SOC Dean Jeffrey Rutenbeck delivered the Commencement Address for the Spring 2018 graduates on May 12 in Bender Arena.
SOC Undergraduate Student Speaker Lauren Monet Lumpkin delivered an address for graduates.
I’d like to start by saying thank you. Thank you to my parents, who, from the start, convinced me I could do anything.
I want to thank my professors and Dean Rutenbeck. And lastly, I want to thank the Class of 2018 for making these last four years unforgettable.
My freshman year, I laid low. It was as if I didn’t want anyone to know I even went to school here. I shuffled between class and Anderson Hall, and made the occasional stop at TDR to slurp up some macaroni and cheese. I was a nervous and shy Midwesterner who just wanted to get this over with.
And then Yik Yak happened.
Most of us can remember Yik Yak, a social media app that allowed users to post content anonymously. It seemed like everyone was on it.
When racist messages began surfacing on the app, I felt lost and confused. I’d pined after American University since my sophomore year of high school. This wasn’t what I’d signed up for.
It didn’t stop there, either. Next, there was the banana incident and a slew of other hateful attacks that seemed determined to tear our community apart.
In a time of hurt and confusion, I turned to what I knew best – writing. This is when I joined The Blackprint, American University’s online news and culture publication for students of color. I had the honor of serving as editor-in-chief this past school year. The Blackprint helped me find my voice. And as I found my voice, I also found my passion.
I love the School of Communication because every student cares about something. Whether it’s covering environmental justice protests outside the White House or combating racism on campus, we each feel a sense of responsibility to leave this place a little better than we found it.
I have a good friend who operates like a mini public relations firm. He’s used what he’s learned in SOC to completely revamp our university’s advocacy center, and fight harder than anyone I’ve seen for students’ rights.
Another colleague of mine is a master both behind and in front of a video camera. She’s used her video and production skills to highlight extraordinary Muslim women in her own web show.
And, there’s the young journalist, who used her Dean’s Internship at NBC Washington as a platform to speak about something close to her heart - immigration and keeping our Dreamers safe.
SOC feeds our innate desire to change the world. While some may pass communications majors off as air-headed kids just looking for an easy degree, we prove that we are the forward-thinking innovators the world needs, who can write a Tweet, a press release and everything in between.
This, of course, could not have been done without our professors: Amy Eisman, Priya Doshi, Sherri Williams, Jeremiah Patterson. Each of these people - and so many more - have pushed us along this journey. They’ve mentored us. They’ve written letters of recommendation. And today, they will help us celebrate our graduation.
We are inheriting a world that seems scary and challenging. And that’s because, a lot of the time, it is. But, we don’t harp on problems, we work to find solutions. It’s simply the SOC way.
So, good luck and congratulations. To the class of 2018: We did it. Thank you.
SOC Graduate Student Speaker Kofi Scott Gayle Tendai delivered an address for graduates.
I am not supposed to be here. I thought that way not too long ago. Not because of my ethnic background or socio-economic status, or because less than 25% of black residents of Washington D.C. over the age of 25 have even a bachelor's degree.
No, I was not supposed to be here because I like so many others believed that I didn't need a college education to reach my goals.
I believed that with stellar planning, my above average intellect, and impeccable problem solving skills, I could make it wherever I wanted to be without a degree.
Now, that may or may not have ultimately been true, however, as I got closer to a decade from deciding as a junior in undergrad that there were better ways I could be applying my time, I found myself wondering if my time was actually being wasted, and my potential unrealized.
Christopher Nolan, acclaimed director, writer and producer, once said that “We all wake up wanting to live our lives the way we know we should, but we usually don’t.” Though at the time he was talking about Batman, my obvious similarities to the handsome, playboy and socialite Bruce Wayne made this quote hit home to me.
See, during my time out of school, I wasn’t a slacker living in my parents basement or crashing on my best friend’s couch. I was living on my own, had a decent income, and was pretty well known on the local arts scene. I knew, however, that I could be, rather, I should be achieving on a far higher level.
I knew that a degree would open doors in the workforce. I though, am not a workforce kind of person. I’m a creative, a freelancer. I pick up gigs a few days here, a few hours there, and spend most of my time with artists, writing and conceptualizing. I wake up when the universe tells me, I go to sleep at 3am. My lifestyle is not particularly conducive to a 9-5 work schedule.
What a degree would do for me more importantly, is lend credibility to my already existing talent. To let people know that I am both competent and confident in the field I had chosen, which for me was filmmaking.
And being in school, being back in that environment with like-minded people, each striving to achieve some level of success in my field, being around professors, each of whom have thrived in spaces I’m still trying to reach, I knew would strengthen my network, provide me with new allies and collaborators, and allow me to gauge my abilities against those of my peers and and mentors.
With a new perspective and a much clearer outlook, I enrolled back in undergrad, receiving my degree from Howard University in 2015 and that very same fall, came straight to AU to continue my education with my sights set on an MFA in Film and Electronic Media.
I was in the room with, and learning from, distinguished professors, recognized professionals in my chosen field. The Emmy award winning Larry Engel, a member of the Directors Guild of America. Producer/Director Randall Blair whose films have shown at Berlin and Sundance. Writer/Director Claudia Myers who’s had films premiere at Tribeca, and whose characters have been brought to life by some of the most recognizable names in Hollywood. And of course Russell Williams, a fellow D.C. native, and the recipient of two Academy Awards and two Emmys for sound.
American University provided me access to these accomplished individuals, but I had to put myself in the room.
George Lucas once said, “A director makes 100 decisions an hour, if you don’t know how to make the right decision, you’re not a director”.
Today I'm a director, but it's only because I made the right decision.
Michael Kempner delivered the SOC Commencement Address for the Spring 2018 graduates on May 12 in Bender Arena.
Thank you so much, President Burwell, Chairman Cassell, Dean Rutenbeck, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, parents, family members, friends, distinguished guests and of course, the class of 2018!
It may not look like it on the surface—I might look a little older, a lot grayer… and definitely balder—but we have more in common than you might think. Like you, this is my first AU commencement ceremony. The truth is, I never walked at my own graduation. I don’t really remember why—I was too busy, too cool, too hungover, too something. Not surprisingly, it’s always made me a little sad.
That’s one of the many reasons why today is so special to me. It’s not often in your life that you get a reboot. So, a deep and heartfelt thanks to AU and to all of you and your families for inviting me to join you for this wonderful occasion.
I also want to give shout outs to my many employees who are AU graduates, my wife Jacqueline, proud member of the class of 1984, and somewhere in the crowd, Leigh Umans, who sent me a thoughtful message on LinkedIn. Thanks Leigh.
My ears always perk up when I hear from an AU student. As a proud alum, I feel invested in your future, and I love when SOC students make their yearly visit to our New York office. So, this summer, we are bringing eight of your best and brightest to our DC office as part of a fellowship program we launched, along with SOC, to increase diversity in PR. They’ll design and build their own integrated PR agency—and work with some of our biggest clients. Bringing together teams like this one—individuals with unique backgrounds, skillsets, and experiences—won’t just benefit my firm. It will also help us figure out how to address one of the most critical issues facing the communications field today.
So, let me tell you a little about myself. I grew up immersed in the issues of the day. For as long as I can remember, my family dinner table was full of political debates—both large and small, both local and national. We covered everything from the school board to the space race. Everything from the Cold War to civil rights.
It didn’t take long for me to stop talking about these things and start acting on them. My first act of advocacy was trying to stop a development that threatened to take over the field where I played. I went door to door with the mailman, whose name was Milton, to get petitions signed. We won. It was my first taste of victory. I was four years old.
I was hooked pretty much from that moment on. My values began developing, and I learned that my calling was to help people… to change my community, my country and the world for the better. I knew that’s what I had to do. And I knew that politics would be the platform.
By the time I had to pick a college, I was in a hurry to get started with my career. I believed AU was the perfect place to make that happen—that it was the place that could put me, as the Hamilton lyric goes, “in the room where it happens.”
And I was right: Before the beginning of my sophomore year, I’d worked on a presidential campaign and inauguration, and I was serving as a full-time assistant to New Jersey’s governor in his Washington office. I was learning about politics and power by day, history and economics at AU by night.
I took a year off to help run three states for President Carter’s reelection—we lost… badly—and then finally, barely graduated in 1981. Since your only experience with the 80s has been using it as a party theme, or maybe watching Stranger Things, perhaps a quick refresher is in order:
Our hair was big. Our jeans were small.
Corporate profiteering was all the rage. There was no purpose over profit—profit was the purpose. In fact, that era is best summed up by a line from the iconic movie Wall Street: “Greed is good.”
At the same time, we experienced the dawn of a series of societal issues.
At home, we were struggling to address the growing numbers of homeless on our streets. We’d learned that our ozone layer was being damaged, and pesticides were making us sick. Women were fighting for equality in the workplace. The discovery of a new disease called HIV was creating fear and exclusion of LGBT people.
Around the world, the Cold War made us fear Russia—and fear the idea of nuclear weapons in the hands of an unstable Communist leader. Famine in Africa brought musicians together with a call to Feed the World.
And we were still healing from a near-constitutional crisis from a morally challenged President.
If it sounds familiar, that’s because it was.
What I’m trying to say is, we’ve seen many of today’s problems before. They’re just in different shapes, sizes and colors. Today, unfortunately for many of us, that color is decidedly orange.
While many of our challenges remain, a troubling new one has emerged that makes it harder to solve any single one of them: People no longer trust institutions of any kind. Not the government. Not the clergy. Not the media.
So, who do people trust? Well—no surprise here—they trust each other, their friends and neighbors. But what is surprising, and what is a huge change, is that people are now looking to businesses to solve their problems. They believe businesses, not government, must be the agents of social change.
That’s the world you’re being launched into. But that’s also where you come in. And thank God you do.
Like every generation before you, you’ve been given a label: Generation Z. For me, your entry into the workforce gives us so many reasons to hope. Because you are an amazing generation—full of intelligence and intuition, passion and purpose.
You also have the best toolbox the world has ever seen. You have access to more information and better technology than my generation could dream of. And you know how to use it.
You have a world-class education from AU. You were taught industry-leading, integrated skills, you had access to first-rate resources here on campus, and you had proximity to Washington’s power centers off of it.
You are uniquely qualified to blaze new trails. To move companies and markets. To restore trust and preserve this thing we call the truth.
It’s an enormous responsibility, to be sure. But you have enormous potential. So how do you tap into it? How do you become transformational leaders—whether you want to lead in PR, in politics, or in a company you create yourself?
These were the same questions I faced more than 40 years ago. The answers I found have become the guiding principles of not only my career, but also of my life. With apologies to my kids, Zachary, Melissa and Olivia, who have heard these way too many times before, I’d like to share just three of them with you today.
First: Nothing is more important than living your values. They need to guide all that you do, in business and in life. But, values, without ideas and action, are just feelings. We don’t change the world by feeling things, we change the world by doing them. Just look at the high school students from Parkland. They channeled their values and their ideas into action. And when they did, they made progress on what many said was an impossible issue. Whether in the workplace or in the public square, so can you. Because you have unprecedented power. So, use it!
Second: If you want to be a leader, act like one. Think beyond your role. Think like an owner. Act like an owner. Someone else might tell you to dress for the job you want. I’m here to tell you to start acting like you already have that job. That means learning every single aspect of the business, the industry, your stakeholders. It means doing more, working harder, raising your hand… being “that” person. Because there’s no magic button, no option to swipe left—it’s about being smarter by working harder. It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be. And it’s not about fitting in, it’s about standing out.
Third, and most important: Throw away your plan. You know the one I mean—the one that tries to lay out your entire life in exact detail. Toss it out, and replace it with what I call “a plan of the plan.” A picture of where you want to be, and some ideas for how to get there. But stop being paralyzed by trying to determine where you’ll be in 5-10 years. Let me tell you a secret: There is no job that is perfect all of the time. Instead, focus on the culture of an organization, what you can learn there, who you are going to learn it from, and what options that knowledge will give you. Because you can’t always see what’s around the corner. You don’t yet know what you don’t know. But you can’t let that stop you.
It’s 2018. You are Gen Z. You are expected to hold many jobs and possibly many careers in your lifetime. And your future is likely to be with a company or technology or in a role that hasn’t even been invented yet. So, relax a little and give yourself a break. Yes, you may fail. But don’t be afraid to. In fact, fail often, but fail fast and try something new until you get it right. Frankly, without failing, you’ll never learn the lessons that’ll move you forward. Take risks, don’t be a slave to convention. If it feels right, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t. Let your gut be your guide. It will never let you down.
So, get rid of that rigid plan. Act like a leader. Take your values and your ideas, and turn them into action.
But, most importantly, just get started. Everything else grows from there. As the Chinese proverb goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Even though today’s workforce is dramatically different from the one I entered, these lessons still apply.
But as I said, there was one major difference. In 1981, people were focused on profits over purpose. Back then, greed was actually good.
Today, for most Americans, the opposite is true. Far more people care more about what companies DO than what they sell… and for the first time, they are willing to pay a premium for it. They want to support businesses that share their values.
The old paradigm is flipped on its head. Today, purpose creates the profits.
Just think about the brands whose success you all—Gen Z—are largely responsible for: Warby Parker. Madewell. Patagonia. Shinola. They all combine products and purpose. Ski jackets and sustainability. Custom watches and community development.
If today’s companies aren’t truly purpose-driven, they won’t succeed. Because you won’t let them.
As consumers, you’ve created this phenomenon. And you’ll continue it—by voting with your wallets.
And just as you choose what you buy, you’ll choose where you work. Based on whether a company’s purpose matches your own.
You get to decide how these companies operate. Because, as communicators and storytellers, you will be the architects of public opinion. You’re the ones who will determine whether they deserve the trust people are placing in them. Whether they can actually solve the problems we’re facing.
You have this profound ability—not to mention opportunity—that not many people have had before. So how do you start?
A few months after he gave his famous commencement address here at AU, President Kennedy spoke at the National Academy of Sciences for their 100th convocation. The President celebrated a century of achievement and progress in science, but he also issued a call to action to the future leaders of the field. He emphasized the important work that still needed to get done. And he said that even though they might not see immediate results, he hoped they’d get started right away.
He said it reminded him of what a French Army general once said to his gardener: “Plant a tree tomorrow.”
And the gardener said, “It won’t bear fruit for a hundred years.”
“In that case,” the general said to the gardener, “plant it this afternoon.”
The same thing that was true for those scientists, is true for your career… and for your life: It might take a while to bear fruit, but the world needs your contributions. Let your values and your talents change our collective future for the better. The world can’t afford for you to waste a moment.
So, start planting!
Michael W. Kempner, SPA/BS '81
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, MWWPR
Receiving an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters
Michael Kempner is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of MWWPR, one of the nation’s largest independent public relations firms. He is a nationally recognized authority on reputation management, crisis management, public affairs, business to business, consumer marketing and corporate social responsibility, and has counseled some of the world’s most prominent executives, organizations and companies. Michael is known for his candor, commitment to community service and personal attention to client needs. He is an author and speaker on a variety of public relations, management, entrepreneurship and marketing issues.
Michael has been honored with several of the industry’s highest accolades, including PR Week’s PR Professional of the Year in 2015 and 2010. Additional awards and recognitions include the PR Executive of the Year Award from the International Business Awards in 2014, 2013 and 2012; Grand Prize for Communications Professional of the Year from the 2013 and 2012 Bulldog Stars of PR Awards; Alumni Recognition Award from American University for 2013; PR Executive of the Year by the 2013 and 2012 American Business Awards. PR News also named Michael Agency Leader of the Year in 2013 and CSR Professional of the Year in 2012, and he was inducted into the PR News Hall of Fame in 2009.
An active member of his community, Michael was appointed by President Obama to the White House Council for Community Solutions. He was also appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate as a Governor of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. In this position, he helps direct all U.S. international media including the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcast Network and Radio Free Asia.
In January 2018, Michael was elected the Chairman of the Board of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. He is also a current member of the Fulbright-Canada Scholarship Board and is a founding Board Member of ConnectOne Bank, one of the nation’s most successful community banks (NASDAQ: CNOB). Michael is a board member of the New DEAL Leaders and the New York Coalition for the Homeless. He is also active in progressive politics and issues, having played major roles in the campaigns of President Barack Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton.
Michael holds a B.S. from the School of Public Affairs at The American University, where he serves as a member of the School of Communications Dean’s Advisory Council.