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Savannah tells graduates to 'dream big' in commencement speech

TODAY's Savannah Guthrie gives the commencement speech to Hobart and William Smith Colleges' graduating class of 2012.
TODAY's Savannah Guthrie gives the commencement speech to Hobart and William Smith Colleges' graduating class of 2012.Kevin Colton/HWS Colleges

Savannah Guthrie urged 2012 graduates to dream big while taking small steps to achieve those goals during her commencement speech at Hobart and William Smith Colleges this weekend.

In a play on the traditional local newscast form, she organized her speech into sections: news, traffic, weather, sports and a word from the sponsors (in this case, the graduates' parents). Savannah then left students with this final message:

"Some people will say these were the best four years of your life. No way," she said. "Those years are coming. And here's a goal for real life, worth setting and then striving for daily: to be thankful, whatever your circumstances, every step of the way."

We caught up with Savannah just before she headed to the campus to find out how she prepared for her speech, if she had the jitters and to recall memories of her own graduation commencement speaker. And read her full address below! You asked your Facebook friends for their commencement speech ideas, putting forth the question, “What do you wish someone had told you back then?” Did their comments help you with the speech?

Savannah Guthrie: I loved getting the responses on Facebook. I think there were more than 650 comments — and I read all of them! There were some really thoughtful and wise sentiments, and a few that made me laugh. (“Step away from the keg,” read one.) Reading what the folks on Facebook said gave me confidence that I was striking the right themes for the graduates. How long did you work on the speech?

SG: I’ve been writing the speech for a few weeks now. It definitely strikes many of the same themes as the speech I gave to my alma mater last year, but it’s a different speech. The most important thing I've been doing is studying up on Hobart and William Smith Colleges. It’s been great to learn about the campus and the students. Who was your college graduation commencement speaker?

Commencement address by Savannah Guthrie at Hobart and William Smith Colleges 2012
Commencement address by Savannah Guthrie at Hobart and William Smith Colleges 2012Kevin Colton/HWS Colleges

SG: I must confess: I do not remember my commencement speaker at all. This actually gives me comfort. I figure if my speech doesn’t live up to expectations on Sunday, the students hopefully won’t remember it in 10 years anyway!

Read Savannah's full speech below.

Good morning! To President Gearan, Members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty and staff, parents and families, and most of all, to the Class of 2012 — CONGRATULATIONS! 

Now, hold on a second while I tweet that. [TYPING] "I am congratulating HWS 2012 graduates." Sorry, but with your generation, if you don’t tweet it or send it to Instagram, it’s like it never ever happened.

You must be going through withdrawals. Are your phones near? Are they under your gowns? Can we get these kids some ice chips and a Foursquare check in?

Where was I? Oh, yes. I was congratulating the class of — sorry. Class-ES of 2012. Plural. I get it! You have two of everything here. Two colleges. Two mascots. Two sections at graduation. But only ONE college president … who plays in a garage band … and does songs by Pink.

That’s what Betty told me.

Actually — in keeping with the dual theme, I have arranged for two commencement speeches today. Coming up next: Your national debate champs Will McConnell and Buzz Klinger will take on one of the most pressing and unresolved issues of our time. Whose pizza really is better: Mark's or Cam's? Or do we just forget pizza, and go to Joe’s Hots for the garbage plate.

Anyway, I am honored to be here with you today. The Colleges have a proud tradition of excellent academics. We've got Fulbright scholars, Marshall scholars among us; athletics (go Statesmen!...  And Herons!). You've got a strong emphasis on foreign exchange and public service, and I'm particularly heartened to see, journalism is thriving here. You've got the Herald. But I wanna know more about this student paper called "Martini." It's named after a cocktail and is known for its foul language. People, you are on to something!

As your commencement speaker, my main goal is to congratulate you, celebrate you and, in the grand tradition of commencement speeches, supply you with tiny morsel-ettes of wisdom that you will likely forget the second you throw those weird hats in the air.

When I started thinking about this speech and what I wanted to say, my guiding principle was pretty simple: What do I wish I had known when I was graduating from college? What do I wish I could have told myself way back then?

For starters, scrunchies won't always be in fashion. Don't pose for so many pictures holding a six-pack of beer. You don't really need to take a college level course in aerobics.

They do say you should write what you know. Therefore, I decided to organize my speech in the most efficient and intellectually coherent information delivery system humankind has ever devised: the local newscast.

Isn't it comforting that no matter where you go, the news is communicated pretty much the same way: News, Traffic, Weather, Sports and a word from our sponsors. That's what we're going to do here today. Everybody ready? Here we go.

First, the NEWS.

I'm here to tell you that no matter how scared you are, how intimidating the job market is, how worrisome the economy, how insecure you feel deep down about whether you really have what it takes — you don't have to settle.

That's the headline: Now is NOT the time to settle.


I'll tell you how I learned that lesson.

Long before I had my current job, I was working in local television. I was in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona anchoring the weekend news. When I got the opportunity to go to law school at Georgetown. I had applied on a lark, thinking I'd probably never be admitted. Then, when I actually got in, I was truly torn about whether to go. I was afraid, if I left TV, I'd never get back in to the business, and I wasn't sure I was done with trying to make my way in that world. On the other hand, I was afraid, if I turned down Georgetown no law school would ever accept me again.

The truth was, I had a dream. I wanted to go to law school AND I wanted to be a network TV correspondent. But I didn’t think I could do both.

The best advice I got was from one of my old professors at the University of Arizona. After I hemmed and hawed in his office for a while, he looked at me and said, "Savannah, think big."

Deep, right?

Actually, it was. The problem with all of us sometimes is we convince ourselves of all the reasons we CAN'T do something before we even try. We think SMALL, so that we might succeed at that SMALL dream we set out for ourselves in order to avoid failure.

Think of what you might accomplish if you directed all that compelling, forceful energy toward convincing yourself why you CAN do it.

In a nutshell: Thinking BIG means conjuring up a vision for yourself. It means taking time, being reflective, and daring to visualize what it would look like if you could wave a magic wand and be exactly where you wanted to be in five years — even if it seems a little unrealistic at the moment.

Look, we live in the real world. I'm not suggesting you sit around Opus, over-caffeinating and dreaming big dreams, and refusing any situation or opportunity in the meantime that doesn't live up to that perfect ideal.

What I am saying is: THINK big for yourself. DREAM big. But then, be ready to start SMALL.

In fact, that is exactly how it works. You start SMALL, and you work at the SMALL thing like it IS the big thing.  That's how you GET the big thing.

That brings us to the TRAFFIC report. Which is be prepared to SLOW DOWN. The highway of life is long and if you go too fast you could end up hitting a guard rail or get pulled over or maybe you’d need a tow and… OK, you get the idea. I think I’ve taken the traffic thing as far as it can go.

Take your time, do not be in a hurry and do not think you need to achieve everything right here, right now.

I am here to tell you there are no overnight successes. OK... Mark Zuckerberg. And The Situation. But those are the exceptions.

I know, this goes against everything you probably think and feel at this moment  the urgency or pressure you feel to get going with life, take the bull by the horns, start adding to that resume.

I can relate to being in a hurry. When I was just starting out in television, I worked at a small station in a small town. I was a reporter and weekend anchor. And you might not know this when you see it on the news, but the weekend reporters, you have to do it all yourself. And I mean everything. I shot my own video, lugged around a big heavy camera, edited the videotape, wrote all the scripts.

Every day that I would go out and shoot a story I really had just one overarching goal: to get good piece to put on my resume reel to send out to big cities around the country to try to get to a bigger station. We had a name for this: our "escape tape."

But this often didn't go that well for me. Half the time I had to be my own camera person. When it came time to shoot my own standup (that's the part where the reporter is on camera), I would set up the camera on a tripod, run out in front of it, tape my little report and then get back to the station only to find out I'd cut my own head off out of the picture.

Worse: I would look at my own stories, hear my own voice and see my presentation on camera and I KNEW I fell so far short of the network TV correspondent I hoped one day I could be.

I'd be in quiet despair  another day lost in a small town when my dreams were for bigger places.

But what I know now is not a single one of those days was wasted. It was then that I learned this business inside and out. It made me have a wider perspective on this profession so that when I finally got that bigger position, I had done every job and understood how it worked. 

I am glad the first time I was chewed out, it was a local politician and not the White House calling.

Making mistakes and being bad at something, this is how you get to be any good at all.

I know this is hard to hear. But it's true: You're not ready for every big job and every opportunity. Not yet. This is the point: It's NOT a good opportunity if you're not ready. Here's the truth. Here's why you should be excited. You WILL be ready. You WILL get there. You've got your degree and you are on your way.

And now over to Savannah with the WEATHER. Thanks Savannah. The forecast, is partly scary. with a chance of rejection.

Look, I know it's popular to say you should have self-esteem and self-confidence — and brightly go forth in the world.

What I am telling you is that it is OK to be afraid. Not only is it OK — a little fear is probably good for you!

And the simple reason is FEAR leads to over-preparation. And when you over-prepare, ACTUAL failure becomes a much more remote possibility.

In fact, having fear, and then, proceeding in spite of it, is where REAL confidence comes from. It's the accumulation of experiences in your life in which you overcome your fear and try something — even if you really do fail at it! — that leads to authentic self-esteem.

The truth is: We've all missed a grade, or been passed over for a promotion, or watched as the job we wanted went to someone else.

But that's the amazing thing about failure. It's part success. It's an essential ingredient. Because you gain courage — and LOSE fear  when you know, based on your own experience, that you can fail, but you can RECOVER.

Thanks Savannah for that weather report. I’ll be sure to bring my umbrella!

Finally: SPORTS!

To get to the goal line, be prepared for pain.

There will come a time in your life, when you have to just go for the goal. You have to take a big, giant, running leap in pursuit of that … homerun… and when you do, you may be tackled… or, placed in the penalty box. Sorry, sports metaphors aren’t my thing. So… go Statesmen!

Anyway, the larger point is that sometimes the right thing to do will make you feel almost sick to your stomach. There may come a time you have to SEEK OUT the uncomfortable situation in pursuit of your goal.

This happened to me not long after I graduated from law school. I had lined up a clerkship with a federal judge in Washington DC. It was a job that law students from good schools all over the country had applied for, but I was lucky and the judge hired me.

But a few months before I was due to start, I had an epiphany. I realized I still was harboring those ambitions to go back to television. I wanted to be a network correspondent. I wanted to tell big stories and be a reporter again. I guess I still had that big, unrealistic dream gnawing at me.

But I hadn't worked in television in years and never national news. I had no real reason to think I could get a job back in journalism again. On the other hand, what I realized was, the only reason I wasn't trying was because I was afraid I wasn't good enough and that no one would give me a chance. I decided, that wasn't a good enough reason not to try.

So I went into the judge's chambers. And I'll never forget what he said. "Do you have a job offer?" I said, no. Well, he said, "Do you have any prospects?" I shook my head. "So why can't you come clerk for me for a year and then go pursue your dreams?" And I said, "Judge, I just know that if I don't do this now, I will never have the courage again."

The next few months were PAINFUL. I had nothing. I mean, I turned down a prestigious job and it left me with … nothing. Less than nothing. Ice cream helped. Ladies, ice cream always helps.

But I held out, and eventually, after what felt like a frightening eternity, I got a position at Court TV. It was perfect. It was my first break in to national news. I got to cover trials around the country - using my law degree while having the chance to be a reporter again.

And around that time, all of you were born.


So thank you for joining us for this edition of Savannah Guthrie Commencement Action News. And I think it’s clear what we learned from this report: It’s important that you be unrealistic, slow, terrified and constantly prepared for pain.

I send you off in to the world — my work here is done!

Actually, one last thought, on a more serious note. These are scary times. I know today is a day of exhilaration and relief and pride and perhaps some light drinking. But for many of you, tomorrow is one of worry and wonder and fear of the unknown.

A couple weeks ago, I got an email from a young reporter I've corresponded with from time to time. She is from my hometown and she's working hard to get to the next step in her career. In her email, she asked, "Was it ever hard for you, Savannah?"

That hit me in the gut. YES. It was hard. It's still hard. Anyone standing up here can look like they've got it made. Even when it looks like you've accomplished your dream, sometimes that just means a whole new set of fears and worries and insecurities crop up. I feel very lucky to be standing here before you today. But it took me 19 years to get here.

Along the way, I have cried, and worried, and been passed over, disappointed and sometimes embarrassed. I have been heartbroken.

And I have been overjoyed, and proud, and challenged, and tickled and awestruck. Do you know what I really wish I would have told that girl way back when? Enjoy all of it. It is a blessing to be alive. Some people will say these were the best four years of your life. No way. Those years are coming. And here's a goal for real life, worth setting and then striving for daily: to be thankful, whatever your circumstances, every step of the way.

Finally, A WORD FROM OUR SPONSORS… Mom and Dad.

You are here today, celebrating this wonderful accomplishment, because you set a goal, and cared, and worked to see it through. But also because there are people in your life who love and support and worry over you. Maybe you are fortunate enough to have them here today celebrating with you. If so, let them buy you lunch. And call them once in a while. Not just status updates on Facebook. That doesn't cut it for moms.

And give them a big hug and thank you — because none of us succeeds on our own  and this accomplishment belongs to them as well.

Congratulations to the classes of 2012!

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