Stephen Colbert addresses University of Virginia grads

May 25, 2013

Times change, but not the time-honored tradition of giving college graduates some parting advice. This year, those giving advice in the Washington area included a retired athlete, a television commentator, a humorist and a U.S. Senator.

Perhaps most clearly focused on conditions outside the ivied walls this year was satirist Stephen Colbert, whose May 18 talk to the graduates of the University of Virginia seemed to depart from the traditional.

Wryly taking account of economic conditions Colbert made a seemingly startling assertion to the class of 2013:

“You do not owe the previous generation anything,” he told them.

“Thanks to us,” he quickly quipped during valedictory exercises in Charlottesville, “you owe it to the Chinese.”

He also said he had looked around at the beauty of the historic campus, and asked himself, “why are you leaving?

“You know what it’s like out there,” he said.

The athlete, Cal Ripken Jr., the retired star of the Baltimore Orioles, spoke at the commencement of the University of Maryland on May 19. He parsed the differences among talent, skill and attitude.

“We are all born, I believe, with some talent,” Ripken said, although difficulties may arise in determining just what that talent may be. Life, by constantly offering experiences, helps in “the process of discovery,” he said.

Talent may not be something that can be learned, he added, pointing out that no amount of desire can compensate for lack of talent for professional sports.

Skill, on the other hand, he said, can be learned and improved. With skills, he said, “you can work your way” to the top. Learning, however, is not always simple, because “there are no shortcuts,” but comes instead with experience and the lessons of experience.

But, he said, attitude is the key to taking talent and skill to the highest levels. He advised the graduates to take inventory: “Are you positive or negative as you approach life’s challenges?”

Although Ripken is widely regarded as a symbol of the proper approach and attitude to baseball, he told the Maryland graduates in the ceremony at Comcast Center that this was not always true.

At the start of his career, he said, he “quickly dismissed all this attitude talk.” Once, he said, in his rookie season with Baltimore, he displayed his pique and annoyance by throwing his helmet. A seasoned veteran took him aside and told him: “We don’t do that here.”

That and another incident, he said, led him to a decision. “I made a choice to have a positive attitude,” he said, advising the graduates to do the same. A positive attitude, he said, permits turning even failure into valuable experience. If talent cannot be created, a positive attitude can, he said.

Greta Van Susteren, a lawyer and Fox News television commentator, spoke May 19 to the graduates of Georgetown University’s Law Center, reminding them that degrees may be awarded but study never really ends.

“You may think it does,” she said, but “it really doesn’t.” Instead, she told the fledgling lawyers, it “just gets renamed,” going under the rubric of “preparing.”

They would, she said, “continue to learn something new every day, things you never dreamed of.”

Success, she said, came from trying to help other people.

“If you make it a small mission, every single day, in a small way, to help others, just to do something kind, you are going to feel enormously successful.”

At George Mason University last weekend, Sen. Mark R. Warner told the graduates that they had been empowered.

“You can realize your dreams,” the Virginia Democrat said at the Patriot Center, “and you are well-prepared with a Mason diploma.”

In sharing his own experiences,Warner advised against fearing failure.

A co-founder of the wireless communications company Nextel, Warner said his first two businesses swiftly failed.

He referred to his involvement in communications when he joked to the graduates that he might have been the only commencement speaker who would advise: “Leave your cellphones on.”

Few speakers indeed offer such advice. But it must be said that the same suggestion came on the same weekend in an ironic remark from Colbert.

“Before we get started,” the satirist said, “out of courtesy . . . if anyone has” a cellphone, take a moment to make sure “it is turned on.” He said he wouldn’t want anyone to miss a text message while he spoke.

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