College Game Plan

Stephanie Ruhle on returning to Lehigh, her alma mater, as commencement speaker

I never expected to join the ranks of commencement speakers, especially at my alma mater.

I had a tough time there, left eagerly, and returned rarely. But 20 years after graduation, they called and — feeling both honored and terrified — I agreed.

I don’t remember at all what was said at my college graduation, and I think that’s the case for many people. The truth is, graduation day isn’t really for the graduates. It’s more about their families and these institutions celebrating a new generation through the trappings of tradition and then tossing them out into the world.

Completing college is a big deal and commencements do a good job of making the moment feel big. There’s regalia and a processional and prayers and that classical march actually named “Pomp and Circumstance,” in case the gravity is still lost on anyone. And then of course there’s a dignitary marveling about the graduates or lobbing big ideas at them. "This generation will change the world," they might say, or, "You’re graduating in the golden age of American entrepreneurship."

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If I’m wearing a polyester robe, squished among hundreds of my closest friends and rivals, on the wrong end of a long night, I would be wondering how all this graduation noise is going to help me through tomorrow.

When I got my turn as one of those dignitaries I found out it’s really hard to say something new and meaningful. All I wanted to do was try to speak to graduates at a scary time when we can’t afford to be scared. My favorite commencement addresses are the ones that get real and don’t make too many promises. I hope mine falls in that category.