By Jodi Picoult
June 1, 2016
Picoult's most recent novel is Small Great Things

President Eisgruber, members of the administration, parents, friends and Class of 2016: Thank you so much for having me here today. I have to admit, when I was first asked to be the Class Day speaker, I thought, “Michelle Obama totally backed out.” I YouTubed Jon Stewart’s Class Day speech, and I thought, “Yeah, this is a mistake.”

Then I realized where I could draw my inspiration from—fellow Tigers. Since people over 40 are legally banned from YikYak, I googled a Daily Princetonian article about me being picked. It gave me all the feels. And then—I read the comments. I’m just gonna do my own version of Mean Tweets here for a second: “I paid class dues for THIS?” said someone with the disturbing user name “Were-Pooper.” (Let’s just be grateful it’s not a full moon.)

And from a member of the Class of 2011: “I have heard that she is a terrible, mean person. Did the committee run out of people to invite?” In case “Were-Pooper” is listening, don’t worry: Your dues actually pay for the “charmingly fickle” campus Wifi—and the chocolate fountains at Forbes College, meant to make students forget it’s miles away from everything except a construction site. “2011 Grad,” I’m sorry you think I’m a terrible, mean person. But it could be way worse. They could have invited a different alum. Like Ted Cruz.

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To be honest, getting asked to be class speaker is like finding out 29 years after you graduate that you’re actually prom queen. ‘There was never a world in which I didn’t say yes. So of course I got straight to work…looking for my Class of 1987 beer jacket. You will notice that I am not wearing said jacket. It wasn’t where I left it, with all the other things I’ll never use again but don’t have the heart to throw away—like my wicked-cool acid-wash jeans, my flip phone and my diploma from the Harvard School of Education. This loss was crushing. I actually keep an orange dress in my wardrobe at all times because, you know, Princeton. But that beer jacket—it’s still missing.

And so, today, I’m going to retrace my steps. I was accepted early action to Princeton, which was awesome, and assigned to an eight-woman suite in Wilson College, which was less awesome. Things were tough back then. Palmer Stadium was a crumbling cement horseshoe. Nassau Street did not have a J. Crew. There was no Sunday Funday at Cottage. The day I graduated, locusts were literally falling from the skies, as if this wasn’t a celebration, but a Biblical plague. Journalists were staking out the campus. As I marched in, wearing my cap and gown, a reporter stuck a microphone in front of me and asked, “How do you feel about graduating…with Brooke Shields?”

At Princeton, I became someone I never expected to be: An accidental activist. See, I was a good girl. Unlike my husband—Tim van Leer, Class of ’86—who drove a DFS golf cart into Lake Carnegie one wild night, my biggest infraction was breaking into McCosh to study in the basement. I had grown up in suburbia, privileged, with parents who loved me. I never really had to fight for anything because it had come easily.

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Then I landed at Princeton and took a creative writing workshop with the inimitable Mary Morris. On my first day, Mary handed me construction paper, scissors and a glue stick and told me to sit on the floor, surrounded by the rest of the class. “Where does Jodi’s short story really start?” she asked, and she went (Rip! Rip!) and threw the first four pages over her shoulder.

For the rest of the class, I was told to cut and paste. I left in tears. The next day, I went to Mary’s office hours and asked why she’d done that. “Because you needed it,” she told me, “and because you can take it.” Well, I was so angry that I edited that story. And edited it. And edited it. And then, I sold it to Seventeen magazine. I called my parents. “I’m going to be a writer!” My dad said, “That’s great. Who’s going to support you?” What would have happened, I wonder, if Mary had looked at my short story and said it was fine? Would I have pushed back so hard? If I hadn’t, would I have been published in the first place?

This is what I mean by being an accidental activist. Sometimes, you don’t know what you’re capable of, until you’re told no.

This wasn’t the only time at Princeton that I broke barriers. As a freshman, I was mesmerized by the crew shells in front of Dillon. But what did a 5’2″ Jew from Long Island know about crew? I asked Coach Curtis Jordan if he needed a manager, but the women rowers already had one. “OK,” I said. “What about the men?” Coach Larry Gluckman invited me to heavyweight practice. Years later, he admitted that he did this because he was sure I wouldn’t show up. At first, the guys didn’t know what to make of me, until they realized that I was the smallest person on the team, and then everyone wanted to sit with me on long bus trips.

Larry wanted me to learn the sport. He had me cox a boat being stroked by the rower least likely to dump me in Lake Carnegie when I screwed up—the same rower I eventually married. I like to say that Tim and I started our relationship with me yelling at him, and 26 years later, not much has actually changed. I was the first woman to set foot in a men’s crew shell at Princeton. Since then, the team has had female managers and coxswains. I wasn’t trying to change history—I just wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I didn’t know how big, until it was in retrospect.

Read more: Lin-Manuel Miranda to Grads: ‘Your Stories Are Essential’

After I graduated, I continued to push back. When my writing was called women’s fiction, I said the label didn’t refer to my audience but to the fact that I have lady parts. Half my fan mail comes from men, and my topics—like the Holocaust—make the worst chick lit ever.

I am only the second woman in DC Comics history to write the “Wonder Woman” series since her creation 75 years ago. One day in 2010, I randomly tweeted about how a Jonathan Franzen novel had landed two reviews and a profile piece in a single week in the Times. “Would love to see The New York Times rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings,” I wrote.

The backlash was intense, directed at me and other female writers, like Jennifer Weiner, Class of 1991, who dared suggest that there was gender inequity in publishing. We were told to stop whining, to write better books, to write about subjects that were as important as those covered by men writers. We were told we were wrong.

In fact, an organization called VIDA crunched numbers and proved that male authors are reviewed far more frequently than female authors. What’s really frustrating about this is that 80% of books are bought by women. Seven years later, I’m still a thorn in the side of the publishing industry because I won’t stop talking about gender and racial equity. Yeah, I get flack for it. But if even one reader chooses a female writer because of something I’ve said, isn’t it worth it?

When someone tells you no, you have two choices. You can stop in your tracks. Or you can push forward by raising questions most people would rather not hear, much less discuss. Some of my most resonant books are ones that ask questions that made me, or others, uncomfortable. I wrote My Sister’s Keeper after one of my children had 13 surgeries in three years, and I wanted to know: Do we really love all our children equally, or does one sometimes take precedence?

I wrote Sing You Home when my eldest son came out, and I wondered: How can I make the world a safer place for him as a gay man? In my upcoming novel, Small Great Things, I ask: What does it mean to be white and to realize that the color of my skin has given me advantages I have previously chosen to see as luck or hard work?

I’m not the only one asking that. Difficult issues of race and inclusivity have also faced Princeton recently. Discussing the legacy of Woodrow Wilson and whether his prominence in Princeton’s history is deserved makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But you know what? Comfort is not an inalienable right. There are people on this campus who feel uncomfortable every day, who have to search harder to find the narrative of their story at Princeton. And although I don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color at Princeton, I do know a little something about what it means to be a woman here.

In 1963, Princeton’s first five female undergraduates arrived on campus as part of a cooperative program in critical languages in what one woman referred to as “my junior year as a broad.” They were not exactly given a red carpet welcome. “It disgusts me to be in competition with girls,” a male student said. “If I had wanted to go to classes with girls, I would have gone to Stanford.”

A professor said he didn’t like having women on campus because he couldn’t curse in front of them. One guy complained that he couldn’t be expected to focus on politics with a woman sitting next to him. These women did not see themselves as revolutionaries. They just came to get an education. But along the way, the men with whom they shared the campus received one, too. I’d like to think the men of Princeton have come to see the benefits of coeducation—if not in their own hearts and minds, then in the hearts and minds of their daughters and granddaughters. And yet, in the 15 years Princeton has had class day speakers from outside the university, I am only the third female. I mean, clearly there is a dearth of talent. It’s not like Elena Kagan went to Princeton. Or Sonia Sotomayor. Or Anne Marie Slaughter. Or the First Lady of the United States.

Now, I don’t offer this example to suggest that being an underrepresented woman on campus in the 1960s is tantamount to being a student of color here today. I offer it to remind us that the road to defining our community has been historically bumpy and that acceptance does not guarantee inclusion. We’ve been here before, caught between those who want to look back and remember the “good old times” and those who imagine a future that’s more diverse and representative of the world outside our gates.

We are living at a time when a female presidential candidate is berated for not smiling enough and for yelling during her speeches. We are living in a time when the Black Lives Matter movement occupies campus spaces to raise racial awareness at universities, while the press tells them to stop complaining. Comments like that come from the gatekeepers who have always had a voice. But when you cannot be heard, you yell. When you are not noticed, you make yourself visible. To those who continue to struggle, I say “thank you”—because if not for your predecessors, I wouldn’t be here. And to those of you who have power, thanks to money or race or gender or sexual orientation or any other marker we use to classify the haves and the have-nots, you too have a role to play. Recognize your privilege, and step up to the podium. But then: Pass the microphone to someone whose opinions have been marginalized or previously unheard. And listen.

Real life isn’t a multiple-choice test. It’s OK to admit you don’t have the right answer…as long as you’re asking the right questions. Here’s the catch: You’ll have to hear suggestions you vehemently oppose. We tend to surround ourselves with voices that are similar to our own. We friend more than we unfriend. We check our feeds to see how many likes we get. But that one dissenting comment stands out like a red flag—yes, Were-Pooper, I’m talking to you.

When it happens—and it will happen—we react. How? Do we drown out the voice that challenges us? Or do we risk listening, find an inch of common ground and build a bridge? There’s an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We are all still finding our way. Whether you are an administrator, a protester, a current politician or a new graduate who thinks he knows everything, I challenge you not just to hear but to really understand a differing point of view. You may not change your mind, but you will change the dynamic between you and the person who’s speaking. Question another’s solution to a problem, but never question his motives or his character. That is the difference between sowing the seeds of hate and creating a foundation of respect.

My job today is to offer you advice. I am tempted to tell you the things I used to tell my own children: Wear your seat belt. Say thank you. Don’t eat the yellow snow. Luckily, I got to have a dress rehearsal of this moment last week, when my son Jake graduated from some lesser school in New Haven. I hugged him, hoping that insight and experience could be transferred through osmosis. I thought, “Do what you love, not what pays the most. Be kind. Be grateful. Don’t just fall in love—stay in love. Adopt a dog. And finally: Be true to your moral compass. Don’t let anyone convince you that just because something’s always been done a certain way, it must be right.”

Thanks to years of lessons from your parents and your friends and your professors, the knowledge of what is right already burns inside you like a pilot light. Lots of things will threaten to douse it—money, fame, success, privilege. You will be tempted to do what’s easy instead of what’s fair. You will be swayed to step on someone else so you can rise. You may even manage to convince yourself that you had no other option. That’s not true. You always have a choice to work for the greater good, to nurture the spark of what makes us accountable to each other. In fact, your only job, as an official grownup, is to not lose sight of that flame.

Tomorrow you will receive an Ivy League diploma that will give you access to rooms and conversations many never get to see or join. Take a hot second to celebrate your success. But then, look down and pull up those who are still climbing so that they can enjoy the same view. Look up and see where else you can climb. There will no doubt be something or someone in your way—well, good. Embrace the obstacles. The person who gets where he wants easily may not break a sweat—but he also will not have a story that inspires change—or that inspires others.

Oh, and put your beer jacket somewhere you won’t lose it. Because in 29 years, one of you will be standing here, confident that this new crop of graduates will leave the world a better place than they found it.

Go on, Class of 2016. Make the rest of us proud. Thank you.

Read more 2016 commencement speeches:

Anne-Marie Slaughter: ‘Care Is as Important as Career’

Arianna Huffington to Grads: ‘Your Attention Is Truly the Most Valuable Currency’

Barack Obama: ‘Passion Is Vital, But You’ve Got to Have a Strategy’

Condoleezza Rice to Grads: ‘Don’t Let Anyone Else Define Your Passion’

Cory Booker to Grads: ‘Tell Your Truth’

Darren Walker to Grads: ‘Stand For Something’

Earl Lewis: ‘Never Confuse The Attainement of an Education with What It Means to Be Educated’

Eboo Patel to Wake Forest Grads: ‘The Only Shame Is in Stagnation’

Hank Azaria to Grads: Ignore Your Instincts ‘at Your Own Peril’

Hoda Kotb: ‘You’re the Sum Total of the Five People You Spend the Most Time With’

J.K. Simmons to Grads: ‘Live in the Moment’

Jane Goodall to Grads: ‘Remember to Live to Your True Human Potential’

Jill Bolte Taylor: ‘We Have the Power to Choose Who We Want to Be’

Lin-Manuel Miranda to Grads: ‘Your Stories Are Essential’

Madeleine Albright: ‘Everyone Must Participate in Solving Shared Problems’

Mahershala Ali to Grads: ‘We Are All Co-Creators of Our Respective Destinies’

Michael Bloomberg: ‘An Open Mind Is the Most Valuable Asset You Can Possess’

Michelle Obama to Grads: ‘Excellence Is the Most Powerful Answer You Can Give’

Obama to Grads: Building Walls Is ‘A Betrayal of Who We Are’

Rita Dove to Grads: ‘Instead of Advice, I Will Give You Wishes’

Russell Wilson: ‘Go Make It Happen’

Samantha Power to Grads: ‘Invest Yourself Fully. Get Close’

Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Finding Gratitude and Appreciation Is Key to Resilience’

Vivek Murthy: ‘Live a Connected Life’

William Foege to Grads: ‘Every Day We Edit Our Obituaries’

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