Friday, May 19, 2014

Soledad O'Brien Speaks at Spring Commencement 2014

Award-winning journalist Soledad O'Brien served as the principal speaker and received an honorary doctorate of humane letters at the University of New Orleans' spring commencement 2014. She delivered an uplifting speech that drew largely on her own upbringing and feats as a journalist.

"Do not listen to other people's take on the life you should lead," O'Brien advised graduates.

Nine hundred sixty-five students from 44 states and territories and 49 countries received diplomas Friday at Lakefront Arena. The graduates filed into the 10,000-square-foot arena to music performed by the University orchestra. The Most Reverend Kurtis D. Schultz, president of the Southern District- Lutheran Church Missouri Synod delivered the invocation. Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Irvin Mayfield Jr. performed the National Anthem.

"Today's program marks the end of long years of academic training and the beginning of a transition to a different chapter in your lives," said President Peter J. Fos. "When you first arrived at this University, you were determined and committed to run this race, sometimes at tremendous sacrifice and cost to you and your family, but you prevailed. Even though you may have taken longer to complete this race than you expected, you are still in the winners' circle. Congratulations."

O'Brien, an award-winning broadcast journalist, documentarian, executive producer and philanthropist, recounted trials endured by her parents, a mixed-race couple who met in Baltimore in 1958. In a speech filled with personal anecdotes, she recalled for graduates a lesson she learned along the way: "Do not listen to what people tell you."

By not listening, she said, "you can figure out what your heart is telling you to do."

She advised students to follow their passions and to be a voice for the vulnerable.

"Not taking advice means you can choose to stand up for people who need your voice and you'll have the choice, unfortunately, to do that, every day," she said. "Be that person who stops and says: 'This is not OK. This. Is. Not. OK,'" she said. "Because as my mother said: America is better than that."

O'Brien also told students that there are times when they should indeed listen.

"We're much more alike than we're different," the journalist said. "You need to seek to know people, why they do what they do and why they are what they are."

O'Brien is an award-winning broadcast journalist, documentarian, executive producer and philanthropist. A native of Long Island, New York, she received a degree from Harvard University and recently joined the Harvard Graduate School of Education as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow. O'Brien produced and hosted the highly successful documentary series for CNN "Black in America" and "Latino in America" and currently serves on the board of directors for the Foundation for the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Today she leads Starfish Media Group, a multi-platform media production company dedicated to taking "a challenging look at the often divisive issues of race, class, wealth, poverty and opportunity." Through the Starfish Media Group, O'Brien continues to work with CNN, HBO Real Sports, and America Tonight on Al-Jazeera America. Early in her career, O'Brien co-anchored for the weekend morning show on NBC and contributed to The Today Show and NBC Nightly News.

While working for CNN, O'Brien won an Emmy Award in 2011 for the "Crises in Haiti Report," concerning Haitian orphanages following the massive earthquake. In 2013, she won two Emmy awards for her work on "Kids on Race" and her coverage of the 2012 Presidential election. O'Brien's coverage of the tsunami in Southeast Asia resulted in an Alfred I. Dupont award for CNN. In 2013, "Latino in America 2" won the celebrated Cine Award for documentaries and her documentaries, "Gay in America: Gary and Toby have a Baby" and "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door" also won awards. O'Brien was also named Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists and honored with the 2007 NAACP President's Award.

O'Brien has enjoyed a long relationship with New Orleans and the Gulf South. Her humane and informative coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the BP Gulf Coast oil spill earned George Peabody awards. She serves as chief executive officer for The After-School Corp, which works with schools in New Orleans and elsewhere, to expand and improve public education.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, O'Brien and her husband created the Starfish Foundation, which supports disadvantaged young women in their educational pursuits, including students at the University of New Orleans. O'Brien also serves on the board of directors of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, which is affiliated with UNO and led by Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, Jr.

"It's not what you were, it's where you are and where you're going to be, that matters," the journalist said. "You are an impressive group. Let me repeat that. You are an impressive group, but guess what, after today, nobody cares. Your job is not to be impressive. Your job is to figure out what you want to be."


See the Speech

Watch the UNO commencement video on our YouTube channel - or tune into minute 48 to see Soledad O'Brien's speech.

Read More

Soledad O'Brien to Speak at UNO Spring Commencement
University of New Orleans Spring Commencement 2014