Stanford Report, June 15, 2008
BY ADAM GORLICK
She came to dispense words of advice, encouragement and congratulations. But Oprah Winfrey's address at Stanford's 117th Commencement wouldn't have been complete without her giving away something more.
There were no car keys or envelopes of cash awaiting the 4,666 graduates who poured into Stanford Stadium doing the struts and stunts of the Wacky Walk, Stanford's unorthodox version of the traditional graduation procession. Instead, they found two ribbon-wrapped books—Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth and Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind—on their seats, gifts from Winfrey that she also highlighted in her speech about feelings, failure and finding happiness.
"I really wanted to give you cars," said the television host, magazine publisher and philanthropist, who was greeted by the graduates with cheers, high-fives and whoops of "Oprah, I love you!"
During her 30-minute address, which started with a special nod to her graduating goddaughter, Kirby Bumpus, Winfrey drew on lessons learned from a career that began in 1976, when she co-anchored a television newscast.
"It didn't feel right," she said of the $22,000 job that her father encouraged her to stick with. She did not like covering tragedies. She did not like being told to change her look. And she was not about to listen to her boss and change her name to "Suzie."
After eight months of being an awkward fit, the station she worked for made her a talk show host.
As soon as she started the new job, "I felt like I came home," she said.
"When you're doing the work you were meant to do, it feels right," she said "And every day is a bonus, regardless of what you're getting paid."
Money is nice, she told the crowd of about 25,000, but without being able to put it to good use, there is not much point.
"I like money," said Winfrey, who has been ranked five times by Forbes magazine as the world's most powerful celebrity. "It's good for buying things. What you want is money with meaning. Meaning is what brings real richness to your life."
And she cautioned that even the richest lives are not without pitfalls.
Shortly after the January 2007 opening of Oprah Winfrey's Leadership Academy for Girls, the $40 million school she had built in South Africa, one of its employees was charged with sexually abusing students.
Winfrey said she was devastated by the charges, but immediately began an investigation and made sure the students received counseling. Rather than let the scandal overtake her and simply react to a bad situation, she said she learned from it.
"I had been paying attention to all of the wrong things," she said, recounting how she was perhaps more focused on the construction of the building than the people working there. "I built that school from the outside in, when what really mattered was the inside out."
Drawing on the university's founding by Leland and Jane Stanford in memory of their son, who died of typhoid fever, as an example of overcoming tragedy, Winfrey told the graduates that "in order to move forward, you have to give something back."
Helping others—even when times are tough for the benefactor—allows people to join what Winfrey called "the greatest fellowship of all: the sorority of compassion and the fraternity of service."
Brittany Clark, a graduate who plans to start a foundation to help people pay for a college education, said Winfrey's speech was "amazingly inspirational."
"She gives me hope that I could accomplish my goals to help others," Clark said.
But Commencement wasn't all about lofty goals and philanthropy. The ceremony began with what is perhaps Stanford's most famous nontraditional tradition—the Wacky Walk. Before being seated, the graduates burst onto the stadium field with Frisbees, beach balls and Chinese parade dragons. Some were outfitted in togas, costumed as bowling pins or posing as a Marguerite campus shuttle bus. Plenty of them paid tribute to their Commencement speaker by holding up larger-than-life pictures of Winfrey's face and riffing on some Oprah's Book Club selections with mock advertisements for titles like How to Get Your Stanford Degree in Just Four Years for Under $500,000.
Others took advantage of the half hour to simply relax.
"This is our last chance to lay out and tan at Stanford, which was an integral part of our undergraduate education," said Kate Ludwig, who shed her graduation gown in favor of a bikini and spread out on one of the beach blankets she and a friend unrolled on the field.
On Sunday, 1,702 bachelor's degrees were conferred, along with 2,017 master's degrees and 947 doctoral degrees. Departmental honors were awarded to 340 undergraduates; 268 graduated with university distinction; 90 graduated with multiple majors; 407 completed minors; 49 graduated with dual bachelor's degrees; and 134 graduated with combined bachelor's and master's degrees.
Among international students, there were 83 undergraduates from 37 different countries and 940 graduate students from 76 different countries, according to the Office of the Registrar.
"You have worked hard to earn this degree and accomplished much during your time here, and you certainly deserve this day of celebration," President John Hennessey said. "But at Stanford, we believe the rights and privileges of an education also bring a responsibility to make good use of your knowledge, to change the world for the better and to help ensure that succeeding generations have the same opportunities you have had here at Stanford."
For parents, the day was mixed with pride and excitement.
Salvatore and Anna Bonaccorso of Brooklyn, N.Y., made sure they were at the stadium early to get seats in the front row of the stands. Their son, Salvatore, was graduating with bachelor's and master's degrees.
"It was his dream to come here," Anna Bonaccorso said. "We want him to keep living his dream. But he could probably use a little rest right now."