I spent this past Saturday at Skidmore College’s graduation ceremony held at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (despite the fact my own graduation from the University at Albany was being held the same day, sorry mom and dad) and was in the midst of excitement surrounding the long-awaited commencement speech to be delivered by the one and only Oprah Winfrey.
And as the over 3 hour ceremony carried on, Oprah came to the podium and spent most of her time rehashing a trial “about a burger” working in and out of a southern accent impersonating her opposing counsel, all of which left students and the crowd uninspired and unanimously agreeing that an earlier speaker, Wes Moore, had stolen the show.
I didn’t attend my undergraduate graduation from Siena College, nor did I attend my graduate school graduation from UAlbany, so I didn’t have a clear idea about what a good commencement speech was, but I knew Oprah wasn’t it.
It wasn’t until I watched award-winning writer and superb Twitter follow, Lauren Duca, take her place at the podium in a modest set up at Bard College that I knew what I had been missing.
She took her place before the school’s 2017 graduates with a multi-page written speech before her and a comforting voice that was slightly shaky ready to speak to the reality that was waiting them opposed to the rainbows and sunshine that people are age are so accustomed to having blown up our asses as we venture into “adulthood.”
Following the usual pleasantries and thank yous, Duca set the tone for what was to come:
After I accepted the invitation to speak to you, it occurred to me that commencement speeches are terrible. They are just tapestries of platitudes riffing on inspirational ambiguities with rare exception. It’s all reach for the stars fluffy nonsense until its not. The rare quality commencement speeches seem to capture clarity in a vile, if only for a moment everything clicks into view and you know while listening or watching on YouTube that the over-arching message is a piece of advice that you will never ever forget. I wanted to write a commencement speech like that, so I decided that I was going to.
And she did just that. She navigated through some of the more notable commencement speeches, touched on the time she dunked on Tucker Carlson, and worked in a Lord of the Rings reference while speaking to her audience as people who actually inhabit the real world, not the mythical college graduates entering a fantasy world that most speakers seem to be addressing.
As she stated, her speech was what she needed to hear when she graduated four years ago and it is what I needed to hear as I graduated just days ago, and what you need to hear now.
Most of us have spent at least a portion of our time pursuing our degrees in higher education worrying about marks, scores, grades and the like. However, Duca points out that our future won’t be determined by these arbitrary measures.
As we exit the bubbles that are our college homes, the incentives we have come to define ourselves by will become rarer and rarer.
The external signifiers of success don’t determine who you are and they will become less frequent and more ambiguous.
She spoke in relatable terms, her voice sounded like that of a senior offering a freshman advice rather than an all-knowing adult ready to simplify the life that is ahead of us.
She regularly reiterated the importance of our success being determined by ourselves as she encouraged listeners to be “unapologetically ambitious” as she discussed her own fears, crippling anxiety, self-doubt, and even battled a spider on the microphone.
Her speech was filled with numerous powerful moments that will bring goosebumps to the surface and may just inspire your very own “holy shit” moment that will help propel you forward.
With nothing short of surety she spoke into the mic “promise yourself you’ll power through the bullshit,” before delivering her three keys to follow:
- Never let anyone tell you who you are
- Embrace the greatest version of the person you know you’re meant to be
- Work your goddamn ass off.
These all encompassed the common theme of Duca’s speech. She stresses the importance of being dedicated to your own value system and that success isn’t determined by awards or accolades, but by a willingness to be true to who you think you should be.
You can and must decide to be deviantly empowered, to live up to the standards you’ve set for yourself and work like hell, not for a set of goals, but towards becoming the person you’re meant to be.
Unlike most speakers I’ve heard this week, she was not afraid to speak to the state of American politics and did not skirt around the issues facing our country. She tackled Trump and an older generation that fails to grasp what many of us are facing.
She took a well-deserved shot at Carl Bernstein, discussed the insulting Tucker Carlson quote that inspired her “Thigh High Politics” op-ed, and the notion of a return to 1950’s America. And delivered this quote, which was met with an eruption from the crowd:
People tend to get pretty itchy around women boasting, but I’ve done some pretty cool things and I’m choosing to be proud of them.
Which is vitally important in a time where we cannot avoid the fact that women are treated differently than men. Success by men is a right of passage and accomplishments by women are braggadocios. Jokes made by men make them comedic geniuses, while women are viewed as bitches. This has always been a problem, but as Duca put it, the current climate is working to reverse any of the equalities we have achieved and that goes for gender, race and everything in between.
Duca reminded students the importance of speaking their minds and the vulnerabilities that come with that. She reminded them, and those of us who watched, that Democracy is at stake in 2017 and we mustn’t fear the repercussions that come with standing up for what we believe and in order to do that we cannot be afraid to address the transgressions happening before our very eyes on literally the biggest stage.
She closed her speech by saying “real life starts now, so stop asking for permission, it’s all up to you.” This notion of “permission” was paramount as she instructed attendees to “take a big red marker and cross out “aspiring,'” in their goals. Reminding them that if they want to be something, do it, don’t aspire to do it, just do it.
As I said, she felt this was the speech she needed to hear as she entered the “real world,” and this is the speech I needed to hear as I make the same journey and I have a feeling it’s the one you need to hear too.
As I’ve said on more than one occasion, it’s hard for people to even get me to watch a 6 second Vine with the sound on, but I sat with full attention throughout the full 18-minute duration of this speech and I could not recommend more that you do the same.
This piece does not do Lauren Duca the person, the writer, the personality or the speaker justice. Let us remember that while I am a “writer,” I’m a trained forensic accountant who gets joy in bringing you “stuff to talk about” for Two Buttons Deep and I hope at the very least I did just that.
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