President Lindgren, thank you for that kind introduction. And thanks to Professor
Joan Conners for bestowing this prestigious honor upon me today.
To the faculty, administration and all the distinguished guests gathered here… thank
you for inviting me to share this joyous occasion with you. And thank you to Jim
Allen, one of my very favorite teachers at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia,
and a member of Randolph Macon’s class of 1957,for extending the invitation and
refusing to take no for an answer.
Thank you Mr. Allen. I mean, Jim…and I’m sorry I would never get an honorary degree
for my outstanding work in High School biology.
To all the parents here today…well done! Your child is graduating from college!
I know the feeling. My daughter Ellie just graduated a few weeks ago and I spent
the morning of her big day listening to Paul Anka singing “The Times of your Life”
on my iPhone and crying. So I have a little sense of what you’re feeling today.
Watching Ellie get her diploma made me feel so proud, so excited… and so old.
And of course, I’ve saved the best for last. Congratulations to the class of 2013!!!!!!!
I am so glad to be here in Ashland, Virginia. Or, as you call it, the “Center of
You know, it was dicey getting here today. I took a wrong turn and ended up at Hampden
Sydney. Thank God I eventually found my way here… because not only did I need a
little girl power, I also didn’t bring my cords with the little ducks on them… or
I can see why you love it here…I’ve eaten my way through Ashland already. I made
it just in time for Fried Chicken Friday’s at Estes… and then washed it down with
a jumbo margarita at El Az. I tried to convince them it was my 21st birthday, but
they didn’t believe me.
I wanted to soak in the local color, too, so I tried to go for a swim in the fountain
last night…but it was too sudsy!
So, instead I went looking for the ghost of Alice at Mary Branch. I found her, and
she and I played corn hole with Mama from Andy’s. Alice and Mama both said to tell
Anyway, for those of you just waking up from the Senior Gala, it’s Saturday, June
1st. Your graduation day.
Being chosen to deliver a commencement speech is an awesome honor… and responsibility.
The goal is to be entertaining, somewhat brief, and to impart some (hopefully) useful
information as you leave this chapter of your life behind…and set off to conquer
With a few speeches under my belt from years past, this time I’ve decided to take
a different approach. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just telling you what I thought
you should hear, but let you tell me what you wanted to hear. And so I asked you
for your questions…and you sent some great ones.
This is so 2013, isn’t it? I got in touch with my inner hipster and crowd-sourced
this speech! What could be more perfect for the social media generation?
So, let’s get started.
Victoria Harrison asks, “Is it normal for us to feel nervous leaving college and
stepping into adulthood?”
Oh, Victoria…Of course it's normal to feel nervous. But I'll take nervous and raise
you one: How about terrified?
Let's face it: You're entering a world that doesn't seem to be exactly waiting with
open arms. We're still feeling the aftershocks of the worst economic downturn since
the Great Depression. People may not be knocking down your doors with job offers.
The competition is fiercer than ever.
But times are not only tough for college grads.
In terms of global competitiveness, our country is in need of a big ol’ can of whoop
ass. The World Economic Forum now ranks the United States seventh in terms of labor,
economy and innovation…and it’s the fourth year in a row we’ve been downgraded.
Another study found, among industrialized nations, we rank 25th in math, 17th in
science and 14th in reading. Yikes.
And how many times have you heard your generation isn't going to do as well as your
parents? Honestly, it's enough to make you spend all day in your underwear watching
YouTube videos of skateboarding cats!
So, yes, it's completely normal to be nervous...in fact it’s abnormal not to be!
Instead of trying to make that feeling go away as we often do in our “we need to
be happy all the time” culture….embrace it…and know that you never feel more alive
than when you're a little bit scared.
You'll be testing yourself, stretching yourself, and leaving this beautiful, intimate
campus and a routine you’ve gotten pretty used to over the last four years.
You’re getting out of your comfort zone…and that can unfortunately be…well, very
But you're not just going to go through it. You're going to grow through it. So
keep your eyes wide open, because in so many ways, your education is just beginning.
Conor Moe asks, “What is your take on the unique challenges our generation will
face after college?”
Having one generation trash the one that comes after it is as American as apple
pie. I'm sure your parents, or at least your grandparents, remember Paul Lynd in
Bye Bye Birdie, singing this little ditty: “Kids! I don’t know what’s wrong with
these kids today. Kids! Who can understand anything they say? Why don’t they act
like we did, perfect in every way? What’s the matter with kids today?”
Wow, I’ll be sure not to quit my day job…
There has been so much written about YOUR generation that I could fill my shelves
with books and articles about millennials alone. “Managing Millennials,” “Millennials
Rising,” “Millennial Momentum.” And that’s just from the “M” section on Amazon!
I used to be one of those slightly judgmental, holier than thou baby boomers sniffing
my contempt along with so many in my generation.
You're pampered! You're entitled! You're parents have done too much for you! You're
pathetically incompetent! You're narcissists! Because you grew up thinking everyone
gets a trophy, you don't understand the value of hard work, sacrifice or delayed
You have self-esteem all right. But it's self-esteem without portfolio! Self-esteem
on steroids! And technology has made you both self-centered and craving approval
from people you often don't even know with "likes" on Instagram “friends” on Facebook
or “followers” on Twitter.
Well guess what, Millennials? On behalf of all of you, as well as my own 21-year-old
daughter, I'd like to say SHUT YOUR PIE HOLE PEOPLE!
To all of you sitting here today: Don’t let ANYONE define who you are. Sweeping
generalizations are unfair and misguided, and when they’re about entire generations
they’re often just plain wrong. Think of yourselves as a painting by the great pointillist
Georges Seurat. From a distance, you may appear to be a single image, but if you
look more closely, you’ll see that image is made up of an infinite number of tiny
dabs of paint. Each one of you is unique…and you’re the only ones who can define
who you are or what you’ll become.
Which brings me to my next question….Kaitlyn Dmytryszyn asks, “How do you think
our generation is uniquely equipped to rise to the challenge.”
You’ve probably heard the phrase “The Greatest Generation,” coined by Tom Brokaw.
It describes the generation of Americans who grew up during the Depression and World
War II. Well, a recent Time magazine article by Joel Stein asked if you might actually
be the next greatest generation.
Joel wrote, "The generation that experienced Monica Lewinsky's dress, 9-11, the
longest wars in US history, the Great Recession and an Arab Spring that looks at
best like a late winter… is nevertheless optimistic about its own personal chances
And you should be, for a few reasons.
First, one of the disses about millennials is also one of your greatest gifts. You’re
all wired 24/7. You’ve never known a world that wasn’t filled with laptops, smartphones
and the Internet. And because of that, you already have something we need to move
this nation through the 21st century… the knowledge that we really are all connected
and there’s a great big world out there for you to explore online and off.
You respect diversity and are far more tolerant than your parents’ or your grandparents’
generation. You’re also more philanthropic and service-oriented. 75 percent of you
donated to a cause you believe in last year or helped raise money for that cause.
You march to your own drummers, and that makes for good leaders. You question the
status quo…and you should.
That’s become a business model for the poster child of your generation, Mark Zuckerberg.
He embraces change, and has proven it helps move us forward. Who didn’t get annoyed
when suddenly Facebook forced you to make a timeline instead of just a regular old
wall? Frustrating? Sure. But never boring… and always fresh…which keeps us coming
It’s called life hacking, which is defined as thinking out of the box to improve
productivity or get better results.
You all are life hackers by nature and nuture, and that keeps YOU always looking
for better ways of doing things and ALL OF US optimistic that you will create, navigate
and innovate a future we could only imagine in our dreams.
And your sheer numbers alone…82 million of you…bigger than any other demographic…means
you’re bound to boost this economy as you move out, buy houses and get jobs.
Well, unless you can’t find work and move back in with your parents. (Hey, as long
as it’s not for forever, it’s okay. I did it too!) But that brings me to your next
question, Ethan Litvin.
Ethan wants to know, “How were you able to land your dream job after graduation
and what steps did you take to get there?”
Well, Ethan, I don’t really know anyone who landed his or her dream job right after
graduation. You’ll likely be the low man or woman on the totem pole and it will
be just the beginning of a long and probably winding career path.
Unlike the days when you worked at one company and retired with a gold watch and
a pension…. many of you will have worked an average of seven jobs by the time you’re
26. But as the saying goes, you’ve got to start somewhere.
And let me pause for a minute to say something about finding your passion. Yes,
it’s important to do something you love…because if you love it, you’ll be good at
it. But don’t spend the next few years navel gazing and searching for your true
Even if it’s not the perfect job, get in there and DO SOMETHING! You never know
who you might meet, what it might lead to and if you’ll discover a related field
for which you’re better suited.
In other words don’t let this period of “finding yourself” find YOU, at 30, in your
parents’ basement playing X-Box.
So how do you get your foot in the door for that first job?
Take a lesson from the cowardly lion. Courage. Or 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.
So, Ethan, here’s how I landed a job in television.
It was 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. 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 hi?”
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, but strangely exciting. Imagine if I hadn’t had the moxie
to call Davey Newman!
But moxie alone does not a great career make. It also requires persistence.
I speak from experience here, people…so Meredith Eckles, thank you for providing
me a segue with this question:
“Why do you think it’s important to not give up when you’re ambitiously developing
Well, first of all, if you give up, you lose. Game over. And you’ll never know what
might have been had you stayed in the game.
Here’s a true story.
About a year into my first job, 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
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?” One asked. “I don’t know but she looks like she’s 16.”
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. T-G-H-D…Thank God for Haagen Dazs.
My boss at CNN wasn’t being mean. He was right—I stunk.
Rejection can be humbling. It can also be a huge motivator, especially for competitive
people like me!
I didn’t let that experience kill my dream, or, as I often say, “I didn’t let the
turkeys get me down.” I went on to work in local news in Miami and Washington DC,
and I kept getting better.
My big break came when my dear friend and mentor, the late Tim Russert, told me
I had spunk. Unlike Lou Grant, he liked spunk. (Google that, then you’ll get it.)
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 5 a.m.
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 there were still plenty
of guys who wanted to keep the broads out of broadcasting. Back then, harass was
TWO words…not one. The chance to show a woman, on her own, could handle the job
with intelligence and competence seemed worth the risk.
But one of the problems with being a trailblazer is… sometimes you get burned.
And those valuable lessons I learned early on… about not giving up… were still going
to be necessary.
In the 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 later, it was time to take another chance, another risk. Last September
I launched a daytime talk show…with a highly original name… “Katie.” I feel that
my whole career and the wide range of experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to
have prepared me for this role. Yes, I can arm wrestle Jenny McCarthy. But I can
also host an hour on adoption, sexual assault in the military… or autism. That’s
what all those years at the Today Show and The Evening News trained me to do.
And just think if I had let a bad day at CNN 33 years ago stop me!
But life isn’t all about work.
Hillary Sherbert asked the age-old question regarding that sometimes elusive work-life
balance. “How,” she inquired, “do you manage the many aspects of your life? Career,
daughters, friends, family.”
Well, Hillary…just like millennials, there are enough books on this topic to fill
the McGraw-Page Library. Can women have it all? Can men have it all? Can anybody
have it all?
Things are definitely changing, and with every generation the playing field gets
leveled more and more.
Nowadays, 70 percent of all moms work outside the home. A recent Pew study found
that 4 out of 10 married moms earn more money than their husbands… or are the sole
breadwinners. And the number of stay-at-home dads has doubled in the last decade.
But still, the perennial conversation about “having it all” seems as relevant as
The answer is…there is no answer except the one that works for you.
With all due respect to Sheryl Sandberg, whether you Lean In, Lean Out, or Lean
Back is YOUR choice…and only you can decide what your priorities are. There’s a
good chance you’ll feel torn every now and then.
For me, it’s the guilt I feel when I have to miss one of my daughter’s track meets
for an interview or a meeting at work. And then the guilt I feel when I turn down
a big interview because I’m looking at colleges with my daughter.
Having a demanding job and a fulfilling family life is challenging. Perhaps your
generation will be more successful than mine has been at demanding we do more to
support working families.
From affordable child care to family-friendly work policies…there needs to be a
bigger safety net for every mom…and dad…as they try to strike the right balance
between parenthood and professional success.
I waited to have my children until I was 34 and 39…when my career was at a high
point. Proving myself a valuable asset professionally before I had the girls gave
me the security to know that my job would be there when I came back from maternity
I’m all for establishing your career so your value at work can afford you more leverage
and flexibility at home. BUT if you know you want to have children, don’t put it
If 40 is the new 30, someone forgot to tell your ovaries. Your fertility decreases
significantly as you age. So, just keep that in mind.
Gosh, you probably never thought you’d be getting family planning advice from your
graduation speaker, but, hey, knowledge is power.
Next, Tolson Musick asks, “If there is one thing you wish you could have told your
graduating self that would have been greatly beneficial, what would it be?”
I think this quote from John Lennon would have been helpful. “Life is what happens
when you’re making other plans.” There are no guarantees and no way to predict the
future. I wish I had a crystal ball and could tell each of you when your hearts
will be broken, when you will experience crushing loss, when people will disappoint
you and events will set you back.
All I do know is that you will experience many of these things. And that you will
find the strength to get through them.
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 safe, happy and complete.
Then, in an instant…everything changed.
In April of that year, Jay 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 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 that allowed me to educate the public
about colon cancer and try to prevent other families from enduring the heartache
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…and nearly 12 years later we still
miss her so much.
Losing my husband and my sister made me want to do everything I possibly could to
eradicate this insidious disease.
The work I've done with STAND UP TO CANCER and for colon cancer awareness and treatment
has meant far more to me than interviewing presidents, prime ministers, even Bradley
Cooper. But he IS pretty cute.
I’ll never forget a moment when my daughter Ellie turned to me in the kitchen and
told me she was proud of me for all I’d done to fight cancer.
I agree with Morrie Schwartz from “Tuesdays with Morrie” who once told Mitch Albom,
“Giving makes me feel like I’m living.”
Finding a higher purpose is so important. And you’ve honed the qualities required
to do this right here at Randolph Macon: A generous spirit and an open heart. One
of your classmates told me a story that I felt really sums up the kind of people
who are here today.
When a fire ripped through the Theta Chi house this past fall…thankfully no one
was hurt. But everything was lost…computers, clothes, and all the other things that
make up life in a frat house. (I don’t want to know!) But what happened next was,
as President Lindgren said, “awe inspiring.” You stepped up as a class, and as a
community, to help those students quickly get their lives back to normal.
One student described Randolph Macon this way: “Here you will meet some of the greatest
people ever, because they make you feel like family and believe in helping others.”
Continue that tradition after you leave this campus.
The losses I’ve experienced have taught me something else: We are all terminal.
You have to appreciate the gifts that every day of your life will bring. Your family.
Your friends. A beautiful sky at sunset. A perfect ear of corn in August. The first
snowfall of the year. A baby’s tiny hand. Be grateful for the time you have and
savor the joy that comes your way.
Look for those in-between moments…not big events, but the little ones when you’re
laughing with a friend, taking a walk, helping an elderly neighbor with her groceries.
In fact, one of my favorite people, Anna Quindlin, wrote in her book A Short Guide
to a Happy Life, "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,
There’s so much waiting for you. Put down that iPhone so you won’t miss it. Live.
Really live. And do everything you can to become our next great generation.
Congratulations and good luck!