In this season of graduations, it’s interesting to note that graduation speeches can be inspiring, deadly dull, or even insulting. Advice to grads often includes admonitions to “suck it up,” “pay your dues,” or “it’s not just about you.”
A recent college reunion reminded me how important even random words of encouragement can be to the fearful, intimidated and overwhelmed grads facing the big wide world. Not many of us rise to the level of commencement speaker, but we can all have a positive impact when we speak.
This is my graduation story.
It was a few weeks before graduation. Standing at the dining hall salad bar I expressed doubts about a job offer to become a reporter/photographer, “But I haven’t done journalism since high school,” I said.
“You can do it,” my faculty friend replied.
A short, casual and encouraging, but mostly forgotten conversation.
I was rusty: I had not written for the college newspaper, nor had I written anything journalistic in years. But I had just taken a photography class. It was one of my last college courses. All requirements fulfilled. Degree promised. Mrs.-to-be planned for a few months later, until I cancelled the wedding four weeks before graduation. No career plans and limited skills. Still, I could write a news story and I could take pictures.
It was the camera that got me the job. Wandering through the small college town with a Canon SLR slung around my neck that Memorial Day holiday, I spied a muscular man swinging a sledge hammer through a brick wall. He was creating a ground-level door for a teenage drop-in center. We chatted about my camera, my becoming a college grad.
One thing led to another and the sledge-hammer swinger turned out to be the executive director of the community center; he offered me a job at the weekly newspaper. It paid less than minimum wage. But I had no better offers, no concrete plans. Three weeks after graduation, I became a reporter-photographer for the weekly newspaper published by the community center. I wrote personality profiles and man-on-the-street features; I edited news releases and covered night meetings. I took photos, developed the black-and-white film and printed the pictures myself in the darkroom upstairs. I loved it.
After a few months, I was promoted to managing editor, and got a raise that took me above minimum wage.
That year passed; I yearned to see the wider world and improve my skills, so I headed to graduate school for a degree in PR. But that first newspaper job built a platform for the rest of my career. The master’s degree led to jobs in radio, nonprofit organizations, an international public relations firm, corporate life, and then on to running my own PR agency for more than 20 years. Midlife sent me back to school for another masters and the chance to teach PR to college students. Now I was in a position to influence and encourage students.
Somewhere along the line, I remembered those four words, that moment at the salad bar. I realized how empowering the professor’s words were. While I had never actually been his student, he knew me well enough (from a committee we served on together) to say just the right thing when I needed it most. He believed in me. And he helped me believe in myself. My moment of doubt dissipated because of his encouragement.
Today, when I grade papers, counsel students or even just chat casually, I try to remember the power of a professor, and the impact of those four little words. Whenever I get a chance, I deliver my own version of “You can do it.”
Postscript: It has always been a dream of mine to thank Dr. Paul Zolbrod for his encouraging words. My recent college reunion enabled me to do that. He drove from New Mexico to be with all of us, share some words of wisdom on his 50 years of teaching. I was able to say “thank you” in person to Dr. Zolbrod and tell him what his casual remark had meant to me.
Jill Stewart is an instructor at DePaul University where she teaches writing for public relations. She graduated from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. She loves graduation ceremonies.