Giving Commencement Wisdom In A Tough Economy

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Life after graduation is frightening for many individuals, so how does one offer sincere and credible advice? Host Michel Martin speaks with someone who has done the job: Beverly Daniel Tatum, President of Spelman College, a historically-black college for women.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: Now we'd like to talk about how to inspire new graduates in spite of these tough times. As you just heard, life after graduation looks scarier than ever for many people. But even in difficult times, commencement speakers are expected to see the silver lining and offer encouragement to those heading out into the real world. In a moment, we'll hear some clips of commencement addresses given in recent weeks by first lady Michelle Obama and the actor and director Denzel Washington.

But how do you offer sincere and credible advice during a time of uncertainty for so many? We've called upon somebody who has that job, Beverly Daniel Tatum. She is the president of Spelman College in Atlanta. That's an historically black college for women. It's considered one of the finest small, liberal arts colleges in the country. She's also the author of "'Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?' A psychologist explains the development of racial identity." She's with us from member station WCLK in Atlanta, Georgia. President Tatum, thanks so much for joining us.

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: What do you look for in a commencement speaker?

TATUM: Well, first of all, we usually begin by talking to the rising seniors about who they'd like to hear from, and we take student input seriously. But, of course, we faculty and administrators think about who is going to provide an excellent example, a role model for students, someone who embodies the values of our institution and who can indeed be inspiring.

MARTIN: Well, you didn't do too badly this year.

TATUM: I think we hit a homerun.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Spelman's 2011 commencement speaker was...

TATUM: Mrs. Michelle Obama.

MARTIN: All right. Let me just play a short clip from her address. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMENCEMENT SPEECH)

MICHELLE OBAMA: In those early years, thousands of dollars of donations poured in from the black community itself. I mean, these were folks who likely didn't have a dime to spare. See, that fierce devotion to the potential of others, that is your mission now, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: Your mission is to find those 11 women wherever in the world your journey may take you. Find those folks who have so much potential, but so little opportunity, and do for them what Spelman has done for you.

MARTIN: So what was effective about her speech, or could she have read the phone book and everybody would've been happy just because it's her?

TATUM: Well, of course, we were quite excited that it was indeed the first lady. But what impressed so many of us was that she really took the time to learn about Spelman College and referenced the history as an important legacy, a platform from which our students were being launched, and I think very much linked the Spelman story to her own story as someone who grew up in a working-class family and benefited from an excellent education.

But also, the commitment to community service, which is at the core of Spelman's history and tradition and our current experience, really calling upon on that tradition to say to students: You must not only dream big, but reach back to those who come behind you.

And she also referenced the difficulty of the economy, but also linked that history to the success of women who emerged from our educational experience in even tougher times. She talked about, for example, Janet Bragg, who graduated in the class of 1925 and became the first African-American woman to earn a commercial pilot license - not an easy task during a time of segregation and gender discrimination. But she was successful, and so she urged our students to think about not the barriers, but the possibilities.

MARTIN: We're talking about how to inspire graduates in these difficult times. We're speaking with Beverly Daniel Tatum. She's the president of Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. It's also tough, isn't it, to try to find something original to say? But I'm going to play a short clip from the address given by Oscar-winner Denzel Washington that he made this year at the University of Pennsylvania. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMENCEMENT SPEECH)

DENZEL WASHINGTON: You will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There's no doubt about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WASHINGTON: And I know that's probably not a traditional message for a graduation ceremony, but, hey, I'm telling you, embrace it, because it's inevitable.

MARTIN: You know, we've been talking a lot on this program and certainly in the country at large about just what it's going to take to get out of the difficult situation that we are in economically, particularly. And I'm sure that a lot of people at Spelman, even though many of these people are very accomplished, have also perhaps struggled to finish because of the economy. Their parents might have been struggling.

I wanted to ask, you know, how do you talk to people at a time like that? Celebrating their achievement, but recognizing the realities of what they're facing.

TATUM: Well, I think there are some clear realities. It is a difficult job market. One of the things, though, I think that is important to say, that it does matter where you go to school in the sense that recruiters are still coming to Spelman. They're still very interested in talking to our students. And so the brand does help in that regard.

But, nonetheless, I encourage students - and I have two children of my own in this age bracket - to be persistent, use your networks. Sometimes you need to volunteer to get the door open, but it is certainly possible to pursue your dreams and still achieve great opportunities. And even if you have majored in the liberal arts - I had a wonderful experience just this weekend at an alumni event in New York. And I talked to a young woman, Brittany Henderson, who was an English major. She graduated in 2010, and she's now working as an investment banker at Deutsche Bank.

And you might not think that that's a likely destination for an English major, but it speaks to, I think, the power of an education that emphasizes critical thinking, the ability to solve problems, to communicate clearly. It really makes you a very desirable employee in any field.

MARTIN: And is there any commencement wisdom that you have found particularly helpful? Since you've heard many, many, many of these speeches over the years, and given a few yourself.

TATUM: I have heard many, and I was thinking about a line from a Cornell West commencement speech a few years ago when he said to the class, be a voice, not an echo. And I thought that was a great line. Because in the end, you do have to find your own passion in order to speak your truth as you move through your life, through your career.

When I've had the chance to speak at commencements, which I do on occasion, I often like to remind students that change is possible. Whatever the situation is that they're facing, it is possible to make a change and that they themselves have the power to do that. I think it's important to convey a sense of hope and optimism, and that that will carry you a long way, as long as you're able to maintain that.

MARTIN: And what did you think of Denzel's speech, by the way? Like, we're best friends, I'm calling him by his first name.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What did you think of his speech? Good or bad, thumbs up, thumbs down?

TATUM: Well, what I heard of it, I think it's certainly true, that you do have to be willing to embrace failure. You have to be able to take no for an answer, but not a final result. You know, every no is eventually followed by a yes. And so you have to encourage people to take chances and if you're not willing to fail, you'll never take risks. And risk taking is an important part of life, as well.

MARTIN: All right. Beverly Daniel Tatum is president of Spelman College in Atlanta. And congratulations on your - to all of your graduates, and to your children, as well. Thank you so much for joining us.

TATUM: Thank you for having me.

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