OPINION: Graduation advice for a class like no other

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

I love commencement addresses. As a genre they’re almost impossible to get right. Giving life-changing advice to 1,000 people when they just want their diplomas is no easy task.

I also like to search out graduation speeches this time of year, especially the ones from political leaders, because even when we’re too old for homerooms and frat parties, we’re never too old for good advice.

After a year of canceled events and postponed celebrations, Georgia leaders had plenty to give.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock gave an absolute barnburner of an address at Savannah State University, which isn’t too surprising from the Ebenezer pastor.

Warnock started by explaining that he’d grown up nearby in Savannah public housing — and that only by spending his summers at programs on Savannah State’s campus did he envision ever going to college himself.

Warnock went on to Morehouse College, but he said even then, he never imagined he’d eventually become Georgia’s first Black senator.

“I say that not to brag, but to inspire you to understand that if your dream is big, God is always dreaming a dream that’s even bigger than the one you’re dreaming.”

And even though they’d already overcome so much by finishing their studies during COVID-19, he challenged the students to keep moving forward.

“Have a mountain? Just climb it. A river? Just cross it. A dream, just chase it. A vision, just pursue it. An idea, just do it. A bad habit, just break it,” he called out, heading for his crescendo. “A handicap, just overcome it. A song, just sing it. A book, just write it. You have a life. Just live it. You are more powerful and promising than you know. You can get anywhere from here.”

Warnock’s speech is a great example of the purpose of commencement addresses, which is to prepare young people for all they’re about to face in the world.

But when Gov. Brian Kemp gave the commencement address at Valdosta State University in 2019, no one could have known how much they would need the advice he gave them, less than a year after they’d heard it.

“There will be moments when the odds are not in your favor, when you feel alone and ill-prepared, times of darkness and despair,” he said. “Perseverance builds character and character produces hope.”

The irony about speeches from leaders of different parties is that the lessons they share are almost always universal.

Last week, Stacey Abrams told graduates at Clark Atlanta University’s graduation about what she learned from her race against Kemp in 2018, including her profound fear that she would lose and embarrass her family in the process.

“There are those who tell you to be fearless. They are either rich or lying,” she said. “For the rest of us fear is very, very real.”

Instead of burying their fears about the future, Abrams told the audience to get to know their fears and understand them. Take them out to lunch, she suggested. Find out their favorite drink at Starbucks.

“Without fear, how will we ever know bravery? Without fear, how will we ever know challenge? Fear isn’t a reason not to try. Fear is a reason to try harder.”

Jon Ossoff spoke at Emory Class Day, which is the speech where the speaker is voted on by the students. Fittingly, the 34-year-old told the class his own graduation wasn’t so long ago, so he remembered being where they are now.

And he listed the existential threats their shared generation will likely have to be ones to solve-- climate change, racism, inequality, poverty.

“Our generation has the chance to make more progress than any generation ever has and to achieve things our parents and grandparents could only dream,” he said. “So reflect for a moment on what a privilege it is to be alive at this moment. And what an obligation we have to meet it.”

Rarely is a person asked to give a commencement speech if they aren’t a high-profile member of their community. But State Supreme Court Justice Sarah Hawkins Warren told Berry College graduates to create a foundation for their lives that has nothing to do with their jobs.

“Can you look beyond the titles, the achievements, and the accolades and focus on the core of who you are as a person?” she challenged them.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr went one step further, telling Brentwood School graduates that they can define success totally apart from a job, whether that’s seeing a child’s face light up from the carpool line or making days easier and fuller for an older family member.

“Maybe seeing that smile on their face, hearing the gratitude in their voice, and feeling the love they have for you helps meet your goal and is success enough,” Carr said.

One of my favorite speeches this year came from my AJC colleague Greg Bluestein, who gave lots of practical advice to the graduates of UGA’s Grady College of Journalism, including their obligation to tell the truth to their readers and their communities.

But like any good teacher, he reminded them that the rest of their stories are up to them.

“For the last year or so, we’ve talked about a new normal of living in the pandemic,” he said. “Well, now you’ve got the chance to create a new, new normal. To forge something better and more exciting and more equal and more just.”

The truth behind all of these speeches is that the class of 2021 could be giving the rest of us advice about perseverance and grit and finding success in the least likely times.

They’re already resilient. They’ve faced an entire world consumed by fear and their character has been both forged and revealed.

And I guarantee that somewhere in this graduating class is at least a future senator or two.