Tom's Commencement Address At Niagara University

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Tom Ashbrook speaks at Niagara University. (Niagara University)
Tom Ashbrook speaks at Niagara University. (Niagara University)

Listen to the full address

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Niagara University, New York

Distinguished honorees, distinguished guests, student families and friends, it is an honor to be here with you. This is a big day. I am honored to stand here for Niagara University’s graduation in the shoes of Tim Russert and Mother Teresa, no less. And above all else, before all else, let’s say it right here: Congratulations to the Class of 2012. You made it!

A lot of people have poured a lot into you. Love and time and care. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings – yes, siblings – and teachers and friends. And here you are. Only one short speech away from graduation. Bravo to you.

I remember like it was yesterday sitting on your side of the podium. Staring at life after college and not knowing what on earth that was really going to be. All the questions. What, really, was I going to do? How was I going to make a living?

It was so thrilling to be headed out of college. I was so ready. And it was so terrifying, all at the same time.

And now here you are. And the first thing I want to say to you is, you’re going to do fine. You are young and strong and smart. You’ve got the beauty of life in you. You’re blessed with a fine education and the love of people who care for you, who helped bring you to this day. You’ve got the right stuff. It’s important to know that. Even in this crazy world, full of all kinds of challenges, you’ve got what it takes. Never doubt it.

Because you’re going to need it.

Class of 2012, I don’t have to tell you… you are graduating at a time when the world is full of big question marks.

Is the economy really coming back? And if not now, when? You need jobs.

Is the great American experiment – in democracy and freedom and pulling together – still working? We need all that now more than ever. You – truly, you - will be the ones who decide how it goes forward.

Will our planet be a good and fruitful home for you and your children and your grandchildren? We’ve fiddled around a lot with our environment. We’re still at it. In your lifetimes there will be pigeons coming home to roost. Consequences. Will that be manageable? We still have more consequential decisions to make. With our votes and our pocketbooks and the way we live.

You will be making those decisions.

Not alone. We’re not running out on you. But it’s your time rising. One day you’re just a passenger on the planet. The next day, the thing is yours. This is the beginning of that day.

So, my beautiful 2012ers, how to live? With your newly-minted degrees and your hopes and dreams and - soon - responsibilities?

And my first piece of advice when you step out of those caps and gowns is: just dive in. Don’t be daunted. Don’t hesitate. Get going, whatever that means.

Some of you – lucky, smart, connected, determined - will go right to jobs. Work hard. Do them well. It takes excellence now to hold your own, and that’s good. Embrace it.


Some will go to more school. And good for you. Don’t hide out there. See the world’s need as you study. Sharpen your insight. And put it to work for all of us.

Some don’t know, sitting here today, what it’s going to be. And I’m telling you – just get out there and dig in. Grab on. Get started. Whatever it is, however uncertain the path right now, you will learn in the doing. About the world, and about yourself.

Right out of college, I was a surveyor and a dynamiter in Alaska. That’s where the jobs were. I was a teacher in Hong Kong. A long way from home. A cub reporter for the South China Morning Post. A kung-fu movie producer. You can imagine, my parents wondered what was going on!

I was a TV host. And a newspaper correspondent. An editor. A dot-com entrepreneur. An author. And pretty soon, there it was – a career that I could never have articulated up front. But I threw myself into all of it, full force, every part, and it found a shape and direction that fit me. Now, I talk with Americans – and a lot of others, too – on the radio, for a living. And who knew that would be the thing? The calling, the next step, out of all those wonderful strands of work and passion?

What matters is to engage and apply yourself. Bring all your strengths and your discipline and your personal genius – whatever that is – to bear. Grab on, work hard, and listen for your deepest satisfactions. For the voice that says, this is my way. Here’s where I can make a difference. Here’s where I can let my unique talents roll and grow. You will know it when you find it, and others will to. You’ll see in their response to your work that this is the thing you were meant to do. And when you find that way, you run with it. Put in the work. Be ready to run some risk for that path. Stay on it. Raise it high. Go for it.

You may start humbly. I did. I grew up on a farm in the Midwest surrounded by miles of cornfields and not much money, but a lot of love. When it came time to go out and see the world, my folks didn’t have cash for an airfare. Or a bus fare. But they had a friend who worked as a dispatcher at the stockyards in our corner of Illinois. And they threw me onto a big 18-wheeler, a semi-trailer truck full of hogs, headed for Philadelphia. Me, and the driver, and a whole lot of pigs in close quarters. And that was it. Sixteen years old, and I was off into the world.

A career in journalism has meant I’ve looked into a lot of other people’s lives and careers, in all kinds of times and places. Been up close with military men and women, with high-tech dreamers and doers, with ship captains and rice farmers, doctors in Rwandan refugee camps, hoteliers in a war-torn Somalia. I’ve sat with presidents and prime ministers at the height of their powers, and I’ve watched them flee through fire in the night, in the Philippines. Stood next to their funeral pyre when the assassin’s gun came out, in India. Drank tea with the now-emperor of Japan. And with camel-drivers in Afghanistan.

You want a good life – even in challenging times? Then be ready to step up. On three fronts.

First, to yourself. Bring your “A game” to everything you do. It takes more effort. More work. More commitment. But when you stretch yourself and invest yourself and give it everything you’ve got, that’s when you truly find yourself. The best of what you bring. The best of what you are. That’s when you will feel whole. So work hard toward your excellence. Not grimly, but with joy. And the payoff will find you.

Then, be ready to step up for those you love. Make it the biggest circle that you can. The family that raised you. The friends you’ve made and will make. The families that you will make yourselves. This is where commitment is just the beginning. This is where you want to bring your greatest generosity of spirit, your greatest understanding and humility and compassion. You want to bring those things to all the world, but first and most sincerely to those you love. And their love will lift and nurture you in return. They will have your back. And with luck you’ll have, right there, a glimpse of paradise on this earth. And a place to come home to.

And finally, be ready – really ready, especially in your time – to step up for your community and your country. We are a nation of great individual stories and dreams. But our greatest story remains what we have accomplished together. We are not and have not been a perfect people, but we have struggled to do the right thing. And we have made progress. That struggle will go on in your generation. Do not be a bystander. Think of justice, and what it really means. Think of this planet, and the care it needs. See your fellow human beings for what they are – your brothers and sisters. And then step up to show that kind of care, from the block you live on right up to the great national issues of your time.

When you engage, the future – your own future – grows brighter.

Do those three - bring your A game, give your love sincerely, embrace your community - and your life will be rich.

And don’t wait. And don’t trim your ambition, your dreams.

We live in a time of challenge. We’ve been there before. Stick together. Lean toward what is truly good. Don’t be divided by fear, or greed, or ignorance of the challenges of others. Never despair. The world is always changing. Follow your best instincts, and it will turn your way.

And don’t wait. Your powers are greater right now, today, than you may think. Opportunities are all around you, and you will make more by your own efforts, by pushing for your dreams in the time that we are given.

At a commencement just like this, a handful of years ago, it was Steve Jobs talking to the new graduates. Like this:

“Remembering I’ll be dead soon,” he said, “is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life…

“Remembering that you are going to die,” he said, “is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

And now he’s gone. And your lives are just opening up.

This is a great day. You are beautiful, young and strong. And we wish you this:

Be brave, be bold, be loving.

Niagara University, Class of 2012, congratulations. We salute you and wish you well.

This program aired on May 16, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.