One way or another, Oprah Winfrey was going to be at Skidmore College’s 2017 commencement ceremony on Saturday.
“Thank you for having me here, even though I was coming anyway,” joked Winfrey from the stage at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where the commencement was held.
The reason for her presence dates back to 2007, when the 64-year-old media mogul and philanthropist opened the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. On Saturday, a graduate of the academy was sitting in the audience at SPAC with a cap and gown, waiting to receive her Skidmore diploma.
Winfrey said she first met Felicia Mohau Mazibuko when she was 12 years old and came to the academy for an admittance interview.
“I knew instantly it, she had it,” said Winfrey of Mazibuko. “She had that thing, that essence that you can’t even define, that spark of resilience and hope and aspiration and drive that says, ‘I can, I know, I am.’”
Winfrey said she was there to celebrate Mazibuko’s achievement, as well as the 623 other graduates that make up Skidmore’s class of 2017. But instead of doing so from the crowd as a friend of Mazibuko’s, Winfrey was invited by Skidmore to give the keynote address and given an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in the Arts Degree from the college.
Winfrey urged the graduates to find their inner voice and listen to it. She said everyone has the inner voice, which she called “the flow” and “the truth of you,” and that she’s relied on that inner voice throughout her career. One example she gave was when she was 30 years old, and contemplating a move from Baltimore to Chicago to possibly start her own talk show.
Everyone around her, save for her best friend, Gayle King, was telling Oprah not to go to Chicago. It’s too risky, they said. What if it fails?
Winfrey followed her inner voice and went to Chicago, she said. And so began “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which reigned for 25 years as the highest rated television show of its kind until it ended in 2011. The show also led to the creation of the Oprah Winfrey Network, which debuted the same year as her show ended.
Winfrey decided to ignore the naysayers and bet on herself, she said.
“Because the truth of me, the inner voice that I allowed to get still and feel, said ‘take the risk. Bet on yourself,’” said Winfrey. “Every decision I’ve ever made I’ve come back to that space and allowed myself to live in the space of intentional living.”
Winfrey wasn’t the only media figure to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in the Arts Degree. Joining Winfrey to address the students and receive degrees was author, scholar and U.S. Army veteran Wes Moore, and NBC journalist and education advocate Ann Rubenstein Tisch.
Moore’s book, “The Other Wes Moore,” was read by the class of 2017 as incoming freshmen four years ago.
The book is about how two fatherless black boys named Wes Moore — similar in age, growing up in the same rough Baltimore neighborhood — took such widely divergent paths. One Wes Moore went on to become a U.S. Army paratrooper, Rhodes scholar and White House fellow, and Saturday gave a commencement speech to Skidmore graduates with the likes of Oprah Winfrey. The other Wes Moore is serving a life sentence in prison after a crew he was with killed an off-duty police officer during a jewel heist.
After apologizing to the graduates for being subjected to mandatory reading, Moore talked about his book’s title, which was proposed by executives at the publishing company and which he initially disliked.
“Nobody knows who Wes Moore is, so why would anyone care who the other Wes Moore is?” said Moore.
Besides, what author puts his own name in the title of his book?
The executives told him he was getting hung up on the wrong part of the title. After initially objecting, Moore said he eventually came to realize that the most important part of the title was what preceded his name in the title.
“The most important thing is not the name, the most important thing is “the other,” said Moore. “The fact that our society is full of others who right now need and deserve a champion.”
Moore urged the graduates to be champions of the others. He told them that looking forward, long after their undergraduate degrees are a distant memory, the question of whom they represented and championed in their lives and careers will endure.
“The question of ‘what is your major’ is one that will eventually go away,” said Moore. “The question … of who is it that you will choose to fight for will not.”
Rubenstein-Tisch, who after a career spent covering education for NBC and went on to found a network of all-girls schools, told the graduates that they must prepare for and leverage failures and trying times in their careers and life.
She said she faced such obstacles when starting the Young Women’s Leadership Schools, a network of all-girls public schools that has grown to include five locations in New York City, 13 across the country and four more that are in development. She also started the Young Women’s Leadership Network, which operates girls schools, and the CollegeBound Initiative, a co-ed college access program.
“As you transition into your new lives … you have to be prepared to organize your lives around challenges, dead ends, failures and veering off course,” said Rubenstein-Tisch. “They are all part of life, every one of us has experienced them.”
She added that failure can only be avoided by doing nothing and thinking nothing.
“Which of course leads to a life of no purpose, substance or joy,” said Rubenstein-Tisch. “The best way to deal with trying times is to recognize them as invitations to think. Over and over, highly accomplished people say they learned much more from their failures than from their successes.”
Skidmore College President Philip Glotzbach noted the fraught political landscape that the newly minted graduates will need to interpret and navigate in the next chapter of their lives. Glotzbach encouraged students to ask themselves what they stand for, and whom they stand with.
In a political context that often ignores or attacks fundamental concepts like truth, evidence, data, and logical argument, how does one get their bearings on global topics like immigration, the fate of refugees and climate change, he asked.
“These issues are complex and vexing, they raise fundamental questions regarding the collective decisions we make about how we act as a nation, and as such, they go to the heart of our obligations as informed, responsible citizens.”
He added that he’s not making any assumptions about where any of the graduates stand on these issues.
“But I am urging you to formulate your own informed, responsible beliefs,” said Glotzbach. “Talk about them, let your political representatives know your views, vote accordingly.”
After the conferring of honorary degrees and the commencement addresses were completed, Skidmore’s 624 graduates all moved their tassels to the left side of their caps. They were escorted out of the arena by the Schenectady Pipe Band to the lawn at SPAC where they were greeted by ecstatic friends and family.