Ann Curry Speaks at Commencement

Ann Curry, NBC journalist, is presented the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Ann Curry, NBC journalist, speaks at Wheaton’s 175th Commencement and is presented with the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. While delivering a speech otherwise notable for its powerful message of perseverance, she mistakes Wheaton College for the Wheaton College in Illinois as she speaks at Commencement. Curry later goes on Jimmy Fallon’s television show and discusses the incident.

Read her speech below:

ANN CURRY: Thank you President Crutcher, faculty, graduates, parents, friends, supporters, trustees and alums.

What is making me less nervous about standing before all of you on this enormously significant day, is knowing that at this point in the proceedings, you have been sufficiently anesthesized.

I feel privileged to become an honorary Wheatie.

Four hundred five of you will be graduating today. If you allow me to say this to you, though you’ve never met me before, I am proud of you. Because I know that college is an intensely challenging, demanding thing. And here you are. Not to get all Carrie Bradshaw on you or anything, but under this robe I am actually wearing a very fabulous blue and white outfit in your honor.

Now, as Aaron hinted earlier, I know many of you are fearful about graduating in this very tough economy. You may be worrying about finding jobs in your chosen fields. So perhaps it might be useful for me to reveal to you, in front of all of your parents, that after four years of college my first job was as a cocktail waitress. And you might also enjoy knowing that as my mother was a Japanese immigrant from a poor rice-farming family who never went to college herself, she did not particularly understand how I could become a cocktail waitress after four years of studying journalism. As she put it, “Anna, how come you go college? College is stupid spend the money. You should marry a rich guy.”

So, here is what got me through it. I had a dream. And you are here for a reason. Listen to your heart to find out what that reason is. And once you find it, stay true to it. We all know this economic downturn will end. The key is to be ready. And to everyone who says to you along the way that you cannot do something, and you will meet these people, the thing you should have in your mind is, “Oh, yeah? Watch me.”

You will have moments of self-doubt ahead. And when that happens, try to keep this short list of late bloomers in mind: Charles Darwin, Paul Cezanne, Thelonious Monk, Joseph Conrad, Mother Teresa and Buckminster Fuller. So there!

Eventually, my mother saw why I made my choices and was proud of me, though seeing me on television, she would call and she would say, “Your hair look a little bit funny. No sexy, nothing. Also, Anna, too much eyeliner! You look a little bit like a raccoon. I love you!”

Now, as a mother myself, I have worried about the particular burdens on your generation. Growing up not only with the pressures from this economy, but also in a time of war, a time of international terrorism, huge humanitarian disasters, both man-made, as in Darfur and Congo, and otherwise.

To you I say, it is only with adversity that we even have a chance at greatness. Adversity is your opportunity. Think of the greatest human beings in human history, a list that would have to include Joan of Arc, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Height.

Ruth Gruber and Raoul Wallenberg saved Jews from the Nazis. Paul Rusesabagina saved Hutus in Rwanda. And hundreds of thousands of people who never became famous did things with bravery. They did braveries large and small on behalf of our human family. All faced what seemed insurmountable odds in their time. Overcoming their fears and frailties, each one helped carve our world–the world you inherit–with their courage and unwillingness to give up.

More than luck, talent, or even brainpower, determination is the trait. More than any other it will empower you to have the life you dream of. And the best part is that unlike talent and luck and brainpower, determination is what you can choose to have.

My dream has been to be a journalist of our time. And my aim is to reveal the truth about war, genocide, crimes against humanity, and other human suffering. It has taken me to Congo, Darfur, Chad, Haiti, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Liberia, Sri Lanka, Ground Zero, New Orleans, Chile, Botswana, South Africa, Rwanda and Kosovo.

In trying to do good in reporting from these places I have, to my great surprise, gained far more than I ever expected. More, in fact, than I could ever give.

I think of beautiful Sifa in Eastern Congo. Without warning us what we were about to see, a doctor led us into a room where she lay shivering on an operating table. She was naked, save for a thin blanket. We could tell immediately that this was going to be a gynecological surgery. The doctor explained she was a victim of the extreme sexual violence that is still raging in Congo, and that everything inside her was so broken she was incontinent, and he was unsure that he could give her a normal life again. She was 18 years old and she was scared. Her hand was shaking violently by her side.

I reached out and held her hand a little, trying to encourage her to be brave with my eyes because I couldn’t speak her language. It is interesting how often no words are needed in situations like this one. She squeezed my hand. Her eyes were pleading for kindness. Then I had to leave the room because the surgery was about to begin.

I later found her in her recovery room and I asked her to tell me her story. And she told me that first she saw her parents killed. Then the same rebel soldiers kidnapped her and chained her to a tree and took turns over the course of months until her legs no longer worked. The word ‘rape,’ as horrible as it is, is not adequate to describe what is happening to the women in Congo.

Sifa was broken and pregnant by the time they left her for dead. She was no longer of any value to them. And when the baby died in childbirth, it is a miracle that she herself survived.

“Do you want revenge?” I asked her? “No,” she answered. Then she said the words that can teach us all something. She said, “All I want is to rise from this bed and thank everyone who took care of me. And I want to work for God and maybe some day, if I’m lucky, I want to feel a mother’s love again.”

In Sifa, and in people like her all over our world, I have seen proof of the human capacity for both forgiveness and resilience. If you feel anything now hearing her story, you are proof of our human capacity for empathy. I have come to conclude there is this empathy that offers us our greatest hope for our future.

Thinking back to all we know of human history, we can see that once, genocide and rape were expected in war. Now, they are war crimes. Once, allowing young children to work long hours in factories all across America was acceptable. Now, it is child abuse. Once, lynching black people in the South was so accepted that people actually took photographs of themselves standing in front of people who were just lynched to turn them into postcards to send to their friends. Now, that is a disgrace.

Even, no matter what your politics, the election of Barack Obama after this nation’s racist history is evidence of our increasing capacity to see the other as ourselves, to empathize and realize we are all really fundamentally the same. Yes, there are stragglers: Hitler from the past, extremists of all kinds in our own time. In response, there have been the Nuremberg trials and now the International Court of Justice.

I think Gandhi had it right when he said, “Whenever I despair I remember that throughout history, truth and love have always won.” And just this past week I was able to interview His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He said to me that he is optimistic about the future of humankind because, he said, “We are showing increasing compassion responding to human suffering in places such as Haiti in a way that we have never before done in history. He said, “I think there is every reason that this 21st century will be much happier, much more peaceful, much more compassionate century than the 20th century.”

So as you now move from this threshold to take your turn to change our world, fully realize your power to be a force for good. My father, Bob Curry, put it this way, when beginning at the age of 10, I began to ask him what I should do with my life. He said, “Well, Ann, whatever you do, do something that is of some service to others because then, and only then, will you really know on your last day that it mattered that you were born.”

I have learned that doing good for others is actually the most selfish thing you could possibly do because I promise you, it will make you happy.

And if you allow me now a few more suggestions from a once chubby and deeply insecure cocktail waitress: Choose what you love. Your passion will make you great at it. Remember, fear is your enemy. What a shame if you let fear stop you from going after what you really want in life. Learn from criticism, but don’t dwell on it. Practice being honest always, because people will love and trust you for it. Praise others, giving credit where credit is due, and you will have the loyalty of many. Feel grateful. Make yourself feel grateful even if you don’t, because you will find it is impossible to feel grateful and sad at the same time.

My mother would tell you, “Gambaru,” which in Japanese means, “Never ever give up, even, and especially, when there is no chance of winning.” Or as Winston Churchill said, “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never.”

And possibly the most important words I can say today to you, “Go Wheaties!”