I've attended a lot of college graduations. Speakers spout platitudes while anxious graduates squirm in their seats counting down the minutes until the post-graduation parties, and their relatives sneak a quick snooze. If you were to ask many college grads five years later who delivered their commencement address, they probably couldn't tell you.
However, Holy Names University's 2012 graduating classes got a rare treat Saturday. The Oakland university scored a big coup in landing noted journalist and author Gwen Ifill to deliver the commencement address.
It's a shame that a number of the students had no idea who Ifill was nor how fortunate they were to have someone of her caliber.
Ifill is the moderator and managing editor at "Washington Week" as well as senior correspondent at the "PBS NewsHour" -- two of the few remaining television forums for serious discussions about domestic and international issues -- amid a wasteland of shrieking pundits who now dominate our precious airwaves. As Holy Names President William Hynes noted in introducing Ifill, she and her colleagues "are a bastion of unperturbed calm and clear logic."
When many within the news business are in a race to the bottom, week in and week out Ifill continues to ask the probing questions and move beyond the empty sound bites. She and her fellow journalists on "Washington Week" debate the issues for an audience that actually cares about what is happening in the country and in the world.
Ifill is the daughter of immigrants from Barbados and Panama who rose from humble beginnings to become a distinguished and accomplished journalist. Her father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Ifill covered politics for many years for some of the premier newspapers in the country, including The Washington Post and The New York Times before making the leap to television at NBC. Her mentor there was the late Tim Russert.
In a color-struck industry where being a dark-skinned woman continues to be viewed by many news executives as a liability, Ifill has risen to the top through sheer intellect, hard work and an unwavering sense of her own mission.
Ifill has faced virulent racism. When she began covering the White House for The New York Times, the hateful Don Imus proclaimed on his radio talk show, "Isn't the Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House."
But as Ifill told the graduates Saturday, as far as she was concerned, being African-American was "an accident of birth." She has certainly never let other people's efforts to marginalize her get in her way. She moderated the last two vice presidential debates, the first African-American woman to do so.
Ifill's address was short but powerful.
She told students that graduation was about much more than a degree and that if a diploma was all they took away with them, they had missed the point.
"You are educated. You are among the elite," Ifill said. "But you are not complete until you acknowledge that in your soul that will make your success."
Ifill told the students to seek their "higher calling."
"You are called for a mission to change the world around us," she said. —... There is division, there is misunderstanding, there is financial stress out there."
She told students that they must be willing to step up and "witness" -- to become conscious of something greater than their own self-interest.
"We have to see to tell," Ifill said. "If you don't see ... the sufferers are rendered invisible."
Ifill urged the graduates to challenge the established order.
"Go out there and be disruptive because the barriers are still there," she said. "The world is often still resistant to change, but you have a flashlight that Holy Names has given you, and you can shine that light."
I don't know if the graduates will remember Ifill's name, but I sure hope they take to heart her message.