We're in Good Hands With the Class of 2018
This year’s Commencement ceremony had all the essential elements of reaffirming ritual: proud families, exuberant graduates, jacaranda trees in bloom, and superb music from the Glee Club. Less traditional was our decision to have four speakers—three of them Oxy alumnae—in a tribute to women’s leadership. The four came from different eras and different fields; each had a different style at the podium. But each gave the Class of 2018 inspiring insight into their often-unconventional paths to success and how their Oxy experience played a fundamental role in shaping their careers. The lessons they offered also reminded me of why the College remains so strong today.
The only woman in her class to major in economics, longtime trustee Cathie Young Selleck ’55 had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, but needed a job. So she lined up several interviews with recruiters visiting Oxy and went in with an open mind. Most employers made clear what she could expect, but “because tech was so new at the time, IBM had great difficulty in explaining exactly what their work was all about,” she recounted. “So, determined not to sign up for boring, I took a leap into the unknown.” The result was a pioneering, four-decade career as one of the first female executives in the tech industry—and a good reminder of why our investments in today’s Hameetman Career Center are so important.
Ann Zwicker Kerr-Adams ’56, who graduated one year after Cathie, spent a transformational junior year studying abroad in Beirut. Not only did she meet her husband Malcolm there, she was able to take advantage of what she called “the spirit of openness at Oxy that encouraged us to open our eyes to the world.” Upon her return, she realized that the experience had given her a deeper understanding of her own culture. These were lessons she never forgot, even in the wake of the tragic assassination of her husband, then the president of American University in Beirut, during the Lebanese civil war. Ann’s career as an advocate for international education is an outstanding example of why overseas study is so important—and why almost three-quarters of Oxy students now pursue multiple routes to global citizenship, which include research, internships, and fellowships as well as conventional study abroad.
Maya Soetoro-Ng, director of the University of Hawaii’s Matsunaga Institute for Peace & Conflict Resolution, reminded graduates that just as there are multiple paths to career success, there are many paths to peace. “There are always going to be a lot of different definitions of peace building. Sometimes, they contradict one another. … But the truth is we need everyone,” said Maya, who serves on the Obama Scholars Advisory Council. “You can lead from in front, pushing people forward, inspiring them, providing an example, or from beside, behind, or beneath. Whatever your place, you are peace-building leaders.”
Sara El-Amine ’07, the final speaker, told of the professors she met at Oxy, faculty “who were smart and challenging and supportive all at the same time, mentors who helped me see my best self, even when I couldn’t … my friends and the faculty here showed me that cynicism was the refuge of cowards, and that optimism was the path of the brave.” Those are the lessons she applied when she suddenly quit her job and drove 1,300 miles to join Sen. Barack Obama ’83’s fledgling presidential campaign in Iowa. “I had no idea what I would be when I got there, but I knew what I wanted to help do,” she explained. That, she said, was in keeping with the advice that the president subsequently gave her as she rose to become national director of his 2012 reelection campaign and then executive director of Organizing for America: “Worry less about what you want to be, and more about what you want to do.”
In other words, “Pick your challenge and then pick up a wrench when your hammer doesn’t work. Your resume will write itself,” she said. There is no lack of challenges, but they are within your reach, she told the graduates with Oxy optimism. “Remember that cynicism is a mask for fear. Make and remake the world and you will make and remake yourself without even trying. You’ve got this. And we’re counting on you.”
That’s good advice. It’s also further evidence, when added to Ann and Cathie’s examples, that Oxy produces some really remarkable people. It’s also grounds for optimism that we’re in good hands with the Class of 2018.