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Commencement 2006

Remarks by School of Communication Dean Larry Kirkman

SOC Class of 2006. On behalf of the faculty, staff and alumni of the School of Communication, congratulations. Today, you make the transition from students to alumni. You join a network of 8,000 SOC alumni working across the communication professions and around the world. Our vision for SOC is a communication laboratory, a community of professional practice, a meeting ground for creative storytellers, media strategists, and investigative journalists, where students, faculty and alumni listen to and learn from each other, sharing ideas and ideals.

The participation of alumni in the life of the School is central to our vision. We want you to report back from the frontlines of your professions. It will be your turn to be a mentor, to speak in a classroom, to help retool our curriculum. SOC as a laboratory makes sense only if it is informed by your real-world experience.

There's no easy path for your careers. The digital age has put us all on a new footing. As the digital generation, you must anticipate, and help shape, new professional roles and new media services. You are challenged to bring high expectations for the powerful communication tools you have learned to use.

American University prides itself on being a values-based institution, with a vision of public service and human rights. But, what does this mean for you as communication professionals, globally linked and interactive 24/7?

One thing it means is that you have to be worldly. Not worldly in the sense of weary cynicism, or knuckling under and abandoning dreams. But rather worldliness as an ethical stance, as an engagement with global affairs, as a struggle to protect and sustain the earth's natural environment and to make the social order more just and more peaceful so that we are all able to live decent, dignified lives.

Many of you have demonstrated worldliness. For example, Satomi Kato documented the plight of Afghan orphans in Pakistani refugee camps.

Robert Brodsky, in our fellowship at the Center for Public Integrity, is investigating members of Congress who take gifts of international travel.

Angela Woodall is reporting from Bosnia on the lingering impact of the Yugoslav war.

And, Emily Smith is working this summer at an AIDS hospice in South Africa.

Throughout my life, under the pressures of work as a media producer or manager, I've found it difficult to stop and listen to the world. I've had to kick myself, or be kicked. A few years ago, while chairing an international meeting for a global network of nonprofit communication organizations, trying to pack six days of business into two days, I routinely asked the delegates, from a dozen countries, if there were any additions to the agenda. Charika Marasinghe, from Sri Lanka, asked that we pause in solidarity with the more than 650,000 people meditating in Sri Lanka that day in the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement....Sarvodaya, which means "everybody wakes up," is the name of the peace movement in Sri Lanka. It has community development initiatives in 12,000 villages. Since 1999, it has held peace meditations led by Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim clerics to call for an end to the awful civil war that has been going on for more than 20 years.... So, for the first time, I meditated--on the theme of "no poverty, no affluence" a call for peace and modesty. I was silent, longer than at any other time, when not asleep or in a movie theater.

George Eliot, the great 19th century English novelist, wrote "If we had a keener vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar, which lies on the other side of silence." All of us have felt the fear of that roar, which lies on the other side of silence. To listen takes courage and will.

It is through serious listening that we can reflect on what matters and why, can keep ourselves honest, can size up the challenges we face.

Our student commencement speaker, Ben Connors, has spent four years doing some serious listening. Ben graduates with a major in film and media arts and a second interdisciplinary major from SIS and Anthropology.

For four years, Ben has been on a mission to explore the use of social media. As an intern at Washingtonpost.com, he was a junior member of an award winning team of video journalists using the Web to revolutionize what we expect of multimedia news.

For public television, he edited Professor Bill Gentile's documentary profiles of young Marines in Iraq.....He co-wrote a public service announcement on teen stress that is playing on thousands of movie screens across the country, starring the Muppets.... and Teri Hatcher.

And, he spent last summer in Nigeria making a documentary on young social activists setting up education programs.

In his Blog from Nigeria, Ben wrote:

"I long to take my camera into the markets and onto the streets, to the slums and the trash heaps we whiz by in cars. However, I realize that to march in right now and capture the face of poverty without ever greeting it in its own intricate way, is to profane the humanity of each individual I see there. To achieve real success, I need to dedicate time and patience to making the connections that will allow me the access to do my share of the humanitarian work. Then, I'll be ready to gather and share the stories of the people I meet, their perceptions of this life and this world, and their dreams for the future."

As Ben suggests, the deepest motivational springs of worldliness are located in the human capacity to feel needs on behalf of others. It is my hope that, as you move on to become members of other, overlapping communities, the habits of heart and cast of mind cultivated during your time here have prepared you to be worldly. I don't need to recite statistics about climate change or increasing gaps between rich and poor. Or make the case to you that we're all in this together, that even if you fly first class, you can't buy immunity against the bird flu or the effects of melting polar ice caps.

You can feel helpless and hopeless, disengaged and demoralized. Or, as active citizens and as communication professionals, each of you in your way, in your setting, can help determine the shape of things to come.

Ben Connors will tell you about his vision and values, his choices.

Thank you for listening.