Paula Kerger, President and CEO, PBS
As Prepared for Delivery
Thank you Dr. Mullen, Professor Watkins, faculty, family, friends and the Class of 2017, it is my great honor to be here on this wonderful occasion, and I’m incredibly humbled to receive an honorary degree from such an esteemed institution.
I’d first like to offer my congratulations to each of today’s graduates who are about to walk across this stage.
You’ve arrived here after lots of hard work, maybe a few sleepless nights cramming for exams, and no doubt a healthy dose of caffeine.
You’ve also arrived here with the love, support and encouragement of friends and family, many of whom are here to cheer you on this afternoon.
I hope you all take a moment to appreciate those who gave so generously to ensure that you reached this great milestone.
Today is one of celebration and reflection on your time here at Allegheny College, but just as important, it is a moment to look forward to the journey that awaits you beyond this campus.
In the great tradition of liberal arts graduates, you leave here heading in different directions – both in your career pursuits, as well as the places you’ll call your next home – from Philadelphia to Washington, DC and all the way to Kenya.
I remember being in your seat many years ago, and I’ll confess, only half-listening to the commencement speaker - looking around at my friends who had already lined up a job, and wondering what I would do next.
At the time, it seemed like the most important decision in the world, and I felt an enormous sense of pressure to ‘get it right.’
But now, with the wonderful gift of hindsight, I understand that the trajectory of one’s life and career is determined not by one singular decision, but is in fact shaped by countless twists, turns, trials and errors along the way.
If you’ll allow me, I have one piece of advice as you set off on this grand adventure called ‘life.’ And I also have an ‘ask.’
First, my two cents worth of advice.
Wherever your adventure takes you, I encourage you to find your inner voice - the one that whispers to you about what you were put on this earth to do. The voice that is innately and inherently yours, not an imitation of someone else.
And once you find it, never let it go.
Now I’ll be the first person to attest that, for some of us, it takes a while to discover our authentic voice, our purpose in life.
If you’d asked me when I was 22 years old to describe my passion or my life’s journey, I couldn’t have told you. And if someone had predicted that I would eventually have the great privilege of leading PBS, I would’ve told him or her that they had the wrong Paula Kerger.
But now, looking back, I can see how at every step of my career, I was being guided by that inner voice that eventually brought me home to public media.
You could say that public media is in my DNA.
My grandfather helped found a public radio station in my hometown of Baltimore. And from my earliest years, I remember listening to classical music on the radio, and I developed a lifelong passion for dance after watching Nureyev on public television.
I also came from a family that was deeply involved in our community, which instilled in me at a young age the importance of giving back and serving a purpose greater than myself.
I left school with a degree in business and assumed I’d end up working for a corporation.
But as fate would have it, I landed a job at UNICEF.
It was there that I developed a passion for nonprofit work, which led to a job with International House, then the Metropolitan Opera, and eventually, I ended up at Channel 13 WNET, the PBS station in New York.
I was leading development at WNET, perfectly content with my role, when the president of the company asked if I would consider becoming the station manager.
I was terrified about stepping into such an important position, as I had no experience with the day-to-day operations of a television station, and I had no experience managing more than a few dozen people.
Each of you will come across these moments at some point in your life, when you have an opportunity to make a big leap.
I call these ‘airplane moments.’
Picture this. You’re thousands of feet in the air prepared for your first skydive. It’s your turn. Your hands are clenching the metal door, the wind is whipping at your face, and you think: ‘what am I doing? I was perfectly happy and safe on the ground.’
I’m here to tell you: sometimes you have to push yourself out of that airplane. The first moment is terrifying, but the exhilaration of taking the leap is boundless.
For those of you who prefer sea over air, I’ll borrow a quote from Albert Einstein: “A ship is always safe at shore, but that is not what it’s built for.”
For some of us it feels against our nature to step forward, to raise our hand, and we live in a society that often focuses more on what we can’t do than what we can do.
Sometimes you have to put your insecurities and self-doubt aside and make the leap.
And I promise, you’ll be so glad that you did.
I put aside my own trepidation and said ‘yes’ to the station manager role because I followed my inner voice, which was telling me that I had more to contribute. I also listened to the voice of my husband, Joe, my closest confidant and partner, who always encourages me and said clearly – you need to do this.
Once I realized that it wasn’t so scary on the other side, I left myself open to future possibilities, which is how I ended up as President and CEO of PBS more than eleven years ago.
I feel incredibly fortunate to work for an organization and a mission that gives me great joy and fulfillment.
I may not have set out for a career in public service, but I kept my options open, I did some things that took me out of my comfort zone, and I listened to my inner voice every step of the way.
The graduates here today have a solid foundation from which to forge your own paths.
During your time at Allegheny, you’ve proven that you’re smart and creative and resilient, and you’ve been given the tools needed to succeed in life and career.
And this brings me to my ‘ask.’
I ask that you use those tools not just for the advancement of your professional career, but also for the betterment of your community and your country.
Many of you have undoubtedly studied President Lyndon Johnson and his vision for a ‘Great Society.’
I’ve been thinking a lot about President Johnson lately, because PBS wouldn’t be here today were it not for his vision.
50 years ago this November, President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, which paved the way for the founding of PBS and NPR.
The Public Broadcasting Act was one of more than 200 pieces of enacted legislation which were part of Johnson’s vision to create a society in which every woman, man and child has equal opportunity to lead a life of achievement and fulfillment; a society in which the invisible forces that divide Americans are replaced by forces that unite us.
While our achievement of that beautiful vision has been uneven, the wonderful thing about America is that it is possible, and no matter the means of getting there, it is something that we continue to strive toward.
As Alexis de Toqueville once wrote: “The greatness in America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
Your graduation comes at an important moment for our country.
I do not need to outline for you the challenges facing America, and I’m certainly not here to suggest the issue or cause to which you should lend your energy.
My only ask is that you get involved and use your voice.
Sometimes we assume that individual voices don’t matter, but as we’ve seen over the last few years, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Civic engagement is something that has already been instilled in this graduating class – it has been a part of your experience since you set foot on this campus. I understand from Dr. Mullen that the student body has a staggering 70,000 hours to show for it.
Through your time at Allegheny, you’ve already learned the most valuable lesson in life: all that we accomplish, as well as the person we become, tie back to the simple fact that we are interconnected and independent.
The strength of our society does not rise or fall with any one person, nor one piece of legislation, nor one institution.
Rather, it depends on every single one of us coming together to build the communities in which we want to live.
It depends on each of us to stand up for our beliefs.
It depends on each of us to discover our voice, and to use that voice to make our mark on this world.
Looking across the crowd, I am filled with hope, as you are the leaders who will take us into the future.
There is a great deal resting on your shoulders, but remember that life is always about the journey and not the destination.
Remember to cherish each moment along the way, and today remember to embrace all of those who have guided you to this point.
You are our future. I wish you great success – we are all counting on you.
Thank you, and congratulations, class of 2017!