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Octavia Spencer’s Advice to Graduates: ‘The Best Years Are Very Much Ahead of You’

16 minute read

Actress Octavia Spencer delivered the commencement address at Ohio’s Kent State University on Saturday.

Wow. Wow, wow, wow. That is a wonderful introduction. Thank you, Dr. Warren.

Good morning, Kent State graduating class of 2017. And good morning to everyone here celebrating what this day means. Now I know for a lot of you what it means – it means I’m done paying tuition. I’m kidding, I’m kidding.

I know many of you are filled with relief, exhilaration and perhaps a bit of anticipation for what tomorrow brings. To the family and friends here supporting this remarkable class, take a moment to look at them. Each of them. They all have an undeniable beauty that’s carried them to this moment. Their diplomas represent both the years of hard work behind them and the new opportunities that lie ahead.

To the teachers and the staff who led and occasionally dragged them to the finish line, you served as the inspiration they needed to know that this day was attainable.

To the alumni who are here to reflect and represent what it means to be part of a community with over 100 years of history, 100-years-plus of molding leaders, policy makers, artists, educators, scientists, and Arsenio Hall and Drew Carey.

To the graduates being tasked with going out and continuing the legacy of charting a course with the maps that you’ve created here, maps filled with your own personal knowledge and experience, your work to this point is far from unnoticed. We’re all here to witness, acknowledge, and celebrate the completion of this leg of your journey. Good morning to all of you.

And thank you for letting me share this day by your side. Thank you for allowing me to serve as a voice of the elation you’re feeling right now, and perhaps relate some of my own experiences. You’ve reached a mountaintop today. You persisted to get here and I’m honored to be a part of it with you. It’s an achievement that not everyone receives, so take a deep breath, look around, remember this feeling.

Each of you has your own individual journeys ahead where you will reach unique and thrilling heights that will be exclusively yours. But today, this view, these accomplishments, they’re yours to celebrate together, Kent State.

Oh, honestly, I almost missed my own graduation moment. It was my last quarter at Auburn and I’d somehow talked the university and my professors into letting me complete it as a work-study. I was offered a casting assistant position in a film in Mississippi, and I decided that I just did not want to drive back to Auburn. So I told my family that I would not go to graduation and that they didn’t have to come, that I would wait to receive my diploma in the mail.

Then the night before the ceremony, I woke up, I was a little ill at ease, if you will. I realized that if I didn’t go to my own college graduation, it would be a huge mistake that I would always regret. So I drove back and made it just in time for the ceremony. And you know what, I am so glad I did. Because I would have missed what you’re feeling right now, that sense of completion, of accomplishment, that sense of victory.

For all of you graduating today, it’s a result of your own individual victories that now serve as one collective triumph. You were given classes to labor through before you could step up on this stage. You had papers to write, exams to pass and arguments to defend before being given a diploma with your name stitched across it. In other words, you have earned it. You’ve earned it.

In your time here, you filled in the ‘you’ details, the minutiae. You defined how that path would look. No one came here the same way. Some of you started off prepared to study one discipline and are leaving with a degree in another. Some of you began writing a paper one night, and maybe you woke up self-conscious about what you wrote, perhaps a little ill at ease. So you challenged yourself to write a completely different piece, a piece that was more you, more of what you needed to say. You found your voice.

Let me tell you this. Keep chasing those moments where you discover something new about your voice. Don’t ever let that end. Keep your minds and hearts open to life’s endless and unforeseeable possibilities. And filing in those ‘you’ details, you also chose who would be a part of those vignettes and stories in this chapter of your lives at Kent State. Friendships were crated here. Relationships began. Relationships ended. Mentors came into your life, and these are the faces you will remember when you look back at your time here, faces you chose for this season of time. You spent every day developing these connections, adding in layer after layer in a constant state of give-and-take with people who mean so much to you. You lived in closer proximity to your friends that most of you ever will again. This bonded you together in a special way.

Now, there may be a temptation to think that these were the best years of your lives because of everything and everyone you discovered here. But that would be too narrow a vision, too myopic. I promise you that everyone here has been a part of shaping you for a future you could never have dreamt for yourself.

But my dear graduates, let me be frank, the best years are very much ahead of you. And they can be whatever you want them to be. Your work, your life, your weekdays, your weekends, can all be filled with as much meaning as you dictate.

As you go off now to start new jobs or new graduate programs, or maybe you already have a career or maybe a million followers on Instagram and you don’t even need my advice. But whatever chapter, whatever your next chapter is, define it by being true to your authentic self. Fill it with meaning. Because you’re on the other side now, and maybe fear is starting to creep in, perhaps aggressively — fear of the unknown. Oh, the excitement of today is about to become a memory, and you will have to join the rest of us in a world where there are no more graduations. It’s your turn to choose and define what success means to you. Now, others will try to define it for you, but yours is the only voice that matters.

The journey you take now will be led by you alone. Let me say that again. The journey you take now will be led by you alone. Don’t let that scare you, oh no, let that liberate you. Remember, no one came here the same way, and you won’t all achieve success the same way. But because you all have shaped your path to graduation in a way that is uniquely and undeniably yours, I am pretty confident that you will continue to do that. But as you move forward, please, please, please, oh please, don’t let yourself get caught up in the trap of comparison. You know what I’m talking about. Ignore the stilly 30-Under-30 list that the internet throws at you before you’ve even had your morning cup of coffee. Those will be the bane of your existence post-graduation, trust me. Trust me. Comparing yourself to other’s success only slows you down from finding your own.

If I had to read ‘25 Actresses Who Broke Through Before 25’ when I was first starting out, I tell you guys, I would have stayed in bed. Because I guarantee you that none of them looked like me. None of them. So know this: As much as you’ve changed during your time here, more change is coming. You’re going to continue to evolve in unforeseen ways. You are full of complexities and wonders that haven’t even begun to surface. Life’s unpredictability will draw these out and what defines you now will be mere shades and hues of a more vibrant you over the next five, 10, 50 years. Honestly, I can’t think of anything more liberating than that, knowing that life will look differently than you think it will. It’s sure different for me.

You see, my 21-year-old self thought that 45 was old. Oh yeah, she’s nodding on the front row, you think it’s old, too. But trust me, you will get here one day. And 45 will feel as good as 30. Anyway, I thought that by this age, I’d be done with my semi-successful acting career, but married and raising a family. Well, I wasn’t semi-successful as an actress, I’m hugely successful — but unmarried and no family. Life is unpredictable. But I’m still extremely happy, don’t get me wrong. Very, very, very, very happy.

So know that you’re going to alter the way our world works in ways you cannot even imagine. Yes you, you and your generation, and that’s another thing. Don’t let anyone define your generation for you. Others are afraid of what they don’t know or can’t see, so think big, show up early, stay late and bust your asses. Excuse me for the profanity.

But stay focused so that your change and growth is intentional. Don’t let who you’re becoming be shaped by disappointments and also don’t let yourself be shaped by achievements either. Remember your Kipling: If you can meet with triumph and disaster but treat those two imposters just the same. Treat them just the same.

Define success and define your best years by every day that you work hard towards achieving your goals. Your talent and efforts got you here today and that talent will continue to open doors for you. And luck will play its part too. But a strong work ethic is vital and it will get you farther than talent and luck ever could, trust me, I know. Little talent, lot of hard work.

So keep moving forward. And don’t be frustrated when your path gets messy because it will get messy. You’ll fall and you’ll fail along the way. Wildly. Embrace the mess. Say it with me, embrace the mess, as Nora Ephron used to say. Get ready for it. And don’t let the potential to fail stop you from moving forward.

Now I know we’re here to recognize your journey, but I want to talk to you a little bit more about my own, and how I’ve chosen to define it and hopefully it will help you. Because after playing the maid in The Help, I can’t tell you how many opportunities came for me to play more maids. Maids and nurses. I portrayed women in these noble professions countless times, but I had to start saying no, at least to the ones who weren’t attempting to highlight new perspectives of these types of stories.

Saying no is what led me to Hidden Figures, where Taraji, Janelle and I portrayed three women who worked for NASA at a time that at best can be described as turbulent crossroads of our history. These were three women who helped our astronauts get to space and then to the moon. They responded to that tumultuous time, that turbulence and the effort to quiet their voices, by rolling up their sleeves and doing the work. They persevered and helped this country become pioneers of space.

I think it’s fair to say that we are in a similar period right now. And no matter where your values lie, you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves to defend them, just like Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson.

By starting to say no to some of the doors that were opening for me, I’ve been able to say yes to even bigger opportunities. Not just Hidden Figures, but I played God in The Shack. Oh yes, God. Saying no to what others were attempting to limit me to helped lead me to saying yes to representing a NASA scientist and God.

Now, this is a big lesson because when you’re starting out in your career, it is important that you say yes more than you say no. If I didn’t say yes to all of the early roles that I took on, I don’t know that I would have gotten to this point. Saying yes allows you to find your voice. It lets you uncover new opportunities and it reveals new relationships.

But when it’s time to say no, say it loudly and firmly. There will be occasions when saying no is necessary to maintaining your values and your self worth. You define your value. No one else.

Now some of you will be able to make your voices heard through the careers that you choose. But some of you will have to take an extra step. We all have to continue to stand up for our beliefs. No matter what path you’re stepping on tomorrow, please take that beautiful voice of yours and share it with us. We’re counting on you, and we want to hear you.

Now I do have an asterisk here. Because whatever that voice of yours might be saying, no matter what side of the political scale it weights itself on, I’m asking that your words, your actions, and your voices be rooted in a true empathy for others. Understand each other and let that understanding shape your values. Our voices grow more powerful when they’re together. They’re more powerful when they’re diverse. There are conversations and movements happening in our country right now that will affect each and every one of you, and it’s your chance to contribute right now.

You’re already seeing what happens when we come together empathetically for others. What makes our communities powerful are all of the different viewpoints, the different perspectives. And what creates change is when we stand for values we hold true to ourselves.

And let me say Kent State, you are already way, way, way ahead of the game here. You’re serving each other in beautiful ways. What your LGBTQ student center is providing – what your Trans*Fusion is offering, you’re a part of a community that truly is taking care of everyone who calls themselves a Golden Flash. Now, that should be celebrated.

Keep moving forward. Be loud with your voices. And here’s where I might turn into a preacher — Keep reading, keep reading, keep reading. In the same way that I get to enter other worlds, portraying other humans, telling their stories, I beg of you to find fiction and non-fiction that takes you into other worlds.

Your late nights with textbooks might be over, but you can now stay up with Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin. You can sneak off at lunch and get lost in some mystery with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Patricia Cornwell. Read Maya Angelou, Walt Whitman and poetry from a bygone era. But then, read Morgan Parker and the poetry that’s coming to life today all around you. Whoever you give your time to, give it freely to the authors who speak to your soul. Let them take you on winding roads you would never have traversed on your own. Become more Frost-like and take the road not taken.

Keep reading, keep writing, tell your own stories — for others, or for yourself. Let the critical thinking that defined your education also define your careers and your passions. President Barack Obama reminded us of this when – yes, I miss him – President Barack Obama reminded us of this when he discussed how it influenced his own choices. He said that he uses writing and reading and thinking as a way to constantly rebuild himself. Let me tell you this, there are more rebuilds coming for you in your lifetime and it’s up to you to do it constructively.

Now I’m not just bringing up Barack Obama because I miss him, but I’m merely reminding you that reading, writing and critical thinking, these are worthy pursuits no matter what your discipline. Without a genuine curiosity about the world around you and without a deep-rooted empathy for others around you your accomplishments won’t have the same lasting impact you so desire. Now, I don’t think you would be here today if you didn’t possess that curiosity. So hold onto it. And fight to keep it yours.

It’s my deepest hope that the curiosity that has guided you here continues to be a guiding light in your life. Represent your own curiosities to the world. Point the way forward for future graduates. Keep moving people, keep reading, keep nourishing what makes your voice unique and defend it for yourself and for others. This ending today is also a beginning. Most endings are if you’re paying attention. But now you get to go forward.

So what’s next for you? What path will you choose? While you reflect on that, I will leave you Emerson” Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path, but leave a trail.

Thank you, Kent State, sharing this time with you today has just been an honor. I’ve never been to an outside graduation. I’m so proud of you, you all fought to be here, you deserve this moment, congratulations, Godspeed.

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