day. What a wonderful way to celebrate!
Now, a few words to the graduates. This is your day. Trust me, I won't be taking up a whole lot of it. I understand. It will be a few words. I know better than to stand between a bunch of folks in caps and gowns and their sheepskins. And besides I've been informed I'm really just the warm-up act for Jillian and Leo later on. But, if you give me just a few minutes for a few profound words, I will gladly get out of their way.
This is a commencement day but it is also a continuation of the lives you have already begun leading here. Because a day like today proves that wishes and dreams and prayers come true, that hard work pays off, and that all-nighters do too. A day like today proves that your dreams can exceed even your wishes. I know this is so because that's what has happened to me. I am a dreamer. I have always been one and I hope always to be one. But never more than when I was sitting where you are today in my cap and gown years ago at Simmons College in Boston. I was going to tell you about how long ago it was but I changed my mind. I will tell you the story of my dreams. Maybe you will find parts of it familiar.
Here's the one thing you do need to know about me: I believed in Santa Claus for way too long. To my mind it was perfectly logical. I read about him in the newspaper so it had to be real. How do you think I ended up in journalism? I believed everything I read in the newspaper-then and now. But what I think I was really stuck on wasn't the notion that some really fat guy in a red suit was going to give me something for nothing. What I liked was the idea of Santa Claus. The idea of wishes being granted and of those wishes even being exceeded.
It started with Santa Claus but didn't end there. My parents, probably your parents too, taught their children we could do anything we wanted to do. My father, a wonderful man, an old-fashioned male chauvinist, he somehow however neglected to tell my sister and me that there was anything we weren't supposed to do. So, by the time I got to college, I was convinced that I could rule the world. Fortunately, a women's college in the 1970s was the perfect place to be if you wanted to be convinced that anything was possible. It was "I am woman, hear me roar"-that was our theme song. There was nothing we couldn't do. We could have it all.
Well, it turns out all that wasn't entirely true. In fact, it turned out to be one of the biggest lies I was ever told. You see, you can have a lot in this world if you dream, if you set your goals and you pursue them. But you usually can't have it all. The tough part is setting those priorities and making those choices. That's the challenge, and it often requires a precarious balancing act. We all work hard at our careers. We work hard at our personal lives. We work hard to give our children everything we believe they deserve. But what if we knock down those walls and break through all those glass ceilings only to discover that our sons and our daughters don't want to walk through the doors or soar to the next level?
Graduates, we want you to have the chance to have everything even if the outside world seems to be imposing limits on you. We want you to have the skills to challenge those limits. You have gotten the key to those skills right here at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. And I'll give you a tip about what you should do with all those skills. You should set your expectations high. You should use the skills you've acquired here and you should unlock the door to your dreams.
My life has been divided into two segments. There was the period when my expectations were set for me by others: parents, relatives, others. And then there was the time when I began to set expectations for myself. My parents taught me that America was the land of opportunity, but that the opportunities were not just going to fall in your lap because you thought they should. And they taught me also that failure was not an option. They taught me how to dream and they taught me how to fight. How to expect that everything is achievable-if not now, then soon.
Expectations, the expectations I set for myself, have probably been as tough as the expectations set for me by my parents and teachers. I got into journalism because I thought on some level that I could change the world, that I could shed light in some dark corners. That I could break down a few barriers. I've discovered, however, that the world is often resistant to change, but shining the light into those dark corners-that can be immensely satisfying.
One thing I would advise you all to do when you undertake your new roles as employed, tax-paying, hard-working citizens-yeah, I know it's lurking right around the corner, but once you take that up, I'd say after one more night of partying, wouldn't you? You will discover that you are citizens that want the world to be the way you want the world to be and therein lies responsibility. Former Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon has a nice big office building named after him across the street from the Capitol in Washington. He once said, and I quote, "Sometimes in politics one must duel with the skunks but no one should be fool enough to allow the skunks to choose the weapons." Letting the skunks choose the weapons is what Americans do when we don't participate, when we don't vote. When we don't realize that government still has an effect on our lives.
I've always considered the simple act of casting a vote to be a powerful tool in being heard. And that may be perhaps because I'm a member of a group that it took a couple of constitutional amendments-for a black and a woman-in order to get the right to vote. So I take it very seriously. I once worked for a newspaper editor who took so seriously the notion that we ought to be, as reporters, distanced from the people we reported on that he didn't vote and he didn't want us to either. As if somehow not voting would allow us to proceed about our work with clean hearts and clean minds. Obviously, no one who looked like this editor had ever been hosed down with water guns on a street in the south, just fighting for the right to vote. So, voting is one thing I believe I must do and we all must do and certainly this last election showed that every single vote counts.We also have to hold our elected officials responsible to us even when they are playing to our cynicism. Counting on it, it's a fact. As you go about your lives, you cannot let them count on you to be cynical.
You must use your skills, set your expectations high, be prepared to make some tough choices, and to shine some light into a few dark corners. You can secretly hold onto your belief in Santa Claus and magic. I know I do. And you can still have enough energy left at the end of the day to break through a few more ceilings. And when all is said and done, you can exceed your dreams.
Good luck and congratulations.
"Exceed Your Dreams" Commencement Address by Gwen Ifill, moderator and managing editor of "Washington Week"
May 13, 2001