2015 Commencement Address

Thursday, May 21, 2015
Javits Center North

Congratulations, Class of 2015!  This is your own very glorious day.  As I look around you---even to the distance of this great hall---I see the beaming faces of your friends and family.  Behind me…the faculty.  We all share in this special moment.  All of us take pride in your accomplishments.

I want to welcome all of you:  family, friends, our faculty and administration, SUNY and FIT trustees, honorees and distinguished guests.  I want to offer a special welcome to Professor Dr. Mehmet Karaca, Rector of Istanbul Technical University, as well as Professor Doctors Cevza  Candan, Nevin Cigde Gursoy and Telem Gok, Sadikoglu---all of whom join us on our podium to celebrate the students who graduate as part of FIT’s dual degree program with ITU.  Each person who is here today adds to the joy of this moment for our graduates.

You know, it inevitably falls to a college president to provide a piece of parting advice---perhaps even wisdom---for those of you leaving our command.  But in today’s unhappy world, what could that possibly be?  You were already living in the shadows of 9/11 and two seemingly endless wars when you arrived at FIT two or four years ago. Since then, you have been witness to ugly outbreaks of primitive violence and brutality…to spasms of ongoing bigotry…to unyielding depths of poverty.   My generation stood sentinel over this world---so what can I possibly have the audacity to tell you as we launch you into what we call “real life”?

But as I was thinking about this, I remembered the advice I offered recently at another event for students.  Actually, it was not advice from me but rather from Cary Grant, one of the great movie stars of the last century.  He had written it for his only child---a daughter who was born when he was 62 years old.  He titled it “Take Time for 10 Things” and I will not repeat it, but to give you a flavor, here are a few of his tips:   Take time to think, he wrote, it is the source of power;  take time to play…to dream…to work, of course… but  also to laugh…and to love.  In effect, he was saying:  take time for life.

Yes:  Take time for life. 

You know,  most of us  at FIT believe that FIT students are a little bit different---maybe even unique…among the college population.  You arrive at our doors  knowing just what you want to do---and that is quite unusual.  You arrive bursting with talent, with intelligence, with creativity.  You are pumped with ambition and deeply motivated to succeed.  So you seize your time with us… you take on extra credits, extra projects…extracurricular activities.  You intern…you hold jobs…you party and club, of course…maybe you even squeeze in one meal a day.  You’ve been speeding along, living at technology-infused tempos unimaginable in generations past---and now you cannot wait to leap ahead…to take on the world with the same high-octane energy and single-minded focus that you brought to FIT.  You are highly accomplished and of course, you will succeed.  But I worry.  I really do.

You see, I was somewhat like that myself when I was a student---especially in my graduate years at NYU when my  own career focus crystallized.   Of course, there was no internet to constantly penetrate my life.  But  like so many of you, I also had a job…and like the White Rabbit, I was always in a rush…my nose to the grindstone, studying, researching, working.  With Washington Square Park at my doorstep, I never noticed the seasons.  I, too, was very ambitious, and like you, I was eager to complete my studies and launch a career.  And so I did.

But along the way, I came to appreciate the truth of Cary Grant’s small list of life lessons.

So before you take that long leap into “real life”---the leap we prepare you for in this ultimate of career colleges--- I would like to share a little story with you.  It is one you may be familiar with---but one that is worth considering as you think about tomorrow---and how you choose to live your real life.

Several years ago, at a subway station in the heart of Washington DC,  a young violinist stood  on an upstairs arcade near escalators taking people to and from the trains. He was dressed in jeans and a baseball hat; there were a few dollars in the violin case he had at his feet---as we see so often here in New York. It was the morning rush, and  for almost 45 minutes, he played  music of haunting, breathtaking beauty---music by Bach and Schubert---music that soared and resonated throughout the arcade.  He played with towering  brilliance…which is what you would expect because that young violinist---using his own $3 million dollar Stradivarius---was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s finest, most celebrated musicians.  He had agreed to this incognito performance as part of an experiment --- well, he called it a “stunt”---staged with a Washington Post writer to see what would happen.  Bell is a superstar, a Grammy-winning musician who invariably draws SRO crowds;  people pay hundreds of dollars to hear him perform in concert halls throughout the world.  Would the preoccupied workers pass him by? Even if he is unrecognized, would the power of his performance seduce some to stop for even a moment?   Would a crowd gather?

Here is what happened:  1,097 people passed by. Altogether seven people stopped.  Seven.  27 tossed money into his violin case for a total of $32.17. 

Now, the Post had recorded this with hidden video cameras. Nearly everyone appeared oblivious---and not just those who were talking on their cells or who had buds in their ears. The Post had also stationed reporters throughout the vicinity to connect with passersby for interviews later in the day.  40 people were contacted and asked if anything unusual had happened on their commute that morning.  Only one---an amateur violinist, one of the 7 who had stopped---  mentioned Bell and when the others were reminded of him, they vaguely remembered and simply said… they were too busy or preoccupied to stop, or just didn’t seem to care.  

So what does this say about our ability…our willingness…to appreciate life…to notice the seasons.   As the Post writer asked:  “If we can’t take time out of our lives for a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on earth play some of the best music ever written…then what else are we missing?” 

I would say…we are missing life itself.   

And I would suggest we could all take a lesson not just from Cary Grant but from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as well.  I don’t know how many of you are familiar with his work. But this is a man who lived a very full life, indeed, both as a controversial political activist and diplomat---and as a prodigious Nobel Prize-winning poet.  He was a man of passion, a restless, complicated man who had seen both grief and glory in his time.   As a poet, he found meaning and rapture---and solace as well---in the momentary appreciation of the simplest things in life, things he took time to observe and enjoy. Over the years, he wrote hundreds of  odes of  exuberant and grateful praise…to the onion… to the clouds…to French fries sizzling in boiling oil …to  socks “soft as rabbits”…and to the violin that  befriends lost souls… and sings songs to wandering strangers.

One of the wandering strangers at that subway station in Washington DC that day---in fact, the first one who stopped---was a busy young government worker on his way to a budget meeting. He was not at all familiar with classical music, but he noticed Joshua Bell and sensed that something special was happening. For a second he walked away, but then turned back, and for three whole minutes, he leaned  still against a wall and listened.  He did not know quite what had happened, he later told the Post reporter, but “whatever it was,” he said, “ it made me feel at peace.”

We are launching you today into a large, clamorous competitive world---and I know you are going to enter it feet first, seizing every opportunity to succeed in your chosen field using all of those God-given gifts that got you into FIT in the first place.   But as much pride as all of us will take in your professional achievements---and we surely will--- I hope you will want a life that is larger than that… larger than that gorgeous resume we know you will build.  It is, after all, your only life, and you won’t have a chance to do it again.  So be good to yourselves.   Stop…and listen… take time to laugh…to love…to celebrate the seasons…the onion…the socks…and by all means, take time---even three minutes of time---to listen and be grateful when you hear a violin  in the caverns below our streets singing songs to wandering strangers.

Class of 2015… I wish you good luck and God speed.