This is a tremendous honour, and particularly lovely coming from King’s, and I’m really very grateful.
Over the past few months, thinking about speaking to you today, I’ve been wracking my brain for useful things to tell you, the graduates – trying to think of the things that I wish someone had said to me when I sat out there were you are 16 years ago. The first thing that came to me is that you may never feel as grown up again as you do today.
You are graduating today into a world of great uncertainty – my generation, and the ones before mine, have done a spectacular job of really screwing things up. It’s deeply unfair, that we are handing you this mess.
But if you will indulge me, I’d like to tell you a little story: On my first day of journalism school at King’s, I went to a lecture in the old Haliburton Room, and Michael Cobden, who is here today, and was then the head of the journalism school, mentioned proudly how every single person in that year’s graduating class had a job. You will all get jobs, he said confidently. And I thought, “Great. A job would be good. A career. A grown-up life.”
Four years later, as I sat in this cathedral, I was graduating into the teeth of a bitter recession – and nobody, not one person, in my graduating class had managed to find a full-time job. (Stop me if you’ve heard this.)
I did the obvious thing: I went to graduate school, and took on $40,000 worth of additional debt. I went to the London School of Economics, and never regretted a penny of that debt, because I learned a million things, and because I met people and had adventures that continue to open doors for me today. But that was only good for a year of avoiding reality, and not long enough to end the recession. After submitting my master’s thesis, I came back to Canada, to find that now ONE person from my graduating class had a job: he was editing the monthly newsletter of the Atlantic Fish Canning Association. I’m not making this up.
So I left. I made a totally ill-thought-out decision to move to the Middle East, to Jerusalem – to be a freelance journalist in the city which, I soon discovered, already had the world’s largest full-time press corps. That in hindsight was dumb. And it was really hard. I was broke, I was totally out of my league, I was alone. I was also too proud to come home.
Because I was broke, I lived in a Palestinian village and shopped at a local market and took the local bus and soon I had learned pretty good Arabic. Well, of course, in a couple of years world events were going to dramatically improve the market for journalists who spoke Arabic.
Because I was way out of my league, I landed in Beirut on a holiday just as Israel invaded. I was dumb, but I was also fast on my feet, and two weeks later, I was working on a cover story in Newsweek.
Eventually I was able to come back to Canada, and after paying a few newsroom dues, talk my way into a job as a war correspondent, and it all happened much faster that it probably would have, if at all, if I had simply landed the job I originally had hoped for right after graduating from King’s. And along the way, I got to tell important stories: I covered the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin; I covered the return of the PLO to the occupied Palestinian territories. And I got to race camels in the Egyptian Sinai and dance in a secret underground nightclub in Beirut with the drag queen son of the sheikh who founded Hezbollah.
The point of this story is that sometimes, bad luck turns out not to be so bad.
That you learn the most from the hardest things.
That opportunities come in places that you’re not looking.
And, as Amelia Earhart said (words I later took as my own motto when I was learning to fly), “Courage is the price that life demands for granting peace.”
Something else happened to me along the away in those early years of working overseas: I think it began the first time I went to a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, and really spent some time there. I came away with a whole new understanding of my privilege, as a Canadian, and of the fact that really, I didn’t know anything, about anything, in the world. I didn’t know what life was really like for – as I would soon start to realize – the great bulk of people in the world.
And here’s something I only started to figure out even later: that even if you spend the rest of your life right here in Halifax, you are responsible for much of what happens elsewhere in the world.
For how those other people live.
Regardless of what you choose to do with your new degree, your new skills, you will be responsible.
If you have an iPod like mine, or a cellphone, or a Wii, you are connected to the 14-year-olds I have met who are enslaved by rebel groups in the Congo and who dig for the coltan, the mineral that is the essential ingredient in our gadgets.
If you have a Gap T-shirt like I do, then you are connected to the Bangladeshi women who stitched it for five bucks a day, and who cannot develop their textile sector into better-paying jobs because of our trade restrictions.
If, like me, you are a Canadian citizen, you are connected to the children in Swaziland who cannot go to school today, who will never have the moment you are having today, because Canada, as a voting, policy-setting member of the World Bank, forces the Swazi government to charge school fees for their primary schools – even though ours are free.
And if, like me, you enjoy the occasional Starbucks latte, you are connected to the women in Ethiopia who earn 70 cents a day sorting their coffee beans. Ah-hah, you think. I always order the fair trade blend. Well, great. The woman in the fair trade factory earn 96 cents a day. I know – I spent an afternoon on a Starbucks factory line in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a couple of years ago.
So I can tell you that those women are glad to have their jobs.
I’m not sure that’s good enough.
You are connected to these people. And you decide how much responsibility you will take for that.
If I may take the rather sweeping liberty of speaking on behalf of my generation, I apologize for the stinking mess we’re handing you. I wish you courage and strength as you face it. You can leave here knowing that you have acquired many of the skills and much of the knowledge that you need to do so – but also confident that you will make big mistakes and dumb decisions, and some of them will turn out to be the best thing that could have happened.
Regardless of how grim the evening news may sound, I hope you will celebrate what you’ve achieved – it’s very much worthy of celebration.
Graduates, and parents, and the faculty and staff who got you here today, you all have my warmest congratulations.
And to everyone at King’s, my great thanks for the great honour you have given me today.
And for everything you’ve given me through the years.
At the May 14, 2009, Encaenia at King’s, the College honoured Dr. Stephanie Nolen with the degree of Doctor of Civil Law.