Deval L. Patrick, who recently concluded two terms as the 71st governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, will be the principal speaker at the Afternoon Exercises of Harvard’s 364th Commencement on May 28.
“Deval Patrick is an extraordinarily distinguished alumnus, a deeply dedicated public servant, and an inspiring embodiment of the American dream,” said Harvard University President Drew Faust. “We greatly look forward to welcoming him home to Harvard on Commencement Day.”
Raised on Chicago’s South Side, Patrick came to Massachusetts at age 14, having won a scholarship to Milton Academy through the Boston-based organization A Better Chance. He earned admission to Harvard College, as the first in his family to attend college, and spent a year in Africa after graduation on a Rockefeller Fellowship before studying for his law degree at Harvard Law School, where he was president of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.
Early in his career, he served as a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Los Angeles, as a staff attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund working on voting rights and death-penalty cases, and then as a partner at the Boston law firm Hill & Barlow.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton named him assistant attorney general for civil rights, the nation’s top civil rights post. In that role, he led the Justice Department’s efforts in such areas as prosecuting hate crimes and enforcing laws on employment discrimination, fair lending, and rights for the disabled.
Media titan and global philanthropist Oprah Winfrey gave the Commencement Address at Harvard College today after receiving an honorary Doctorate of Law from the University. According to Harvard Magazine.com, Winfrey, appropriately clad in Crimson (the school color) gave a 30-minute address of inspiration, anecdote, and uplifting aphorisms, drawing on her own experience. She hoped to offer inspiration to “anyone who feels inferior or disadvantaged or screwed by life—this is a speech for the Quad” (a reference to the former Radcliffe, now College, residences considered by some undergraduates to be inferior to the Houses closer to the Charles River and the center of campus).
During her introduction, Winfrey said one did not have to have a Type A personality to come to Harvard (or to succeed in television), “but it helps.” Her original talk show had been an enormous success for a quarter-century, she noted, topping the ratings in its time slot for 21 years. But she felt the need for new challenges, stopped the program, and launched the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), only to see it become a dismal flop. A year ago, at the low point, she recalled, “the worst time in my professional life,” President Faust called to ask her to speak today. At that moment of stress, frustration, and embarrassment, Winfrey said, she could scarcely conceive of addressing successful Harvard graduates. She repaired to the shower (“It was either that or a bag of Oreos”), remembered the spiritual lyric “when the morning comes,” and determined that her professional woes would not last—that she would turn things around, certainly by the time of her Commencement address.
More broadly, she told the graduates, “It doesn’t matter how far you might rise,” no matter how they might raise their own bars and push themselves, they would surely stumble and fall. Then, they must remember, “There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in a different direction”–even though, from deep in a hole, it might feel like failure.
To proceed, to learn from every mistake, the graduates must figure out the right next move by consulting their “inner moral GPS.” When members of the class of 2013 Google themselves hereafter, she said, their Harvard identity will always appear. But their success will be measured not by what they want to be; rather it will depend on who they want to be. Knowing who they want to be depends on creating the story that’s “about your purpose.”
Winfrey said she found her purpose in 1994, when she met a young girl who collected pocket change, ultimately amassing $1,000, to help others—an act that inspired Winfrey to call on viewers to do something similar. They collected $3 million in one month, she recounted, and established the Angel Network to fund education and build schools. That “focused my internal GPS,” she said, changing her purpose from appearing on television to determining to “use television and not be used by it.” She aimed to do so by finding the things that unite people and highlighting the transcendent nature of humans’ better selves.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO when a women’s magazine asked CNN special correspondent and 2013 Harvard Class Day speaker Soledad O’Brien ’88 about the best advice she ever received, she recalled what her tough Cuban mother once told her: “Most people are idiots.”
The words were a bit too harsh to make it into the magazine, but O’Brien said the advice has stuck with her because it rang true: Most people are idiots, she said, because instead of building you up, they will tell you why you will fail.
“Do not listen to others people’s take on the life you should lead,” O’Brien told the audience of seniors, families, and friends gathered in Tercentenary Theatre today for the Class Day ceremony. “By not listening, you can figure out what your heart is telling you to do.”
O’Brien called her own parents excellent role models in not listening. Her Cuban mother and Australian father were a couple in Maryland in 1958, when it was illegal to be in an interracial relationship. As they walked down the street together, they were regularly spit on and called names. When O’Brien—one of six children who all graduated from Harvard—asked her mother how she dealt with such racism, her mother replied that she knew America “was better than that,” and wanted to be part of the change.
OPRAH WINFREY, the first African-American woman to become a billionaire, has built an empire with her oratorical gifts and ability to engage with people of all ranks and backgrounds. Now she will share words of wisdom with the Class of 2013 and other Harvard graduates, their families, and alumni by serving as principal speaker at Harvard’s 362nd Commencement, the University announced today.
“I was taught to read at an early age,” Winfrey told the Academy of Achievement in 2011. “By the time I was three, I was reciting speeches in the church. They’d put me up on the program, and say, ‘Little Mistress Winfrey will render a recitation.’”
In what was called “a transformative moment for the television business” by The New York Times, Winfrey made history in May 2011 by ending the Emmy Award-winning Oprah Winfrey Show to start her own cable channel (OWN, short for the Oprah Winfrey Network)—the first time a talk-show host has created an entire channel.“I’m not going away, I’m just changing,” she said to the Times. “I’m just creating another platform for myself, which eventually will be wider and broader than what I have now.” In January 2013, for example, OWN received widespread attention when Lance Armstrong chose Winfrey as his confidant for a confessional interview about his long-denied use of performance-enhancing drugs. (Winfrey’s original, nationally syndicated show ran for 24 seasons, tackling topics such as divorce, sexual abuse, and philanthropic issues, and featuring exclusive interviews with celebrities and world leaders alike. It drew an audience of more than 40 million viewers a week in the United States and reached 150 countries around the world.)