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2008 Commencement Address

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Congratulations, class of 2008!
This is your own very glorious day.
As I look around you—and into the distance of this great hall—I see the beaming faces of your families and friends, and members of our faculty—all of whom share in this special moment, all of whom take pride in your accomplishments.

I want to welcome all of you: families, friends, our faculty and administrators, SUNY and FIT trustees, honorees and distinguished guests. I want to offer a special welcome to Dean Bulent Ozipeck and Professor Dr. Cevza Candan, who have traveled here from Turkey to share their pride in the 20 students who comprise our first group of graduates in FIT's dual degree program with Istanbul Technical University. Each person who is here today adds to the joy of this moment for our graduates. And I suspect that shortly—with degrees conferred and the doors of Radio City Music Hall wide open—these graduates will be giddy with joy. Free and eager to get on with it, to step into the future for which they prepared with such diligence at FIT.

But the future is an uncertain place. I think that many of you are familiar with Roadtrip Nation. It is a kind of national movement by now—a five year-old PBS series that has provided students with a whole new way to think about their future and their careers. With its bright green RVs, it launched its national tour on the FIT campus this year. Its goal is to encourage college graduates to explore the world beyond what they know—the world outside their comfort zones—by finding and talking with accomplished people who sidestepped traditional career paths and defined their own roads in life.

Now, you might ask: What can this have to do with me—after all, FIT is a career-oriented college that attracts goal-oriented, committed students who know just what they want to do in life. They declare their majors on arrival. But life surprises you. It always does. As one Roadtrip Nation participant said, you meet (successful people and see them as they are now. You don't really know how they started out their struggles, their histories, and how they got to this place in life.

Indeed.

I am generation that expected to spend an entire career in one field. But no one expects that today. With words like "downsizing"..."outsourcing"...and "globalization"... Having long since entered our vocabulary...and messages such as "follow your passion"...also part of the mainstream, career paths have turned into roller coaster rides. Job experts will tell you that college graduates today can expect to have many jobs... Many careers over a lifetime. Six. Eight. Ten. Hang onto your hats!

But this doesn't have to be bad news. It may be daunting, but it could be exhilarating...and rewarding. In many ways, your FIT education has prepared you for it. Moreover, there are many precedents—people whose jagged or unusual career rides can serve as role models.

I think of one man—an FIT alumnus—who graduated in Textile Development some years ago. Today, he is the King of Bagels in the state of Maine. Paul Gauguin was a banker; the poet Carlos Williams, a doctor.

Then, there is another —a man who was so dramatic that I think it offers a number of lessons for people just starting out...and I would like to tell you a little bit about him.

His name was Lorenzo Da Ponte. He was born in 1749, he lived in a time when everyone but the most wealthy, privileged or titled, had to live by their wits. Fortunately, he had wits to spare. He lived for 90 years—enough time to be both prosperous and dirt poor. Prominent and obscure. Respected and reviled.

Born a Jew to a poor family in Italy, he was also an ordained catholic priest and ended his days here in New York City at Columbia University — the first Italian professor in this country. His books became the nucleus of the New York Public Library's collection of Italian literature. He also founded and ran New York's first opera house in Greenwich Village.

However, at one time or another, he had also been: a liquor distiller, a milliner, a publisher, an impresario, a book seller, a grocer, a poet, scholar. translator, a much beloved school master. Are you still with me?

He was, in addition, a gambler and womanizer whose periodic indulgences of dubious behavior had him run out of both Venice and Vienna and landed him in debtors prison many time over in London. Perhaps I should also mention that he was a close friend of Casanovas.

While as a tradesman he was not very successful—he was a truly celebrated poet. In Vienna, the emperor appointed him poet of the imperial theaters. He held a similar position in London. But for all of his busy accomplishments—the reason we know his name today—is that he was also a librettist, most prominently Mozart's librettist.

Lorenzo Da Ponte—with no musical or theatrical training—wrote the words, the Book so to speak, for three of Mozart's most sublime masterpieces: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutti.

What made it possible for Da Ponte to flourish ,then fail, and then flourish again, always to rise lie a phoenix?

Well, for one thing, he was a man with a potent combination of talent, energy, creativity and nerve. He was ambitions, persistent, pragmatic, flexible, a risk-taker, a man who could identify opportunity and pounce on it, a man with a profound and sustaining love of learning, and not least, a wiliness to work hard and to struggle. And struggle he certainly did.

Indeed, his first attempt to write a libretto shook his sunny self-confidence to the core. Sitting alone with quill and candle, he found his dialog dry, his fundamental ability to write or to rhyme. He ripped and burned page after page and almost quit the job 10 different times.

But he persisted.

His self-assurance turned into humility and he learned. Altogether, Da Ponte wrote libretti for 50 operas. Some were failures. And some will live on forever.

Class of 2008: In your time here with us, you, too, have been challenged and tested. You have been asked to master many new skills to complete many complex projects, often under intense deadline pressures. And you did.

You may have struggled harbored doubts and ripped up projects, too. You may have felt like quitting. But like Da Ponte, you persisted. And you learned.

Class of 2008: you did it! You did it lit by your own fierce determination, your great gift of creativity and your willingness to work hard.

In your time here with us, you gained other survival strengths as well: analytic skills, flexibility, a reflective capacity to question and judge willingness to explore.

How lucky you are to be starting your professional lives today in 2008, when career rides can, indeed, be an adventure. How lucky you are to be fully equipped for that ride. Moreover, as one man who appeared on Roadtrip Nation pointed out, The great advantage you have at your age is that nothing is forever. You can change as many times as you want. Subject to chance, you are also wide open to choice and ready to benefit from Da Ponte's own life-long guiding principle: Dare all. Hope all.

But no matter how many careers you launch or jobs you eventually hold, promise me—promise yourself—that to each one, you will bring every ounce of your effort, intelligence and talent, just as Lorenzo Da Ponte did. Whatever you do, in jobs lofty or humble, worthwhile or wretched—or both—do it to the best of your ability and sensitivity. Rejoice in your work—all of it. Let it test you, stretch you, galvanize your ingenuity, so that you grow and discover new strengths in yourself, you may find that you, too, can write libretti or for that matter, rap!

You may find that you are capable of far more than you ever dreamed! I wish you much joy in your journey and I wish you all Godspeed.

It is now my pleasure to introduce Kate Betts, whose own talent, wit and drive has taken her to some of fashion journalism's top positions and made her one of the country's leading voices in the field. Her own career ride started in Paris over 20 years ago where she eventually became Fairchild publications Paris bureau chief and managed Women's Wear Daily, W and M magazines. Back in the United States, she was—-for 8 years—fashion news director of Vogue, and then became editor in chief of Harpers Bazaar— the youngest editor ever to take over a fashion magazine. Today, Ms. Betts is editor of Time Style and Design—and her discerning insights can also be found in the weekly editions of Time. Please join me in welcoming her.  

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