I was the Founders’ Day convocation speaker at Johnson C. Smith University on Sunday. It was an honor. But in deciding what I’d say, and what advice I’d give to those already accomplished young people about entering this stage of their lives, I got an opportunity to assess what mattered in my own life.
So, I’d like to share some of what I said to the students and the faculty, alumni, parents and others who listened attentively even as the sunshine and sweet breezes of a perfect spring day beckoned:
“I am delighted to be speaking to you, and among those giving advice as you graduates leave this campus for the rough and tumble of the real world.
“You know I’ve got experience at this advice-giving business. It’s what I do on the Observer’s editorial board. I’ve given plenty of advice over the last year to N.C. lawmakers though many haven’t liked much of it.
“Many years ago, I received advice that was very important in my life. The first came from my grandfather – on my mother’s side. I was all of about six, sitting on the porch of his farm along with my sister – two years older, and my cousin, a year older than her. We spent most summers during my childhood at my grandparents’ farm in Georgia. And every morning, we got to sit on the porch and eat breakfast together.
“My Grandpa used those breakfast gatherings to give us – his girl grandchildren – our marching orders for the rest of our lives: You will be teacher, he told my sister. You will be a secretary, he told my cousin. He told me I’d be a nurse.
“I’m a journalist. So you can see I didn’t follow that advice.
“That was because my mother took me aside and gave me better advice: She said I could be whatever I wanted to be. Do what makes you happy, she said.
“In later years, my dad would add to that wisdom with this: He told me this is the only life I’ll get. Don’t squander it.
“And I never did take the gift of life for granted. I hope as you graduates embark on the fascinating adventure that awaits you that you too will take those words to heart.
“The economic and political landscape is not so appealing for you.
“After the Great Recession the economy is still flailing and you face a job market that is challenging to say the least. And though this country has gotten out of one war and is trying to end its involvement in another, the terrorist threats are ever present and hotspots of bloody turmoil around the globe have tentacles that keep reaching out to grasp us.
“And here on the homefront, the challenges are just as great. The battles that many before you fought to force this country to live up to its pledge of equality and equal rights go on.
“The current assault on voting rights, across the nation and right here in North Carolina, is something that would have seemed inconceivable just five years ago. Young people like you should be particularly concerned about the attempts to stymie or make more difficult access to voting. Some of those changes were aimed primarily at you.
“So politically, you can’t afford to stand on the sidelines and not engage on these issues. Your lives and livelihoods are on the line.
“You have already laid the groundwork for that great life. Graduating with a degree from this fine university, you have the skills and tools to fulfill your desires, to make your life and the lives of all of us richer and better. I hope you will employ your skills for the betterment of your communities as well as for yourself.
“That quote, ‘Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth,’ is one I truly believe in. And that service can be rendered in innumerable ways.
“But it’s also true that you can’t help anybody else – or do it very well – if you haven’t helped yourself. So, as you start this great adventure, get on firm financial footing as quickly as possible.
“I’ve worked hard all my life, and I’ve enjoyed it. I also haven’t skimped on fun – and neither should you. I’ve traveled the world, met interesting people, dined in curious places, climbed the Great Wall of China. Much of it I never planned to do, or expected to do.
“But I did intend to take the advice my parents gave me – to be what I wanted to be, and to not take the gift of life for granted. I dreamed big. I took risks.
“And ever since I read these words from Maya Angelou, they have given me strength and resolve: ‘I am the dream and the hope of the slave.’
“Each of us is the hope and dream of our families. We are the hopes and dreams of all who helped build this country and pushed it closer to its founding ideals. We are also the hopes and dreams of our neighbors and the communities we live in.
“Through your energized, persistent pursuit of your hopes and dreams, mine and those of others will be realized too. This is the only life you get. Make it the best one possible.”