Thank you. Members of the class of 2017, President Dooley, Provost DeHayes, Chair Cotton, Chair Foulkes and the other members of the RI Board of Education and thank you, Governor of the great state of the Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, I am honored to be here on this very special day.
Many years ago, I was where you are, sitting in the stands, looking forward to a celebratory dinner and a drink or two with family and friends. Because that’s what today is – a chance to look back at the years you’ve had to grow into yourself here at URI. A chance to look around at the friends you’ve made and the parents who have supported you every step of the way. In fact, give those parents a hand. They’ve earned this day as much as you have.
But having also been in your shoes, I know that while many of you may have it all figured out – with a great job lined up, or a grad school acceptance in hand — I know that many of you may be – as I was — looking with some uncertainty into the future, unsure of what lies ahead. And for you especially, I’d like to share with you some of my story and what I’ve learned along the way since leaving URI.
Now, some of you might’ve glanced at my biography in those commencement materials, learning that I left URI and started working on Wall Street. Then after nearly 20 years of a pretty successful career in the US and abroad, I decided I wanted to make a change. In 2009 I began working as an unpaid intern at CNN, and was then hired as a production assistant. Within a few years I was part of Anderson Cooper’s team that won an Emmy for our coverage of the earthquake in Haiti and a Peabody for my reports on nearly 200 girls kidnapped by the West African terror group, Boko Haram. By 2015, fewer than six years after entering journalism, I was asked to fill in for Charlie Rose as a co-host of CBS This Morning.
But my acceptance to URI was a key moment in my life.
I’ve always felt that Rhody’s acceptance of a high school kid who was considered “different” by many people — even in my own family, I might add— in some ways reflected the character of the Union’s smallest but mightiest state. Rhode Island has been doing things its own way since its very beginnings, once even leading George Washington to remark: “Rhode Island … still perseveres in that impolitic, unjust, and one might add without much impropriety, scandalous conduct, which seems to have marked all her public councils of late.”
Yeah, but man, was I different back then. Some of a more sophisticated bent – like those of you graduating with Psych degrees – might call me an “introvert”…or an “observer”… Everyone else simply said: “he’s a dork.” And perhaps that’s what I was, even in my own mind.
How much of a dork?
Well. In 10th grade, there was a girl who lived down the street from me. We’d walk home together and I thought she was the coolest, most beautiful girl in school. I was far too shy to say anything to her about it. One day as we walked by my house she asked if she could come in. Being a true dork, I told her girls aren’t allowed in the house when my parents aren’t home. Folks, I was in high school at this point, so… yeah.
She said, ‘How will they know?’ Then marched up the driveway. Next thing, we were hanging out on my couch. At one point she leaned in real close. And she said… “What do you want to do?” And I looked into her eyes… and said…’I’d like to show you my mint…MINT…condition Batman comic from 1970. It’s the first one ever drawn by Neal Adams who has really taken Batman in a new direction…’ And…yeah, nope. She didn’t appreciate the grandeur of Neal Adams’ pencils. But if she had, who knows, one day I might have sold it to buy her a nice engagement ring.
Ok, but wait. A few months later, I got that acceptance to URI. A chance at a new start, a chance to broaden my horizons and reinvent myself.
Sophomore year, though, the reinvented me was home for the summer and ran into that young woman at party. She jokingly asked if I still wanted to show her my comic book collection. Let’s simply say… by that point I had learned a few new things at Rhody. Remember what Washington said about Rhode Island? “Scandalous conduct.”
Translation? Go Rhody!
The University of Rhode Island transformed me. Changed me. It was a glorious metamorphosis. But it would not be the last. But more importantly (perhaps), here at the University of Rhode Island, I learned a great many other things. My childhood interests in comic books and Star Wars gave way to a passion for the history of the world, the politics of civilization, and the philosophies that guide humanity. I was transformed. My professors and books and classmates showed me a new and vast world. I began to dream of traveling that world and sharing what I learned with others.
I set my sights on future in journalism.
Here at URI, I began writing for the Good Five Cent Cigar. I hosted a weekly show on WRIU. And I ran and won a seat on the Student Senate. In the classroom, I learned to think critically in philosophy classes, such as the theory of non-violence with Professor Art Stein, in political science classes, and in my history of race-relations course with professor Robert Weisbord. So many amazing professors. Neil DeGrasse Tyson once told me that the education you receive in class is just a foundation to absorb and comprehend voluminous knowledge acquired elsewhere.
As I built this foundation at URI, I became intrigued by a maxim attributed to Saint Augustine:
“The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.”
A life worth remembering.
OK, so… I graduate from URI. Now you have to understand something. My parents are immigrants. Immigrant parents, like all parents, want you to get a great education. And they are here today…
But when it comes to a career, there are only three that really matter. The Law. Medicine. Engineering. And journalism? Oh, you mean writing? That’s a wonderful hobby! In any case, I struggled to find a job in journalism. After graduation, I moved to New York City with some of my URI fraternity brothers. I didn’t realize then, that I would have a better chance getting an entry-level job as a reporter in Fargo, ND. But my roommates were working on Wall Street. They encouraged me to apply for a job in finance. Now, I learned a lot at URI, but business was not one of those subjects. I was interested in Nelson Mandela, not JP Morgan. I told my roommate: “But I know nothing about finance!” His reply? “you don’t need to know anything about finance!”
And there you have it. That’s all you need to know about the financial crisis of 2008. And every financial crisis going back to October 1929.
So I was hired. And I remember thinking “I’ll only do this for a few years to make some money. Then I’ll go back to writing and become a journalist. Next thing I knew, some 19 years passed. I lived in Europe and travelled to Asia, Latin America, and The Middle East. And I’ll admit it: It was great. I was good at it. Who knew?
I’d like to think that some acceptance officer here at URI knew.
But as I neared my 40’s, I started to realize that even though I was fairly successful – I was a Managing Director at the second largest investment firm in the world – I had not lived to my own definition of a meaningful existence. I was not living a life worth remembering.
A life worth remembering…
Once I was with a financial colleague in Stockholm, having just read a story about the Civil War in Sri Lanka. I was lamenting how no one with the stature could end the violence. Even as I discussed what I had learned (via the courageous reporting of a Sri Lankan reporter, I might add), I realized I wanted to know more. And I wanted others, like my bored colleague, to know more. Instantly, I decided to make a career change. I tried to get a media job as an entry-level production assistant, but people thought I was going through a standard midlife crisis. There was no way a wall street exec would take a job that involved getting coffee, making copies and pulling archive video. I realized to get my foot in the door, I had to go back to school. So, nearly 20 years after my last journalism class at URI, I was back in a classroom, studying for a masters degree in journalism. Which led to an unpaid internship at CNN. The very bottom. But was it really the bottom? After all, I was working for the legendary foreign correspondent and University of Rhode Island alumni Christiane Amanpour. But I was 38. 18 years older than my fellow interns.
Right before my internship, Anderson Cooper came to speak to our class. I asked him a lot of questions — and he told me I should come and see him when my internship started. I did and we talked. The topic of Haiti came up – he loved the country, but the rest of the world was not very interested in it. We lamented that fact, and he asked me to send him my resume when my internship ended.
Two months later, January 12, 2010 a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti. I got a phone call from Anderson Cooper’s EP Charlie Moore: “AC is on the last flight out to Haiti. Do you want to join his team as a production assistant?” I think Charlie was still holding the phone when I skidded into the departures lounge.
I was told to pack for three days. No one yet knew how much damage the earthquake had done. We flew overnight and landed at 6am.
At first, driving from the airport, Things didn’t look too bad. We began to hope. But as we rounded a corner on the outskirts of PAP, we saw it. We jumped out of the pickup truck and walked over to the median. A small, white blanket lay on the hot asphalt. It held a little baby, less than a year old. It was the first dead body I’d ever seen. Over the next 30 some days we were in Haiti, I would see many more. By some estimates, the 2010 earthquake ultimately killed between 220,000 to 316,000 human beings. 300k were injured. 1.5 million more displaced.
A few days after the quake, our team discovered the site where the Haitian government was burying bodies in those mass graves. A hilly area overlooking the ocean. Under different circumstances, there would be a resort there. Happy people drinking fruity cocktails, watching the sunset. Instead, there were 1000 foot deep man-made craters in the ground filled to the brim with men, women, children, old, young, rich, poor. We watched as an earthmover rumbled up to one of those miserable ditches, then with that banal beeping sound, emptied its dreadful cargo of mangled humanity.
Amid this horror, there were moments of triumph. Five year old Monley Elyzee was buried under the rubble for five days. His father had lived for a few days next to him, telling him “don’t be afraid.” Until as Monley said later, his father stopped talking. An 80 year old woman was rescued several days after the quake in the belly of a church. But more often than not, those of us reporting on this horror had to bear witness to the pain and suffering of a people left to their own devices. I remember the day Manouchka Polynice asked us to help rescue her young daughter Laika and other children trapped under a day care center. The Los Angeles County FD who was on the ground to help, began a rescue operation. I was asked to call out in French to the kids below. A firefighter and I crawled into the collapsed building. As soon as I called out ,I heard what sounded like cry for help. But 9 hours later, after the echo-locaters couldn’t detect signs of life and the rescue dog could not pick up a scent, the FD called off the rescue. The chief asked me to translate to Manouchka that after so many days trapped without food or water, Laika had probably died. You know what Manouchka did? She thanked us. She told us that she was going to go to church on Sunday and work with her neighbors to try and rescue Laika, whom she believed was still alive. All night I convinced myself that I hadn’t really heard a voice. That I had imagined it somehow, wanting this child to be alive, wanting to help rescue her, wanting to fulfill my destiny of living a life worth remembering. Come morning, I was convinced I hadn’t heard a voice. Until our producer Charlie played the video of me shouting to the survivors, and then a faint but un-deniable “aidez”!
So after all that devastation, by October of 2011, I had been promoted to an on-air correspondent at CNN. I was living the life I had dreamed about all those years ago. Anderson had become my champion at the network. A mentor like no other. I was asked to become CNN’s West Africa correspondent based in Lagos, Nigeria. And then one night, in April 2014, in a village in a remote region of Northeastern, Nigeria called Chibok, more than 200 girls were kidnapped in the dead of night by the ISIS affiliated terror group Boko Haram. Those girls were doing what you here are so blessed to be doing…getting an education.
Lately, some have taken to calling media reporting “fake news”. As in, the President of the United States.. writing on Twitter, quote “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
I’ve heard such sentiments expressed by others in power. When those two hundred girls were kidnapped, I spent 15-16 hours a day reporting on their plight. How their families were doing, how Nigeria’s government seemed unable – or unwilling – to bring them home to their loved ones. Then, after days of giving voice to these victims, Nigeria’s minister of defense released a statement through a spokesman. I – and the dozens of other reporters who were covering this story – were told that the Nigerian military had found and rescued the girls and returned them to their loving families. The spokesman asked me to stop ‘vilifying’ the Nigerian government and military on air. I was told I was spreading propaganda. Stop delivering “fake news”. Focus on the good things the Nigerian government was doing to fight terrorism.
Here’s the thing. The government was lying. Within an hour, families of the kidnapped girls called us. “Why are they telling you the girls were rescued? Not one girl has been rescued. Please don’t be fooled by what they are telling you. Please help us.”
You tell me who was delivering fake news.
A total of 115 journalists died in 2016 simply for doing their jobs, according to the annual report compiled by the International News Safety Institute. The group Reporters Without Borders says nearly three quarters of the journalists killed in 2016 were victims of “deliberate, targeted violence.” Deliberate. Targeted.
If you look closely at the desk where Scott Pelley, the anchor of the CBS Evening News sits, you might see a set of framed pictures. They are the 13 journalists who have died in the line of duty for CBS News, going back to George Polk who was killed covering the civil war in Greece in 1948. You might recognize his name because there is prestigious award named after him but the others are not as well known – but Scott keeps them there as a reminder. He once said: “Every night on our broadcast, somebody, somewhere, has risked his or her life to cover the news.”
Who risks their lives to do something that is fake?
Between April and June of 2014, journalists on the ground –the majority Nigerian and African journalists risking far more than those of us with western news outlets – dug in and kept reporting on the government’s lack of transparency and corruption. And something happened. A world that otherwise might have ignored the fate of hundreds of poor Nigerian girls in a tiny village began to respond. From British Prime Minister David Cameron to First Lady Michelle Obama and beyond– people around the world began to publicly demand that the Nigerian government “Bring Back Our Girls”.
In April 2014, 276 girls were abducted. The pressure has continued and as of today, 163 have returned.
113 more are still missing.
And since 2013, more than 10,000 Nigerians have been killed by Boko Haram. A Nigerian activist once told me, “Vlad, after Boston was attacked by a terrorist in April of 2013, president Obama visited the city and met with the victims’ families and their survivors. In 2013, more than 1000 Nigerians were killed in over 100 attacks by terrorists. Most of the people in those communities rarely see a state governor, let alone the president of the country.”
But these people do see journalists. Journalists who take what they’ve seen, what they’ve witnessed, the voices of those they’ve spoken with…. And put this all in front of those countries’ leaders. To hold them accountable in front of the world. So that you and everyone else with access to a free, fair press will know. That knowledge may not bring someone home from the clutches of a terrorist, it certainly won’t bring someone back from the dead…but in remembering them, we honor them. In a sense…we immortalize them.
In some ways, journalists become the “key” to their immortality. Back to that saying that so motivates me.
In the end, I have come to realize that yes, the key to some kind of immortality is living a life worth remembering. But I’ve come to see this isn’t just about my own life being memorable. It’s about being a conduit for the stories of others. In essence, being their “Key”. And I’ve further seen that immortality – at least in the eyes of another – comes from changing lives for the better. My job does not immortalize me. The “keys” in my life achieved their immortality…by pushing me to live a life worth remembering. My parents & family were my “keys”, So was URI. Christiane Amanpour. Anderson Cooper.
And now I do what I do so others will not forget those who would otherwise be forgotten. Today, you’ll leave here knowing at least the something about who Laika was. A beautiful child, spending the day at daycare, before the unimaginable struck. Perhaps you’ll spare a thought for the girls from Nigeria who are still suffering. You’ll smile when I show you a picture of Monley, the boy who survived buried for five days in Haiti. He’s in school now, and thriving.
So, my message to you: Find your “keys”. And then become one.
Don’t fear change. Accept your glorious metamorphosis now and in the future. Embrace it. Even if it means starting all over again. It’s been said that when we change ourselves, we have already begun to change the world.
And I hope whatever you do with your life when you leave this quad that you’ll immortalize yourself by becoming the “key” in other peoples’ lives. In whatever craft or profession or path you choose. And I hope you’ll honor – in some way – the lives and memories of the downtrodden, the persecuted and the oppressed. To help others around you to flourish, thrive and blossom. You’ll change their world. And they will remember you for it.
Become the key to immortality, live a life worth remembering.
Congratulations class of 2017.
View Commencement 2017 Video (1:39:10)