July 2, 2015 1:08 PM EDT

Growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts I was first exposed to movies in the 1960s, which was one of the most creative and exhilarating periods in the history of film.

The young filmmakers and artists of that period were daring and brash and influenced by the social forces that were transforming society in such films as To Kill A Mockingbird, In The Heat of the Night, The Graduate, and A Hard Day’s Night.

One of my favorite films from that era was 1961’s West Side Story. At the time, my brother Ashley was an executive at United Artists, which released the film. I remember my family getting all dressed up to drive to New York to attend the premiere. And when the film won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and when cast members Rita Moreno and George Chakiris won Oscars, I was ecstatic.

When I graduated from high school, I thought I was going to work for the government. I went to college with the vision of working for the United States Information Agency and a career in public diplomacy.

After graduation from college, I decided to take time off from school, and took a number of different jobs including being a stewardess for Pan American World Airways.

But at age 25, I sat down and had an honest conversation with myself. I wanted to do something I love in a world that I loved, which was the film industry.

Little did I dream then that someday I would be a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, much less its President.

The Academy is made up of more than 7,000 men and women working in film around the world, and led by a Board of Governors representing 17 different branches of the industry that include Directors, Actors, Editors, Cinematographers and public relations, which is the branch for which I’ve served as a Governor for 22 years.

The Academy’s mission today is largely the same as it was when I became a member in 1987, and when it was founded 87 years ago: to recognize and uphold excellence in the motion picture arts and sciences, inspire imagination, and connect the world through the medium of motion pictures.

As an Academy, we celebrate creative artists who are pushing the boundaries of cinema — men and women whose accomplishments touch people’s hearts and capture the world we live in.

Every year at the Oscars we honor the courage of filmmakers who cross borders and test boundaries, who give voice to challenging ideas and alternative points of view, and who encourage us to see the world and those around us in new ways.

As you embark on the next phase of your careers in the arts, I hope you will carry that torch, tell the truth about the world as you perceive it and change the narrative.

As the world becomes smaller and more globally connected, you as artists also have a responsibility to protect freedom of expression and ensure that no one’s voice is silenced by threats, violence or prejudice, and that different opinions can be shared without fear of personal or professional attack.

I want you all to follow your passion. There may be detours, but just keep moving forward. Stay focused on your goals and dreams.

Happiness is a goal of life.

In my years in the film industry, as a marketing and public relations executive both at major studios and independent companies, I have had to learn to maneuver both sides of the show business equation — the show side and the business side.

As creative artists nowadays, it’s incumbent on you to understand the business of the arts and the different funding channels available to you. A career in the arts does not guarantee financial stability, but if you’re smart about finding ways to monetize the work you love, the rewards will be immense.

I also urge you to give back to the community through the nonprofit sector.

In my career, I’ve also been lucky to serve as an artist in residence and university professor, to support programs for public schools in Los Angeles, to bring arts education to the under-served community and at-risk youth.

There are so many youngsters who haven’t had the opportunity to explore the arts. And as people have helped you, in your journey, I hope that you will support arts education for under-served youth.

In our ever-changing world there are countless opportunities available to your generation, more so than ever before.

With all of technology’s advancements one thing that has not changed is the human love of storytelling — whether it is music, painting, literature, dance or film.

It’s a thrill to stand here alongside you as you embark on this exciting next chapter of your lives. And I offer my very best wishes that you can bring the light of humanity and inspiration that you found here at UNC School of the Arts to the world around you.

This article was originally published by The Academy on Medium

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