Ball State University, December 18, 2010

Fellow graduates, we all know it’s a great feeling to receive a degree today. Let me tell you from personal experience: it’s an even greater feeling for me to receive a degree that I don’t even deserve. Even though I don’t deserve this degree, I’m going to accept it. And let me tell you why. Many years ago, my mom, Judy, filled out an application to attend Ball State. She had an opportunity to become the first person in her family line to go to college. Her mother had wanted to become an English teacher, but could never afford to attend college; now my mom had a chance to attend. But there was a problem. She had a boyfriend back in Sheridan, Indiana, who was going to a different school. So she had a choice: Boyfriend, or Ball State? Boyfriend, or Ball State? She chose Ball State. But she didn’t forget the boy, and when her studies were almost done, she wrote him a letter. And he came to see her. They got married. They became my parents. They became public school teachers. All my education began with them. If I’ve done anything at all to deserve this honorary degree, the credit belongs to them. So Mom and Dad – please stand and let people see you. Because I accept this honorary doctorate on behalf of my mom and dad. Now then: Fellow graduates, I would like to congratulate you on your timing. You have chosen to graduate into the worst job market in this country in generations. Clearly, you like a challenge. I can relate to that challenge, because I graduated in the spring of 1990, just in time for the start of a recession. I learned some lessons that I would like to pass on to you. It turns out there are some upsides to looking for work in a tough economy. For example, people really underestimate the amount of nutrition you can get from eating an entire year’s worth of Kraft macaroni and cheese. People say money isn’t everything – but that’s just a saying people have. You get to find out if it’s really true.

Your parents may have trouble selling their house, but that means you can still move back into your old bedroom. Above all, you don’t have to worry about looking for job security. There is no job security-- which means you are free. You don’t have to limit yourself. You don’t have to make safe choices. You are free to range across this country and the world. You are free to try what you love. You will begin an education. You have completed an education here at Ball State – an education in how to think. Now you will begin an education in applying your thinking to the world. And along the way, you will find out who you are. When I graduated in 1990, I moved to New York. So my first decision, as a graduate with very little money and no real job, was to move into the most expensive city in the United States. I was chasing a girl. She later became my wife. I did find temporary jobs and freelance work; I was hired and laid off a few times; and I had a little money saved from mowing lawns in Carmel, Indiana. But I wasn’t making much, so gradually I had to spend those savings. It took more than a year before I was finally offered a full-time job. It was doing the morning news at a public radio station in Newark, New Jersey, coming to work in the middle of the night. I got a phone call and was told, “The job pays $25,500 per year.” Today, of course, I understand that if someone offers you a job with a funny number like $25,500, they are probably negotiating. They are leaving room for you to say, “Can you make it a little more?” and they can say, “Okay, twenty-six thousand.” But I didn’t ask for more. I needed that job. I said I’ll take it. And I loved that job. And on my first payday, I had to cash my check at the bank down the street from the station in order to have $3.75 to ride the train back home. My cash reserve was down to less than two dollars. But I’d made it through. And I found out who I was. I am a journalist. I listen, and learn things, and pass on what I learn. It’s a great profession for me. It is almost the only profession that requires no qualifications, experience, or ability of any kind. Just turn on the TV- you know it’s true. This is actually enshrined in the Constitution. Freedom of the press means that anybody can say almost anything.

In fact I have no qualification at all except one: I am citizen, just as all of you are citizens, of this country or another. And my job is to work for my fellow citizens and share information. But if you want to attract an audience, and gain your fellow citizens’ respect, and be helpful in the world, you have to know what you’re talking about. You have to do what’s necessary to learn. And let me tell you about a time that I stretched a little too far to do that. In 1999, I accepted a journalism fellowship, a chance to do some reporting in Colombia, which is a dangerous country today and was then one of the most dangerous countries in the world. I decided to do this, and decided to work without an interpreter, even though I didn’t speak Spanish. I had a few months in advance to learn all the Spanish I could, and then I went; but my Spanish was still uneven. Once, to do an interview, I had to catch a flight from Bogota to Medellin. I got in a taxi, but the driver and I didn’t communicate very well. He thought that since I was a foreigner I must be going to the international airport, not the domestic airport. So he took me to the wrong airport, and by the time I got to the proper place, my flight was leaving in ten minutes. I got to the airline counter, and said I was there for the flight, and the woman said I was too late. I said the flight time hadn’t come yet, and asked the woman to let me proceed. She answered, “Siempre, siempre, siempre cerramos la puerta quince minutos antes volar” – “Always, always, always we close the door fifteen minutes before flying.” I had missed the flight. Now, here’s another lesson that I learned. If you are in a dangerous country, and you are struggling to speak the language, and you put yourself in an airport and miss your flight, you will pick up the words you need very quickly. I did find the words, and while I didn’t get on that flight I made the next one. Then we landed in Medellin and I got in another taxi. The airport was in the mountains outside the city, and we rode down into the valley of Medellin, brilliant green mountainsides with white skyscrapers down at the bottom. And the taxi driver started talking – and that’s when I realized that the Medellin accent was different than in Bogota, and the Spanish I had just finally begun to master was not going to be very useful.

But we continued down to Medellin, and reached the office where I was heading. And before I bid you goodbye, let me tell you the story I learned in that office. The people who worked there included a woman named Claudia Tamayo. She wasn’t rich, wasn’t powerful, and held no public office. She was just a citizen. She worked for a human rights organization, in a very violent country. And her organization gathered information and published a report about the violence of a paramilitary group that had killed many people. It took courage to publish such information in a country with very little law and order. And soon after the report was published, gunmen came to the office. The gunmen kidnapped the human rights workers, blindfolded them, put them in a vehicle, and drove them out into the countryside. There they were held in a house for days, expecting at any moment to be killed. Finally, the gunmen came back, and loaded the people, blindfolded, back into a vehicle. They all believed that they were heading for their deaths. But when the vehicle stopped, and the blindfolds came off, they were standing on the porch of a house. And a man came out of the house: the leader of the militant group they had criticized. It turned out that while the human rights workers were in captivity, there had been nationwide protest against their kidnapping. And the militant leader was under so much pressure that he had decided to let them go, all of them including Claudia Tamayo. But before he let them go, he served them lunch there on the porch. And he kept them for three hours, lecturing them on why he was not such a bad person after all. This leader had many armed men at his command, and could have killed his prisoners at any time—but it turned out that he cared what they thought. This was the story I heard in that office in Medellin, the office where the kidnapping took place. Claudia Tamayo had no guns, no power, no money. She had only one thing. She was a citizen. And she did her job as a citizen. She listened. She watched the world around her. She asked questions, and she shared with her fellow citizens what she learned. She probably did not make the militant leader a better person; but she had the power to save her own life, and to tell her fellow citizens the truth.

This, I believe, is an example that we all can follow. It applies to America as much as it does anywhere else. Fellow graduates, I would urge you to remember this as you take the journey that begins today: You are citizens. You have power. It’s the job nobody can ever take from you. Thank you.