“Like you today,” broadcast journalist Christiane Amanpour told the Harvard College class of 2010, “I also am holding my breath and jumping into the unknown.”
As Amanpour prepares to leave CNN, after 27 years, to host a weekly program on ABC, she has more in common with the graduating seniors than they realize, she said, and offered some lessons learned since her own graduation from the University of Rhode Island in 1983.
Her Class Day address quoted advice from a filmmaker-photographer friend of hers:
The fundamental thing about the process of being an artist is failure. You have to learn to accept that you are going to fail at times; that it is similarly important for your critics, your audience, and your peers to understand that failure is part of growth; that there’s nothing wrong with failure. You fail or fall, and then you pick yourself up again.
Amanpour, who since 1992 has been CNN’s chief international correspondent, spoke about being a young woman in Iran when “revolution rumbled across my country.” It “forced me to suddenly become an adult in a turbulent world, after a calm and privileged childhood,” she said.
That awakening led her to pursue a career with CNN in Atlanta, where she arrived in 1983 with $100, a suitcase, and a bicycle, she recalled. “I wanted to be roaming the world,” she said. “I wanted to be telling stories.” No matter what career they choose, Amanpour urged the graduates to travel, to learn from other cultures—and to share their own values with foreigners.
She noted how little has changed since 1947, when then-Secretary of State George Marshall announced the Marshall Plan during a Commencement speech at Harvard. “The people of this country,” Marshall said in his speech, “are distant from the troubled areas of the earth and it is hard for them to comprehend.” That, she said, “is precisely the same today.”
She challenged the graduates to live life “fully informed, fully aware, and fully on board.” And she voiced hopes that some of them would do this by entering the demanding (and sometimes dangerous), but powerful, field of journalism. “I am,” she said, “a true believer in the power of this profession to be a force for good.”
Amanpour, who has interviewed a long list of world leaders, including Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Yasser Arafat, and Robert Mugabe, and who has reported from conflict and disaster zones including Iraq, Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda, and New Orleans, is known for breaking new ground for female journalists. True to this role, when she quoted from Theodore Roosevelt, Amanpour took care to update his words for modern times:
It is not the critic who counts….The credit belongs to the man and woman who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again….who knows great enthusiasms, great devotions; who spends himself or herself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he or she fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his or her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Many of this year’s Commencement week speeches have focused on graduating in a down economy and generally uncertain times, but Amanpour took issue with this defensive tone. “Yes, it is difficult,” she said, “but there are incredible opportunities.”
Above all, she said, “Vow never, ever to sit on the sidelines of life—ever.”
A video of Amanpour’s complete speech is posted on Vimeo.
The Class Day ceremony also featured four student speeches.
In her speech, “Anatomy of the ‘If,’” MacKenzie Sigalos ’10 said she believes her classmates push themselves so hard because “complacency and stagnation are far more daunting than this never-ending propulsion.” Harvard students are used to being told that all possible life choices are open to them; “we’ve already made a lot of those choices,” she said, and “most of us haven’t realized it yet.” As “what if” becomes “what is,” Sigalos said, it’s important to keep in mind that “fear does not lead to paralysis, but instead, this vulnerability can push us to a new level of introspection and self-discovery.”
Benjamin Schwartz ’10 drew on words that T.S. Eliot, A.B. 1910, A.M. ’11, wrote on his departure from Harvard College: “We turn as thy sons ever turn, in strength/Of the hopes that thy blessings bestow/From the hopes and ambitions that sprang at thy feet/To the thoughts of the past as we go.” Reflecting on the emotions that accompany graduation, Schwartz said, “I found reason to believe that we’ll never forget what this place has meant to us, nor what we have meant to each other.”
Delivering the first of two humorous Ivy Orations, James Wilsterman ’10 offered three life lessons. First, that “exclusive” is always a synonym for “awesome”: “Everything becomes infinitely more appealing when you can bar a large part of the population from ever participating.” Second, that Harvard Square restaurant Boloco serves up “inspired smoothies.” (“Now would be a great time to take a photo,” Wilsterman said, holding his smoothie cup aloft). And third, that at Harvard “we learn to lie to everyone, even our best friends.” (“Don’t worry, investment banks love history of art and architecture concentrators.” “What? Of course I’m coming to your a cappella jam tonight.”) “Between these three lessons and all of that fantastic clichéd advice we have heard today,” Wilsterman said, “we are now perfectly prepared for the real world.”
The second Ivy Orator, Alexandra Petri ’10, exhorted her classmates to consider elevator safety. With a Harvard diploma earned, she warned, “this would be the worst possible time to trip into an open elevator shaft and waste all that investment.” Elevators, she said, are like life: “They go up, they go down, and sometimes you feel like you’re stuck.” The elevator metaphor can hold lessons for interpersonal relationships, Petri offered: “What if you’re stuck in an elevator with another person and you run out of conversation?” And ultimately, she said, “Death is like an elevator. Eventually, it comes.”
(Scroll down for videos of these speeches.)
The Class Day ceremonies also include the conferring of the Ames Awards, which honor “dedication, selflessness, courage, and humility.” They are given in memory of Richard Ames ’34 and Henry Ames ’38, who died attempting to save their father, Robert Ames ’07, who was washed overboard in a storm off Newfoundland during a transatlantic race in 1935.
This year’s recipients are Adam Travis ’10, of Mather House, and Tayla Havice ’05 (’10), of Leverett House.
Travis’s mother died on the day of his high-school graduation, yet “instead of searching for pity or attention,” Travis “put his entire being into serving others,” said one of the nomination letters, as excerpted in the ceremony. Travis led several initiatives at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, as well as “furthering commuity development in the Bronx and preparing rural students for college in Kenya,” and will spend next year in Kenya on a Michael Rockefeller Scholarship, working to reduce intertribal violence.
Havice was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps the same day she received the Ames Award. After entering Harvard in 2001, she took a leave of absence and spent five years as an active-duty Marine in locations that included Iraq and Afghanistan. Back at Harvard, she maintained a full course load while working a “mind-boggling” 80 hours a week as a staff sergeant for the Marines ROTC program at Boston University, and volunteering alongside Travis at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter.
Also on Class Day, the graduating seniors paused to remember their classmates who had died: Peter Cai ’10, of Adams House, “an extraordinary student, athlete, lab partner, researcher, volunteer, friend, and son”; John Blodgett Edwards ’10, of Kirkland House, whom “his friends remember, above all else, for his compassion”; and Ariel Shaker ’10, of Cabot House, described as “wildly optimistic, strongly opinionated, and morally grounded.”