SOC Dean Jeffrey Rutenbeck delivered an address to Spring 2019 graduates on May 11 in Bender Arena.
SOC Undergraduate Student Speaker Jozette Allah-Mensah delivered an address for graduates.
My first year at American University began with a step; quite literally and figuratively.
STEP stands for the seven week summer transition enrichment program that the Center for Diversity and Inclusion sponsors the summer prior to freshman year. I come from a household where I am the first of a new lineage in America. And though I was less than thrilled to spend my last high school summer away from my friends and family, I would quickly learn how much this program equipped me with the knowledge I needed to be successful.
I remember one phrase that was so instilled in us during our time in STEP, a mantra that pervaded the recesses of my mind and stayed there as the foundation for what I would accomplish for the next four years. It was to “lean into the discomfort.” This idea that if you stay in something familiar for too long, you won’t have the ability to grow.
Well, it was more like a deep dive into the discomfort for me. And mind you, I can’t swim.
It was clumsy attempts at butterfly strokes and doggie paddles; sometimes I triumphed over the waves, and other times, my head went back under. Whether it was as trivial as negotiating overdraft Netflix fees on my first time debit card—sorry dad—or learning to navigate the metro bus. Other times, it was confronting racist encounters on and off campus. Battling prejudice and facing uncomfortable conversations. But once I did this, once I began to tread these new waters, something amazing happened: I found my voice, and it carried me.
One specific instance happened during sophomore year. I took a class called Backpack Video Journalism, where every other week, students would have to find a story in the DC, Maryland or Virginia area, reach out to whatever organization we were covering, and complete a video package, with a script, all on our own.
I realized two major things during this process: Smithsonian security guards really do not play around, and number two, DC is filled with the voices of so many others.
My videos and interviews spanned far and wide. A few weeks after the 2016 election, I interviewed an Imam at a Mosque in Columbia Heights; and he told me how he was combating Islamophobia in this day and age. And later, when a jewish cemetery was decimated in Philadelphia, Hillel on campus welcomed me and let me sit while they prepared cards of love and care packages. I even went to my hometown in Maryland to cover a duck festival. Don’t ask.
But in all of these experiences, I was encouraged to go out into the community and find what mattered. Encouraged to explore different, and new situations.
You see, American is not a “show and tell” University. We aren’t just statistics on a pamphlet handed out to high school counselors or bragging points for admissions. American is a “come and see” university; where at the core of our education lies genuine community and experiences that equip us to be the best we can be in any profession we strive for.
Community for me meant getting to speak to prospective families and students who were in the same exact boat as me just four short years ago and take them around for tours on campus. It meant that every single one of my professors knew my name—which was a good and bad thing depending on if I showed up to class (and don’t worry, I did). It meant spending my very first day of freshman year working in McKinley 104 at the front desk with Ellen Jimenez teaching me how to scan a paper, to four years later her sending me pictures of her beautiful newborn son.
But above all, it meant I always have something to go back to. That this support that I had gathered during my time here, wasn’t something temporary. That it would extend beyond graduation. And that I had been groomed and taught and pushed to always take the deep dive into new depths.
So thank you professors and faculty for who you are. Thank you for bringing us pizza during finals week and entertaining our immense list of AP style errors. But most of all, thank you for reminding us that we all have a story to tell.
Class of 2019, may you never shy away from the uncertainty. May you always speak even if your voice shakes. May you always lean into the discomfort and let that carry you. And may you always be encouraged, realizing that you have indeed been equipped to do so.
Thank you and God bless you.
SOC Graduate Student Speaker Grace Ibrahim delivered an address for graduates.
Good afternoon, how’s everyone doing? Thanks to all of you for being here today. Before I begin though, I just want to say a big Happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful moms here today. While I literally have the mic, I want to give a special shout out to my amazing mother, who believed in me especially when I didn’t, and also to my older sister, who has made sure that Washington, DC has felt like home for the six years that I’ve lived here.
See, my story at American University actually started in 2011. This is the second time I’ve been in this auditorium, wearing this cap and gown, after I had the pleasure of attending AU for my undergraduate degree in Communications. In those four years, Washington, DC truly became a home away from home, which I know a lot of us can relate to. I’m actually Palestinian though, so things were a little bit different for me. In the summer of 2015, two months after I graduated college, I learned a valuable life lesson; things don’t always go the way you planned. It sounds simple, but it’s quite effective.
One day I was renewing the lease on my apartment, ready to start my new job on Monday and the next I was told my work visa was denied and that I needed to leave the country immediately. My application arrived 24 hours past the deadline. In fact, I’ll never forget the song playing while the immigration office put me on hold… it was “Yellow” by Coldplay, as if the phone call wasn’t already depressing enough. Anyways, for the next 48 hours I exhausted all of my options. So I reluctantly left DC, and began an entirely new career and life in Jordan.
That day, and the weeks to follow, were a feeling that is still indescribable till this day. Every night I thought about how it was possible to love a place so much, build a life and a network, and then be asked to leave without question. I did take advantage of the time, working a PR and Marketing job for two years, which passed the time, but was hardly fulfilling- or so I thought at the time. But slowly the job pulled me out of my comfort zone actually. See I got hired at a Kindergarten- Grade 12 school with no existing PR & Marketing department. I worked a job meant for about 20 people with only the help of a part-time employee. We shared one desk with two chairs on either side in an office that used to be a storage closet. Life happened and my part-time help left me after a few months, leaving me on my own for six months. Suddenly, at 23 years old I’m interviewing to find employees for my own department. My boss said to me, “You have full creative freedom”, the words every artist loves to hear.
And I saw it as a gift from God, because rather than being stuck at a desk I took my creative freedom and pulled out the one thing I loved the most, a camera.
Quickly, those two years became a blessing in disguise because had I not left DC, I wouldn’t have conquered the fear of starting over, and chasing what you truly want. For me, I found it it was film. But that word in itself wasn’t fulfilling enough, so I decided I like to call it storytelling.
I had a pretty unique childhood, living in an American compound called Aramco in Saudi Arabia, all while traveling to Palestine, (casually going through war zones). I went to high school on a little island called Bahrain, which you can barely point out on a map, and finally traveled all the way to DC for school. But through that I have met so many amazing people, and learned of so many other stories out there, similar and different. Two continents, almost 7,000 miles apart, ended up teaching me the same thing, that it’s not just about telling my story, but telling others’ stories, especially if they’re not able to tell it themselves.
January of 2017, I took a chance while sitting at my desk, secretly filling out an application for my master’s in film and media arts. A week later, I was out with my brother and I got the news that I got accepted. The plan was in motion, the dream was going to be chased. Not to mention, student visas are pretty mandatory, so I knew my return was inevitable. In the summer of 2017, I quit my job and walked away from the upgraded and newly painted office that fit a conference table. I packed up my own desk and I never looked back. Come 2019, I’m in the same situation, applying to jobs and trying to find my place in this country as an immigrant. Only this time, I’m focused on my passion and my happiness, putting those first, knowing that no matter where life takes me, I have the power of creative freedom.
I want to leave you with a quote by Jean Luc Godard. He once said this: “Every story has a beginning, middle, and end… but not always in that order.” Sometimes, what may seem like the end, can often surprise you and pave the way for new beginnings.
Congratulations to the Class of 2019, and good luck!
Pam Kaufman delivered the keynote address to Spring 2019 graduates on May 11 in Bender Arena.
Wow, thank you so much for having me here today!
Come on guys, I mean, Once an Eagle... Always an Eagle!
I would like to thank American University and the School of Communication for this incredible honor!
I would first like to thank Dean Jeff Rutenbeck, President Burwell, Jack Cassell, the Board of Trustees, the faculty, and the graduates’ friends and families that are here today.
And of course my own family who are also here—including my Mom (Hi, Mom!) my husband Scott and my son Alex… who both went to GW … no comment…
… and most importantly the Class of 2019!!!
I also have to give a special shout out to the many AU students who helped me prepare this speech, including Jason Tifford, Phoebe Bell, and Jacob Wallace.
If you would’ve told my 21 year old self that one day I would be receiving the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, and delivering the commencement address at American University’s School of Communication I would have said, not a chance!
Before I begin, I thought I would share some advice from my Viacom ‘colleagues’ on your graduation… As you know, Viacom is home to some of the biggest brands in the world like MTV, Nickelodeon, BET, Comedy Central, Paramount Pictures and some of the greatest characters, movies and shows ever created!… Take a look...
[AV plays tape]
How great is that? I mean, you guys are getting career advice from Spongebob and RuPaul!!!
I remember my first day at American like it was yesterday!
I drove down to AU from my home in Pearl River, NY with both my parents on move in day. Back then, we needed to take two cars since there was no Bed, Bath and Beyond for your ‘college essentials’, no Container Store Curbside pickup. And of course, we needed the entire trunk of one car to haul my turntable, album collection and speakers.
I moved into Hughes Hall.
I just turned 18…(which also happened to be the legal drinking age back then…)
And guess who threw the first party? Yep... I made lots of friends fast.
Like many of you, there are so many things that I love about AU, including the fact that the campus is so beautiful! The minute that the weather started to get nice — we were hanging on the Quad! And Washington DC was an amazing ‘backyard.’
My friends and I used to meet up at the Tavern and at Mary Graydon Center —or as you guys call it now, “MGC.”
There was no Guapos… so we hung at Booeymongers… which I hear is still good and I wish we had a Dav’s for coffee… I can’t even remember where I had to get my caffeine!
Among the many reasons I chose American University, and I know you did too, was because of its renowned internship programs.
When I arrived, CNN had just launched, and its first Washington newsroom was on Wisconsin Avenue. I applied immediately — and was so thrilled that I was able to get an internship. Getting in on the ground floor was great, because I got to do everything.
I wrote copy, interviewed politicians and even operated the camera. I was convinced I was on my way to becoming an on-air journalist!
During my senior year, I interned down the street like some of you at NBC, where I developed my interest in politics and became a Political Science minor.
By the time I graduated, I thought I would have zero trouble getting a job in broadcast journalism. I mean, I had all of these amazing internships. I had great experience. A great reel.
Why couldn’t I be the next Diane Sawyer?
What I didn’t quite realize at the time was that in television news, you don’t get the big job in New York until you pay your dues in a smaller market like Bismark, North Dakota—which was exactly where I got my first offer.
Now, nothing against North Dakota, but I really wanted to stay closer to home.
After I graduated and moved to New York, I did not land a job right away at a television company. In fact, it took months.
I networked any chance I had, and after my 50th interview that didn’t get me anywhere — yes, 50! I stopped counting.
I remember coming home one day and sobbing to my roommate, “I will never get a break. No one will ever hire me, and I will never work in communications.”
I made a list of all of the people I met and tacked it on a bulletin board, just to remind myself that I had actually done something during all those months. I just needed to see it on paper.
But ironically, that list came in handy, — very handy — in the years to come.
My journey was a long and winding path, from graduating with a degree in Broadcast Journalism and Political Science to becoming the President of a division at a Global Media Company.
Which brings me to what I want to talk to you about today:
Ok, you guys know this …
If you are a Communications major, it’s a little unnerving to see the way that some of your friends in different fields like medicine or law or investment banking or management consulting — seem to have a pretty clear career path.
What I want to emphasize to you right now is this: a career in communications is always a long, and winding path, with many detours and unexpected turns along the way.
As long as you continue to learn and take in a few of the lessons that I want to walk you through, this path will take you exactly where you need to go.
So let me share with you my own winding path.
I finally landed my first job working at a very small graphic design agency called Grafik Unlimited in New York City. It was a company started by two women, that produced fashion catalogues. It was a far cry from broadcast journalism, and not something I ever dreamed of doing.
… but I loved it! I started as a coordinator, wrote copy, selected models, and I learned how catalogues were designed and produced.
But after 3 years, I knew it was time to leave. I had learned as much as I could and... I needed to feel inspired again… like I had when I started at Grafik.
So I pulled out my tattered list—the one that was still tacked to my bulletin board—and started calling people I had met.
And this is my first lesson:
Stay connected with the people you meet… You
While I was searching for that first job, one of my 50 interviews was at Grey Advertising in New York.
At the time there were no entry level positions but I had a great meeting with people in their HR department. So I re-contacted them and guess what... they remembered me and actually had an opening for a job working in Grey’s Promotions division.
Now... I didn't know exactly what a promotional division was, but they were impressed with the work I was doing at the catalog agency and thought I would be a good fit.
So who was I to argue?
Although it was a completely different kind of role than producing catalogues, I discovered that I loved being an Account Executive. I learned how to be part of a larger team. I was really good at being a liaison between Grey and their blue chip clients. I honed my presentation skills, and realized that, unlike many of my colleagues, — I actually liked being up in front of the room!
Although I was not working for a television company, I really enjoyed the work I was doing.
And this is a good time to share my second lesson…
Do what makes you happy!
Sounds simple, right?
Well... not really.
A recent New York Times article titled “Wealthy, Successful and Miserable" said that the happiest graduates were not those that made the most money, or were even the most successful in their chosen fields.
The happiest people were those who, for whatever reason, weren’t able to climb the corporate ladder, took a detour, and then found jobs that gave them a sense of purpose and meaning.
After Grey Advertising, I worked at an agency called Equity Marketing. Equity made the toys given away at fast food companies like Wendy’s and Burger King in their kids meals. In my role as an account executive, I got to meet with all of the movie studios, learn about their upcoming film slate and then work with the agency to develop the toy ideas.
I worked on promotions for shows like the Simpsons, countless Disney movies—and you know what… it was fun!
One day, I got a call about a job at another agency. The job paid about 25% more than I was currently making. I went on two interviews. I wasn’t so sure about the new role and more importantly, I did not like the person who would be my new boss. During the interview he was rude, condescending and barely asked me any questions.
So… I was really surprised when he offered me the job!
And... I really struggled to make a decision. I was so happy working at Equity Marketing… but the extra money would have been great.
I consulted with my Father and he gave me some really good advice—he said that money should be only one factor in your decision to change jobs. So I stayed.
Okay, are you guys with me so far?
Let me recap where we are on this communications career journey…
Remember, when I graduated… I wanted a job in television as a news anchor in New York City.
- I worked at a design agency where I learned to produce fashion catalogues
- Then I went to an agency where I learned to launch promotional campaigns...
- Then I went to another agency — where I learned to make toys for entertainment companies
And from there… finally in my early 30’s, I landed my first job in television! Turner Broadcasting!
At Turner, I was on cloud nine. I had made it! All of my previous roles had led me to this point.
At Turner, and quite frankly, along the way, I learned something that has been a really important part of my path…
My third lesson… Get comfortable with being uncomfortable….
Let me give you an example. At Turner, I started as a Director selling promotional programs based on Turner’s characters like the Flintstones and the Jetsons—and I was quickly promoted to Vice President. I had landed the kind of job that I always wanted. I loved the work. I had the support of some great co-workers and I had reached my goal.
I was really comfortable.
End of story ... right?
One day I got a call from a person I knew who used to work at Turner… a person that I stayed connected with who now worked at Nickelodeon.
Nickelodeon had a job opening for a Vice President of Promotions Marketing. It was a much larger job than I had at Turner.
I would be managing a bigger team and have a lot more responsibility.
And Nickelodeon was one of the hottest kids television brands in the world.
But I nearly turned it down!
I thought I had everything I needed.
But my inner voice said, “Just go on the interview…you never know what can happen.”
So I went.
That interview process stretched into six months — yes, six months, for a job I didn’t event know if I wanted.
And during that time, I became pregnant with my second child.
And at that point, it would have been easier just to stay at Turner.
But instead, I got offered that job, and I took it!
That was over 20 years ago—and I’ve had an amazing career ever since!
Within Nickelodeon, the path continued to be extremely winding.
I have had many roles... all incredibly different.
I kept learning new skills and expanding my leadership abilities. And then…. My path took another turn. One year ago, I became President of Viacom’s Global Consumer Products business.
I’ve stayed at Viacom for a good reason:
I am never bored. There is always a new challenge, and new people to work with and learn from, and of course, new characters to get excited about!
And now that I am overseeing a global business... an entire world to discover!
I am always slightly out of my comfort zone — which is something I’ve learned to be comfortable with.
Okay, my fourth lesson: Model the behavior you admire in others.
I’ve met and observed some of the most incredible people throughout my career. People who have brought energy just by walking into a room. Women who have seamlessly managed being a mother, a business executive and made time for giving back to their communities. People who — whatever their title — were always kind.
I have also met people who are not.
I have seen people in business behave really badly. People who raise their voices and lose their cool. People that never show up to a meeting on time and then once they are there… spend the entire meeting on their phones.
A few things I learned from the people I modeled my own behavior after were:
- They did what it takes to get the job done… no matter their title
- They were gracious... even when they were under tremendous pressure
- They listened to others
- And they brought a sense of humor and levity to tough rooms
So... As I leave you today… I want to move to my final lesson …
This is one of the most uncomfortable things you’re going to have to do.
Everyone cringes at first when I give them this advice... and I used to cringe, too, when I first heard it.
Be your own champion, and
In speaking with so many graduating seniors and many recent graduates, and even people within my own company … I have seen firsthand how hard it is for people to advocate for themselves!
When you graduate and start pursuing a job and there is a person you want to meet with, stay on them. Do not be afraid to ask them to have a cup of coffee or talk on the phone.
And when you get that time… ask questions and be explicit about what you want. Because, as I said earlier, you never know what can happen…
A career in communications is a winding path—but there is value to be taken from everything you do. Every job experience is valuable, and it’s up to you to find the value in it. Make the absolute most of every opportunity—even if it’s not your dream job.
Keep in mind that every step you take along your own winding path will contribute to who you are as a professional and as a person.
The great thing about the communications industry is that almost every skill you acquire is transferable, and let’s face it… it is such an exciting time to be in this business… I can’t wait to see what you guys accomplish!
As for my path…
Who would have thought after my parents dropped me off at Hughes Hall that I would be standing here, talking about SpongeBob, sharing my life lessons and giving the commencement address at the greatest school in the world!
President of Viacom Nickelodeon Consumer Products
Receiving an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters
Pam Kaufman is president of Viacom/Nickelodeon Consumer Products, for which she leads licensing and merchandising for all Viacom brands worldwide, including Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central, BET, and Paramount Pictures.
Kaufman previously served as president of consumer products and chief marketing officer for Nickelodeon, where she was the force behind some of the network’s most iconic, longest-lasting franchises, including PAW Patrol, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and SpongeBob SquarePants. Her commitment to transformation, innovation, and brand-building has led to some of Nickelodeon’s most ground-breaking partnerships and collaborations, including the development of social media star JoJo Siwa into the number one live-action licensed brand.
Kaufman has been recognized by the advertising, media, and entertainment industries across her career, including Advertising Age’s Entertainment Marketer of the Year, License Global’s The Influentials list, and Multichannel News’s Wonder Women, an annual list of powerful and influential women in TV and communications who are making a difference for future female leaders. In 2019, Women in Toys, Licensing & Entertainment recognized Kaufman’s commitment to developing the next generation of leaders with its Wonder Woman Mentorship Award.
Kaufman is a passionate advocate for women and families and serves on the board for Bottomless Closet, a nonprofit that prepares women for workplace success, as well as the Pace Women’s Justice Center.