May 11, 2019
Good evening President Davis, Board of Trustees, Academic Administrators, Faculty, and fellow Furman graduates!
I’m so proud and honored to be here. It’s hard to believe that I walked across this stage, as you’re about to do, 33 years ago.
Maybe today some of you know exactly what you want to do with your lives.
But I suspect there may be a few of you who are like I was, and you have no idea.
And I want to tell you that’s all right.
Life is a great adventure unfolding before you.
Don’t be afraid. Plunge in!
Just a few weeks ago I was making dinner at home and I got newsflash on my phone, then a call from NPR asking if Notre Dame cathedral is really on fire. That seemed unlikely. But I turned on the TV and it was true.
So I jumped in a taxi and tried to make my way down to the Ile de la Cite, the island in the middle of the Seine river where the city of Paris began and where Notre Dame has towered for more than 850 years.
Paris was snarled in traffic–sirens wailing–and the metro lines around Notre Dame were cut. I could already see heavy smoke billowing above the city in my neighborhood over by the Eiffel Tower. When I finally reached Notre Dame, the spire had just collapsed.
I made my way through the tiny medieval streets on the Left Bank to the edge of river and just across from where the cathedral bell towers were glowing from the fire that was raging on the roof.
I stood there with thousands of people–in near silence, disbelief, as we watched it burn, the flames seeming to get higher, the streams of water not quite reaching up to the roof. Some people began kneeling and praying, others sang hymns together. I felt the rising panic as the flames would not go out.
And as I stood there, I realized I was watching the scene not only as a journalist, but also as a Parisian.
For me Paris always seemed the center of the world–it was at the crosscurrents of civilizations. In Paris there were people from everywhere and you heard about places never talked about at home. Like Africa. I first went to Paris at the age of 12 with my parents. So exotic coming from South Carolina of the 1970s. They took me because my father was trying to teach me French by reading the Asterix the Gaul comic book series together.
Later I would deepen my knowledge and love of the city during foreign study with Furman.
Okay, I have a confession to make. I wasn’t actually very good at French when I was at Furman. I picked French up as a second major along with history, partly because I got credits for studying abroad, where I spent a good deal of that time hanging out with my girlfriends.
Don’t get me wrong, we discovered France and had a lot of fun doing so, we just did it speaking English together.
But … still, the spark was lit. The desire was stoked, and I knew deep down that I wanted to be really fluent one day. I wanted that in my life somehow.
But I never imagined I’d be living in Paris. And now I’ve been in the City of Light for 15 years. I had my son there, and in many ways I am now a Parisian.
I look back. I had no great plan for this. It kind of happened, step by step. Life can be like a puzzle that you figure out, piece by piece. And it comes together.
First, start with what you’re interested in and what feels right and important to you.
Not only will it make you the most fulfilled, but it’s actually the thing you have the best chance of being good at it.
My father was a history professor, so I grew up surrounded by history and I loved it. I majored in history at Furman. People said what are you going to do with that, teach? I didn’t think so. But as a journalist it’s crucial to know history. And although I never aimed to be a French teacher, I kept at my French after Furman.
You are more than your job or your major, and sometimes an outside interest or activity can end up playing an important role in your life. Ironically, the subject I really wasn’t so great at turned out to be the one real continuous thread throughout my professional life.
I’ve done a lot of different things, from studying international business to working at the United Nations and even Euro-Disney–but they’ve almost all somehow had something to do with working on my French.
Your calling may not come right away. It’s okay. Take the time to figure out who you are, what you can do, what you really want. You must explore. People change, you’re going to change. If truth be told, the job you really want is probably not going to be at 22. It’s going to be at 32.
Second, begin to build the layers of experiences that will lead to you doing what’s right for you.
You may ask how can I build the layers if I don’t know what I want to do.
It comes back to doing the things that feel right, that are important. Be true to yourself.
Let me tell you about my first job. In the summer of 1986, I was freshly graduated, with degrees in history and French. A lot of my friends had interviews on campus and even jobs lined up. I didn’t.
While I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I did know one thing–and sometimes that’s all you need to get going. I knew I wanted to move to the big city.
So I started with that piece of the puzzle and loaded up my car along with my good Furman and lifelong friend Jean Margaret Smith-Card–who’s here today with her family. We moved together to Washington D.C.
I don’t need to tell you that was such a different time. There was no such thing as email, Internet. No cell phones. We pounded the pavement quite literally, resumes in hand, looking for a job. I signed up with a head hunter. In fact, she got me my first job offer.
I was to be a receptionist at a prestigious law firm. I thought about it, just couldn’t see myself as some “cute lil’ thing,” answering phones and making travel arrangements for a bunch of middle aged men. (Sorry guys, this was the 80s, before me too.)
Come on! I had studied the World Wars in Dr. Block’s 19th and 20th century Europe classes, and Czars and revolution in Dr. Lavery’s Russian history class. I had gone on foreign exchange to France with Dr. Maiden, and lived with a family. For me there was a world of important things happening out there and I wanted to be a little part of it. And this job didn’t feel right to me. It wasn’t the right direction.
So I called her back and said I changed my mind. What! I’ve already told them. She was furious. She asked why? And I remember saying, “I just can’t do it.”
So what did I do? I went to Capitol Hill and found a job with my congressman as a staff assistant. I was still answering some phones but also helping the people of my state of South Carolina and in the heart of world’s super power. Working on Capitol Hill, I read The Washington Post like the Bible every day. A whole new world opened up.
This felt right and important.
I tell you this story because my three years spent on Capitol Hill came back to play a role in my pivot to journalism. So I got into journalism in my 30s–not so young–and began reporting from Paris at age 40.
And I have to be honest. Part of the reason is quite simply because … I got fired from another job!
I was working for a business consulting firm. Very traumatic. But when I look back, that’s when I pivoted to something better for me.
Third, I want to tell you–don’t be afraid of failure. Do your best, but if something doesn’t work out, it’s okay. It could actually put you on a better path.
Honestly, I look back at some of my failures today and all I can say is thank God I didn’t succeed.
As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
So I began my journalism career when I was hired as a producer in the U.S. news bureau of a major French television network. So why was I hired when I had no journalism background?
Well, because I spoke French and there was a presidential election on the horizon, and the French network wanted someone who knew the American political system.
So that job in Congress, my first job, came back to be key in helping me get me where I am today.
Opportunities will come throughout your life. You have to know when to seize them.
Let me tell you a story.
In 2011 I was living in Paris, working as a freelance radio journalist. At that time, I was listening to French radio and I heard about these young people protesting all over Tunisia, against the regime, the dictator.
I asked my editor at NPR, do we have anyone there? He said no, why don’t you pitch to go? I thought okay. I was a little nervous. I’d never been to Tunisia and I didn’t know the Arab world. Would I need a visa? There was no time. What’s the worst that could happen? I’d be put me back on a plane home, right? So I went. It’s only a couple hours flight from Paris.
Arriving at customs we had to fill out a form. What is your occupation, it asked? I tried to think of as many euphemisms as I could for the J-word. Producer, fixer, researcher, translator, I wrote. I get to the grim-looking customs official, he looks at my card, looks up at me and asks are you a journalist?
The moment of truth. Couldn’t really lie, my equipment was in my bag.
So I said, yes. And his stony face cracked into a broad smile. Welcome to Tunisia, he said.
Right then I knew it was going to be OK.
What I didn’t know was that the evening I arrived would turn out to be the last night of the dictator, Zine el Abidin Ben Ali. He gave his last speech that night. Massive protests swept the city Tunis the next day. Not just of young people who’d connected on Facebook, but teachers, lawyers, shopkeepers, all of civil society was out in the street. Police cracked down–we were tear gassed. The crowds ran.
Zine el abidine ben Ali fled the country. They closed Tunisian airspace.
I, the freelancer, with no war correspondent experience whatsoever, covered the first Arab Spring revolution for NPR.
And guess what? I found out that I was pretty good at it. One main reason. I had the keys to this foreign, Arab society because I spoke French. Here I was waking up in a place where the call to prayer rang out in the dawn hours. Not familiar territory for a girl from South Carolina.
But I could communicate with everybody. Also, I was as the French say, “une femme d’un certain age,” a woman of a certain age–and everybody seemed to want to talk to me.
So you could say I got lucky, right? I did. But I was also in a position to seize my luck.
I was there at the right time because I was curious, I had dared, taken a little risk, and I was following what I was interested in.
This kind of scenario has played out time and again in my life, at important junctures. At pivotal moments. And you don’t always know it’s happening.
Fourth, I want to tell you to seize your opportunities. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to try something. Don’t assume it’s already been done. If you feel it, go for it.
French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir said: “To show your true ability is always, in a sense, to surpass the limits of your ability, to go a little beyond them: to dare, to seek to invent; it is at such a moment that new talents are revealed, discovered, and realized.”
You’ve worked hard and you have accomplished a lot. You should be proud.
But your life of learning and growing is not done when you walk out of Furman. It’s just beginning.
Furman has opened your mind, exposed you to amazing people, places, and opportunities, taught you to think, to be critical, to be curious.
Now it’s up to you, to draw on that, to go out and make your life meaningful.
Decide what is important to you – something that feels right for you and simply head in that direction.
And along the way, enjoy it. Don’t look for final perfection. Life is always a work in progress. Be happy along the way.
Always treat others well with respect. Never hurt someone to advance yourself. Treat people well, they will come back to help you.
Our world so needs smart, interested, fearless young people like you to make a difference.
There is something else you have that is very precious– something we all want. You’ve got youth.
I leave you with an excerpt of a poem by English poet William Wordsworth, written during the heady, hope-filled days of the French revolution…
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” he said,
“But to be young was very Heaven.”
I wish you young Furman graduates success, happiness and most of all a great adventure in the life you are about to embark upon!
Thank you … or rather, Eleanor Beardsley, NPR news, Furman University.