Final Exercises 2012: Couric Speech

Katie Couric
Commencement Address, May 20, 2012
University of Virginia

Thank you, so much Rector Dragas. President Sullivan, faculty, distinguished guests, friends and families, and most of all to the graduating class of 2012…let me begin with a heartfelt salutation that will bond us for all eternity…WAHOO WAH!  Ah, yes, I was tempted to sing the whole "Good Ol' Song," but we'll save that for later!

Believe it or, I’ve spoken at 10 graduations, but with all due respect to such fine institutions as Williams College, Case Western Reserve, Boston University and Princeton, my safety school, this is far and away the most meaningful commencement address I’ve ever delivered.

In fact, for the last 33 years, I’ve waited – and waited, and waited –  for the call…first on a rotary phone, then a push button, then a cordless and finally an iPhone.  But year after year, that call never came. 

In 1981, George Herbert Walker Bush got the nod.  He was only a vice president at the time, people!
Two years later, it was Senator Pete Domenici.  Sure, he was New Mexico’s longest serving Senator.  But hello, this is Virginia! You know, where I’M from? 

John Paul Stevens delivered the commencement in 1988. A Supreme Court Justice.  I mean, really…there are NINE of them!

Elizabeth Dole…well, at least she was a Tri-Delt. 

In 2007, John Grisham got tapped. So he’s sold 275 million books worldwide….WHATEVER!!!

But finally, this year, the call came from Terry Sullivan.  I guess it took the first woman to lead the University in 193 years to get the job done.  Girl power sister! Given that Val Ackerman, class of ’81, was the Baccalaureate speaker yesterday and all the presenters at the center podium today are women, it’s so refreshing that more than half of the country’s population is being represented here today by a 100 percent female line up!

It seems like yesterday that I was walking down the Lawn towards Cabell Hall, thrilled and, yes, a bit melancholy that my four years at the University were over.  It was quite a weekend.  Right before my parents arrived, I had so many dirty dishes stacked in the sink of my Lawn room, I put them in the trunk of my Toyota Corolla which was then towed because I kept parking in President Hereford’s parking space behind Pavilion VI !  Then I thought I wasn’t graduating at all because I couldn’t find my name in the program and was shocked that it was under the heading "with honors.”  In other words, I was a hot mess.  So if you don’t quite have your act together yet, don’t worry.  At 55, I’m still a work in progress.

To be back in Charlottesville, facing all of you, the Rotunda glistening in the late morning sun… is pretty sweet.

You don’t need me to tell you that UVA is a very special place. I have such wonderful memories of my college experience. Great professors, great friends, great hikes along Skyline Drive, great parties, great football games I can’t really remember thanks to a great guy I got to know named Jack Daniels. (We are not advocating drinking.)

Late night one-eyed bacon cheeseburgers at the UD, served by the beloved Ethel, polished off with a grillswith…yes, that Paula Dean approved dessert comprised of two smashed, fried glazed donuts topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  I credit such delicacies with taking the edge OFF and putting the weight ON….the freshman ten…I mean first-year twenty.

Because I was an RA I lived in the dorms my first three years. But by far the best place I lived was right here.  (Did I mention I lived on the Lawn?) Of course I would have to do the walk of shame to the bathroom and pass everyone headed to class wearing my pink, terry cloth bathrobe and clogs carrying my yellow plastic bucket filled with toiletries, my wet hair turning into icicles in the winter.  But that small, cozy room and especially the fireplace more than made up for it.  And the 19th century version of a man cave made me feel like a twentieth century woman. The ultimate buzz kill must have been getting a room on the Lawn this year and finding out you couldn’t use the fireplace!  But as this year’s RA on the Lawn, Reedy Swanson, told me…at least it was a mild winter.

History and tradition run deep here, and so does a long legacy of excellence.

In the nearly two centuries since it was established in 1819, the University has produced a President, 12 U.S. Senators….5 Olympic medalists…the first African American Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court….and Tina Fey, who was ALMOST vice president until that crushing Amy Poehler interview.

A UVA degree has paved the way for leaders in government, business, media, science, medicine, education, law, and public service.  Thomas Jefferson, the ultimate Renaissance man would be proud. After all, he was a politician, a writer, a diplomat, a scientist, a farmer, an architect, an inventor…and an oenophile, a lover or connoisseur of wine.

Jon Meacham, a friend and brilliant writer, has just finished a new book about Thomas Jefferson that will be published in November. It contains some surprising but somehow appropriate revelations about our favorite founding father.  Although most historians claim Jefferson’s final letter was written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, in reality, his last correspondence was to his wine dealer in Baltimore…to make sure his delivery would be on time.  So, perhaps the perfect UVA graduate knows about the rights of man but also knows the right way to party.

Even though Thomas Jefferson died 186 years ago on the 4th of July, his spirit lives on among the serpentine walls and Neoclassical buildings…and the example he set is still relevant today.  He faced intense partisanship in Washington, threats from abroad, a hostile press and times of great economic challenge.  Gee, sound familiar?

But he weathered the tough times, endured the hate and the heat…and remained unwavering in his vision of a better tomorrow.

He had faith that the power and potential of every single person could change the world.

Thomas Jefferson was the ultimate optimist.

You are graduating at a time when it might be tough to put on a happy face or have faith in the future.  Many of you were coming of age when 9-11 occurred. It was not only the end of innocence for you, it was the end of innocence for our country. The undergraduates here today were just starting college when the most devastating recession in decades began. Some of you may feel like you're drowning in a sea of college debt, which has actually surpassed credit card debt. You’ve witnessed a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Faith in institutions…like Congress, the Media, and Banks has hit rock bottom as our national and personal debt has skyrocketed.  The American Dream, though still attainable, feels more elusive.

These days, the world seems like a pretty scary and at times, overwhelming place.

So, given all these challenges, W-W-TJ-D? What would Thomas Jefferson do? He’d persevere and he would prevail.  And you will do the same.

By now, thanks to many years of education, you’ve mastered the three R's as in reading, writing and arithmetic... which is actually just one R not 3!  

But there are three other R’s that are essential for success, not just in your career but in your life: Risk, Rejection and Resilience.

In my book “The Best Advice I Ever Got,” which is a collection of essays by some of the world’s most successful people, one of my all-time favorite authors, Anna Quindlen, wrote: "Carry your courage in an easily accessible place, the way you do your cellphone or your wallet.  Courage is the ultimate career move.”  

Some may call it courage.  Others call it chutzpah.  My late father who was such an inspiration to me and one of my personal heroes called it moxie.  Whatever you call it, it's the ability to leap before you look, to know you MAY be better sorry than safe.... to go for it, with no guarantees.

As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

If I'd never given it the old college try, I wouldn’t be here speaking at my alma mater’s commencement.
My career began in 1979.  That was the year of the Rod Stewart song “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”  And Gloria Gaynor's disco anthem, "I will Survive."

I think my personal soundtrack is more the latter than the former.

I knew I wanted a job in TV news, and after suffering one rejection after another I decided to be proactive.  I donned my best “dress for success” outfit, which back then basically meant you looked like a flight attendant.

My mother gave me a ride in our cream-colored Buick station wagon from our house in Arlington to the ABC Bureau in Washington, D.C.

When I got there, I asked an imposing security guard if I could see Kevin Delaney, the deputy bureau chief in charge of hiring new employees.  After he stopped laughing, I asked him if I could make a phone call from the lobby.  I called Davey Newman, then the executive producer of World News Tonight.

Here’s how it went: “Hello, Davey?  You don’t know me but your twin brothers, Steve and Eddie, went to high school with my sister Kiki and I live down the street from your cousin Julie.  Could I come up and say hello?”

Cut to me, in the ABC newsroom, being personally delivered to Kevin Delaney’s door.  Better yet, cut to me with my first job in television.

I made coffee.   I made Xeroxes.  I also made friends who I still know today.  On my first day, Sam Donaldson, then the White House correspondent, leapt onto my desk and sang at the top of his lungs, “K-K-K Katie!!!”

A little embarrassing, yet strangely exciting.  Imagine if I hadn’t had the moxie to call Davey Newman!

But there’s another lesson in that story: Don’t look for jobs…look for people.  The good news for the Class of 2012 is the job market HAS improved slightly and employers say they’ll be hiring more recent grads this year than they did in 2011.  But the outlook is far from rosy, and it takes a lot more than a profile on LinkedIn…to get hooked up.

In fact, sometimes you can feel lost in cyberspace…like your resume has been swallowed up in some big black hole.

Despite all the online job boards and Monster-dot-coms of the world…most jobs are still found the old-fashioned way…by meeting people and building relationships.

Follow up with a phone call.  Ask if you can come in, even for an informational interview.  Do your homework…find out the name of an actual, live person who makes hiring decisions and email him or her.  Do you risk looking like a stalker?  Perhaps.  But when you're competing against hundreds…even thousands…doing nothing will get you, well, nothing.

But here’s another thing you need to know about risk: the end result may not be pretty.  As Mick Jagger sang, “You can’t always get what you want.”  That’s where the next  “R” word comes in…Rejection.

There will be times in life when people are…how can I say this …  just not that into you.

About a year into my first gig, I decided to leave ABC and head to a fledgling start-up known as CNN, or as my snobby network news colleagues called it, Chicken Noodle News. There I would work as a producer and get my first crack at reporting. At the White House no less, because that’s the perfect beat for someone with absolutely no experience.

I stayed up all night practicing in front of the mirror with my hairbrush.  It was VERY Jan Brady. My assignment was to preview the President’s schedule for the day.

In the commercial break before I went on, I could hear the two anchors…and they were talking about ME. 

“Who IS that girl?”  One asked.  “I don’t know but she looks like she’s 16 years old.”  I sounded even younger as I squeaked out, “President Reagan is beginning his day with a meeting in the Oval Office with his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.

The president of CNN called the assignment desk and said he never wanted to see me on the air again.

Needless to say, I was devastated.  Thank God for Haagen-Dazs.  

Bill Cosby offered his own version of an early career nightmare in an essay for my book.  It was the sixties, and he was performing in a Chicago comedy club.  He walked out on stage and delivered a 25-minute routine in exactly 12 minutes because no one laughed.  Convinced he would be fired, he faced the club manager.  “I want you to go back to your hotel room,” the manager said, “and send Bill Cosby here to do the second show.”

Meanwhile, Kathryn Stockett, who wrote a pretty successful little book called "The Help," got 60 rejection letters…that’s right, 6-0, before an agent finally said yes.

Rejection can be the ultimate reality check. It makes you work harder and get better.  My boss at CNN wasn’t being mean.  He was right -- I stunk.  Bill Cosby’s club manager wasn’t a jerk.  Bill just wasn’t funny that night.  As for Kathryn Stockett, I don’t really have an explanation for that one…but after five years of writing and three and half years of rejection she had plenty of time to polish her prose.

Rejection can be humbling. 

And speaking of humility, class of 2012, time for the tough love portion of the program.  I tend to hate it when cultural observers make rash generalizations about entire generations BUT, here’s the rap on yours.

By the way, this may be more about your parents, than you. And since I’m THEIR generation, let me preface this with….guilty as charged!

They say you’ve been over coddled, over parented.  You haven’t learned to deal with disappointment or setbacks, or rejection, because you haven’t had to.  After all, everyone made the soccer team and everyone got a trophy, right?

A recent article in The Atlantic entitled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” asked this question: Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?” In fact, some college students today are so overprotected and fragile, they’re known by administrators on campuses across the country as “teacups.” 

Sometimes this spills into the workplace when young, entitled employees think they don’t have to pay their dues and want to start at the top. But as Queen Rania of Jordan once said, “If you’re too big for the small jobs, you’re too small for the big ones.”

And if you’re going on interviews, remember this: Nothing is a bigger turn off than a 22-year-old who asks how a job will affect his or her work/life balance.

In fact, one young woman was trying to land a position on my new syndicated show asked how the hours would impact her weekends.  Our answer?  Not at all… because you’re not getting the job.

And speaking of teacups, according to a very reliable source one student from Darden went on a job interview… and BROUGHT HIS MOTHER!   So, whatever you do... don't bring your mother to the interview... and DO NOT use her as a reference! 

Don’t be a teacup…be a travel mug. Sturdy…and, ultimately, unbreakable.  You may have to work late, work weekends, or as Mike Bloomberg did, show up early. When he was in business school, he worked at a real estate office renting apartments. He had more customers than the four full-time professional brokers, because he got there before they did, answered the phone, and got all their business.  So, very simply: there is no substitute for hard work and getting the job done.

And then there’s the whole notion of finding your passion.  I’m a firm believer that if you do what you love, you’ll love what you do.  That said, you need to try things…not just talk about them…to figure out what you love and what you don’t.  In other words…get a job. It might not be as easy as it used to be – you have to hustle – but it's doable.

Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist here at the University, writes in her new book “The Defining Decade,” that 80% of life’s most defining decisions are made by age 35.  Salaries peak and plateau in our 40s.  People who start too late never catch up.  Just something to think about when you’re booking that Euro-Rail pass!

This concludes the tough love portion of the program. Now back to me.

After CNN, I worked in local news in Miami and Washington DC.  My big break came when my dear friend and mentor, the late Tim Russert told me I had spunk... and unlike Lou Grant, he liked spunk. So he offered me a job as the deputy Pentagon correspondent for NBC.

By 1991, I was co-anchor of the "Today" show where I spent 15 fantastic years.  I covered triumphs at the Olympics and tragedies here at home, like Columbine, the bombing in Oklahoma City, and 9/11, which I believe was one of the most important assignments of my career.  And there was endless variety.  Where else could you interview Yasser Arafat, Howard Stern and Miss Piggy in the same week?  It was such a privilege to anchor the "Today" Show, but after one too many 5am wake up calls, I was ready for a new chapter.

The opportunity to become the first solo female anchor of a network evening newscast was hard to turn down.  After all when I started in TV news back in 1979  there were still plenty of guys who wanted to keep the broads out of broadcasting.  Back then, harass was TWO words…not one (that usually takes a minute).  The chance to show a woman, on her own, could handle the job with intelligence and competence seemed worth the risk.

But I quickly learned that getting out of your comfort zone can sometimes be, well... uncomfortable. And one of the problems of being a trailblazer is… sometimes you get burned. 

In those first few months at CBS, TV critics wrote about my clothes, my hair, my makeup, even the way I held my hands.

Some said I lacked “gravitas,” which I've decided is Latin for “testicles.”  It was a rocky start, but I remembered a note a former colleague had written to me as I was leaving NBC.  “Boats are always safe in the harbor, but that’s not what boats are built for.”

I was determined to ride out the storm.  I focused on the NEWS, and not the NOISE, and it got better.

Five years at the CBS Evening News filled me with immense pride and a sense of accomplishment.  From covering the historic 2008 presidential election... to an award-winning series on children and the recession…to standing in Tahrir Square as the people of Egypt said “no more” to oppression.  We were one of the first American teams on the ground in Haiti just hours after the devastating earthquake in January of 2010. I learned more about people, perspective and myself in those five years than I had in the previous 49. 

My story may have played out in the public eye, but it is by no means unique. Every one of you will, at some point, be confronted by naysayers and learn that life isn't always fair. You'll feel cheated, you’ll be mistreated, you’ll wonder: When will I be loved?  (Oh my God, I'm suddenly channeling Linda Ronstadt!)

That’s when the third “R,” RESILIENCE, comes in.  The ability to, as they said in the '70s, keep on keepin’ on…even when you’d rather pull the covers over your head.  To muster your strength and forge ahead, even when you feel like a failure.

But the greatest test of my resilience wasn’t professional.  It was intensely personal.

In 1997 I had a fantastic career, a wonderful, intelligent husband and two healthy daughters who were one and five at the time.  I felt happy and complete.

Then, in an instant…everything changed.

In April of that year, Jay Monahan was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer.  My life as I imagined it was crumbling before my eyes. But every day during his nine-month battle, I was in awe of my husband's extraordinary courage and grace.  And every day I felt like there was a vice around my heart.

On January 24, 1998, Jay collapsed in the bathroom and died on the way to the hospital.

Suddenly, I was a single mom and a member of a club I never anticipated joining, certainly not at that age.  I was a widow.  It felt so weird to even say the word.

In the months after Jay’s death I was inundated with books about grief and how to deal with it. But I derived the most strength from a simple quote by none other than Thomas Jefferson, who said, “The earth belongs to the living.”  And I had to go on living.  I had to for my daughters.

Thankfully, I had a job that enabled me to turn my grief into advocacy. 

At the "Today" Show I had a built-in bully pulpit which allowed me to educate the public about colon cancer and try to prevent other families from enduring the heartache ours had. 

I wanted…no, needed…to share what I had learned… that colorectal cancer is the second leading cancer killer of men and women in this country, but with early detection, it has a better than 90 percent cure rate.

My on air colonoscopy brought whole new meaning to the expression "up close and personal." As a result, there was a twenty percent increase in the procedure, and that meant, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives saved. Researchers at the University of Michigan called it the Couric Effect.  I call it the Jay Monahan Effect.

Four years after Jay died, I lost my sister Emily to pancreatic cancer.  As some of you might know, she was a state senator representing Charlottesville, and many predicted she would one day be the first female governor of Virginia.  I can tell you honestly, she was the real star of our family.  Emily cared deeply about education, about the underserved, and when she was diagnosed with cancer, she began, in typical fashion, to think of ways she could help other people fighting this disease.  The Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center here at the University is a beautiful and bittersweet tribute to someone else who had so much left to do... and so much more to give.

Life can deal you some crushing blows and we all need a deep reserve of resilience to survive.  Losing someone is also a reminder that life is short... and fragile. We're all terminal.  And that's why we have to be grateful for the time we have and savor the joy that comes our way.

I swear I don't have a girl crush on Anna Quindlen, but something she wrote in "A Short Guide to a Happy Life" really resonated with me.  "Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement.  It would be wonderful if they would come to us unsummoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the lives most of us lead now, that won't happen.  We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them, to love them and to live, really live."

I agree with Morrie Schwartz, of Tuesdays with Morrie fame who said, "giving makes me feel like I'm living." The work I've done with Stand Up to Cancer and colon cancer awareness has meant far more to me than interviewing presidents, prime ministers, even Prince William…although, I have to tell you, he’s pretty cute. Really cute. And really nice.

You’ve had the privilege of getting a first-rate education and with that comes some responsibility.  I know you’re up to the job and there will be as many ways to make a difference as there are graduates here today.  6411 to be exact!

I was reminded of the caliber of student here when I recently spent time with a fourth-year student named Lynette Jones, an amazing young woman who loves dance, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Toni Morrison and the University of Virginia.

I visited Lynette at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia where she’s being treated…and is in the fight of her life.  Lynette blew me away with her courage, maturity and deep faith.  I watched her grill a doctor about an upcoming procedure like David Frost grilled Richard Nixon.  No surprise, Lynette’s an aspiring journalist and I was so flattered when we Skyped she said I was her Michael Jackson…something I’ve never been called before.

Despite the pain, fatigue and fear that come with her diagnosis…Lynette’s been powering through…writing papers from her hospital bed and focusing on the future.  She told me she would try her hardest to come to her graduation.  And she’s here!  Lynette, you are my new profile in courage.  If you’re not an example of resilience I don’t know what is.

Finally, let me leave you with some life lessons that have served me well.   Don't tolerate intolerance.  Stick up for the little guy.  Play fair.  Help someone in need. Have good manners. Tip generously. Believe in yourself.  Call your mother.  Be skeptical, not cynical. Trashing other people often says more about you than them.  Have a purpose, a higher purpose. Don’t give up, give back. Stay connected... and not just on Facebook.  Step away from the iPhone, people!

One day when Jay was very sick he turned to me and said, "You know, nothing really matters except your friends and family."  It is the people in your lives and the love you share that will truly be the measure of your success.

On a very famous tombstone at Monticello you will find these words: "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia."  Building this University was one of his proudest accomplishments.  Graduating from it will always be one of yours... and mine. 

This day was 33 years in the making for me… and well worth the wait.  SO, if you’ll indulge me and please join in.  You know what I’m going to do, and please don’t leave me hanging here, people.

Wahoo Wah Wahoo Wah Uni V Virginia

Hoo Ra Ray Hoo Ra Ray Hey Hey UVA!!!!