The University of Arizona

UA Alumna Savannah Guthrie's 2011 Commencement Speech

By Rebecca Ruiz-McGill, May 16, 2011

UA alumna and newly selected "Today" show host Savannah Guthrie gave the undergraduate commencement speech in front of a capacity crowd gathered at McKale Memorial Center on May 14.
UA alumna and newly selected "Today" show host Savannah Guthrie gave the undergraduate commencement speech in front of a capacity crowd gathered at McKale Memorial Center on May 14.
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Good morning! To President Shelton, Provost Hay, members of the Board of Regents; to beloved parents, treasured friends, proud siblings, grateful spouses, adoring children and all the other members of this big, raucous cheering section here today; most of all, to the Class of 2011 – CONGRATULATIONS!

I am honored to be your commencement speaker. I am a lifelong Tucsonan, a proud University of Arizona graduate... and today, MOST importantly, your not-so-secret admirer.

Now, a long time ago, when I went to the UA, graduating that spring of 1922, things were different. For one thing, we did not have email or texting. We flirted with each other in person. Back then, "Old Main" was just called "Main." The Student Union had not been remodeled. Neither had the library. In fact, the library had something called a card catalog.

Nevermind.

But I am glad to see that some things ARE the same: the campus is still beautiful, the weather is still warm, and "Dirtbags" is still here providing a vital public service to the community.

Well, today, we are here to celebrate your tremendous accomplishment. But I think first it would be appropriate to say something about the last time I was here with a large crowd gathered in this place.

On that day, people came together to mourn the terrible losses in Tucson on Jan. 8. It felt like a collective wound that needed nursing.

That was the beginning of the final semester for all of you – and circumstance saw fit to provide a searing, real world lesson: about the preciousness of life, and the power of community to heal. I hope that, somehow, your closeness to that unthinkable tragedy brought all of you closer.

That was, of course, a day of sadness; but today, we are here in a McKale Center that is once again a joyous place.

For one simple reason: You did it!

You got into the classes, racked up the credits, wrote the papers, read the books, did the labs, listened to the lectures, finished the research, pulled the all-nighters, took the exams, willed yourself to class when, let's face it, there was much more work to be done on your tan.

Now, I'd like to stand here and say that back when I was here at the UA, I had a great vision for myself, that I knew deep down one day I'd end up as part of the White House press corps, sitting in that briefing room at the White House, working just steps from the President of the United States.

But I know this cannot possibly be true, because my senior paper in the Journalism School was called, and I quote, "Why the White House press corps should be evicted."

I got an A+.

OK, so I was wrong.

Which actually helps me make a good point: even at this moment of your greatest academic triumph, it is good to leave a little room for the possibility that your firm convictions and passionate arguments might be... a little off. And that life was better before everything you ever wrote was available on the Internet.

You know, I live now in Washington, where a lot of the pundits and politicos think they have it all figured out. They traffic in conventional wisdom. So I decided today, I am going to send you off into the world with FOUR pieces of UN-conventional wisdom. I am going to say the things you're not supposed to say to graduates. So brace yourselves. Everybody ready? Here we go.

Point One:

Look, I know it's popular to say you should have self-esteem and self-confidence. But what I want you to know is:

BE AFRAID. BE VERY, VERY AFRAID.

I mean, have you really thought about it? After you graduate today you could completely fall flat on your face! That is scary!

Of course, I'm just kidding about that – sort of – but I do think a little fear is good for you. And the simple reason is: It leads to over-preparation. And when you over-prepare, ACTUAL failure becomes a much more remote possibility.

In fact, having fear, and then, proceeding in spite of it, is where REAL confidence comes from.  That's the amazing thing about failure. It's part success. Because you gain courage – and LOSE fear – when you know, based on your own experience, that you can fail, but recover.

This brings me to my second piece of unconventional wisdom, which goes hand in hand with believing you might fail. It's believing you might succeed more wildly than you ever could have imagined.

Point two! YOU NEED TO DREAM BIG, EXTRAVAGANT, BORDERLINE UNREALISTIC DREAMS

Long before I had my current job, I was working in local television. I was back here in Tucson anchoring the weekend news. And I had the opportunity to go to law school at Georgetown. I was seriously torn about whether to go. The truth was, I wanted to go to law school AND be a correspondent in TV news, and I was afraid I couldn't do both.

The best advice I got was from an adjunct professor here at the UA who told me, "Savannah, think big."

Deep, right?

Actually, it is. The problem with all of us is sometimes we convince ourselves of all the reasons we CAN'T do something before we even try. We mount persuasive arguments inside our own minds about why we can't achieve this or can't attempt that. We may not even realize we're doing it. We think small, so that we might succeed at that small dream we had for ourselves, in order to avoid a bigger failure.

(See point one!)

Think of what you might accomplish if you directed all that compelling, forceful energy towards convincing yourself why you CAN. Don't settle and make all the counterarguments to yourself before you even try. Don't reject your dreams before they even get off the ground. Don't YOU reject your dreams! The WORLD will do that for you!

(Again, see point one!)

In a nutshell: thinking BIG, means conjuring up a vision for yourself. It means taking time, being reflective, logging off of Facebook, and daring to imagine what it would look like if you could wave a magic wand and be exactly where you wanted to be in five years – even if it seems a little unrealistic at the moment.

I believe it was the great philosopher, Katy Perry, who said "baby, you're a firework, come on, let your colors burst."

"Boom boom boom, even brighter than the moon moon moon???"

Anyway... here's the point. THINK BIG. But then, be ready for it to hurt a little. Be ready for pain!!

And that leads us to Unconventional Wisdom Point No. 3: SEEK OUT UNCOMFORTABLE SITUATIONS!

Sometimes the right thing to do is going to make you almost sick to your stomach. Sometimes taking the big leap is going to give you air sickness.

Stated simply: you're gonna freak.

Trust me.

One of the key moments in my life happened after I graduated from law school. I had lined up a clerkship with a federal judge in Washington DC. It was a good job that law students from all over the country had applied for.

But a few months before I was due to start, I had an epiphany. I realized I still was harboring those ambitions to be a national network correspondent. I wanted to tell big stories and be a reporter again. I guess I still had that big, unrealistic dream gnawing at me.

But I hadn't worked in television in years and never national news. I had no real reason to think I could get a job in journalism again. On the other hand, what I realized was, the only reason I wasn't trying was because I was afraid I wasn't good enough and that no one would give me a chance. So I decided, that wasn't a good enough reason not to try.

I went into the judge's chambers. And I'll never forget what he said. "Do you have a job offer?" I said, no. Well, he said, "Do you have any prospects?" I shook my head: No. "So why can't you come clerk for me for a year and then go pursue your dreams?" And I said, judge, I just know that if I don't do this now, I will never have the courage again.

The next few months were PAINFUL. I had nothing. I mean, I turned down a prestigious job and it left me with... nothing. Less than nothing. Ice cream helped. Ladies, ice cream always helps.

But I held out, and eventually, after what felt like a frightening eternity, I got a position at Court TV. It was perfect. I got to cover trials around the country – using my law degree while having the chance to be a reporter again.

And around that time, all of you were born.

WHICH BRINGS ME TO MY FOURTH FINAL PIECE OF UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: SLOW DOWN ALREADY.  WHATEVER YOU DO, DO NOT GRAB LIFE BY THE HORNS.

No matter what anyone says, you do not need to achieve everything right here, right now.

I know it seems like these days, everyone is in a rush, a permanent state of fast-forward. I love how Princess Leia puts it – well, Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Princess Leia. Star Wars, anyone? No?

Anyway, Carrie Fisher once said: "Instant gratification takes too long."

I have met a lot of brilliant people such as yourselves, right out of school – seeking a bit of instant gratification. I had one well-meaning young woman just out of college in my office not too long ago asking me for career advice. "I'm not sure how I should brand myself," she said. This was alarming to me. Branding is for Happy Meals! Or livestock! Not you!! You are people – not products!

But actually I can relate to being in a hurry. When I was just starting out in television, I worked at a small station in a small town. I was a reporter and weekend anchor. And you might not know this when you see it on the news, but the weekend reporters – you have to do it all yourself. And I mean everything. I shot my own video, lugged around a big heavy camera, edited the videotape, wrote all the scripts. I even rolled my teleprompter – while reading it – which, FYI, is not an easy feat.

Every day that I would go out and shoot a story I really had just one overarching goal: to get a good piece to put on my resume reel to send out to big cities around the country to try to get to a bigger station. We had a name for this: our "escape tape."

But I wasn't very good. Half the time, I would set up the camera on a tripod, run out in front of it, tape my little report – and then get back to the station only to find out I'd cut my own head off out of the picture.

And I'd be in quiet despair – another day lost in a small town when my dreams were for bigger places.

But what I know now is: not a single one of those days was wasted. It was then that I learned this business inside and out, every part of it. It made me a better writer. It made me have a wider perspective on this profession so that when I finally got that bigger position, I had done every job and understood how it worked.

I am glad the first time I was chewed out by a politician's staff member it was the local politician, not the White House. Making mistakes and being bad at something – this is how you get to be any good at all.

I know this is hard to hear. But it's true: You're not always ready for every big job and every opportunity. This is the central point about it: It's NOT a good opportunity if you're not ready. But here's the truth. Here's why you should be excited. You WILL be ready. You WILL get there. You've got your degree and you are on your way. That's what's so great about what's coming next. You can decide what you want to be, and take your time getting there.

So, that's my four-point speech!

To summarize: Be afraid, unrealistic, uncomfortable and slow. I send you off to the world; my work here is done!

No, there is one more thing before we go: A piece of wisdom that IS conventional, and also true. You are here today, celebrating this wonderful accomplishment, because you set a goal, and cared, and worked to see it through. But also because there are people in your life who love and support and worry over you. Maybe you are fortunate enough to have them here today celebrating with you. If so, let them buy you lunch. And call them once in a while. Not just texts. Texts don't cut it for moms.

And give them a big hug and thank you – because none of us succeeds on our own – and this accomplishment belongs to them as well.

Congratulations to the class of 2011!