‘Perfect is Boring’: Jen Psaki Inspires Graduates to Embrace Mistakes

The MSNBC host and former White House press secretary headlined a joyous Commencement ceremony for the Class of 2024 on the National Mall.

May 19, 2024

Jen Psaki speaking at podium.

MSNBC host and former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki commended the perseverance of GW graduates during her Commencement address Sunday on the National Mall. (Joy Asico/GW Today)

MSNBC host and former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki encouraged the Class of 2024 to embrace their mistakes—no matter how embarrassing they may seem—as life lessons during a buoyant George Washington University Commencement address on Sunday in which she referenced meeting Chance the Rapper and splitting her pants in front of Barack Obama.

“Mistakes are really about things that don’t go as we expect them to and having to regroup and recalibrate and adjust our plans afterwards,” Psaki told the crowd of graduates, alumni, faculty, family and friends gathered on the National Mall.

“You may learn more about who you are by messing up. I certainly have. And if you handle these moments well and handle your mistakes well they may end up as funny anecdotes that you can tell at dinner parties. Or on dates. Or during a commencement speech on the National Mall.”

Psaki, who served in two White House administrations including as press secretary for President Joe Biden and now hosts MSNBC’s “Inside with Jen Psaki,” good-naturedly recalled mistakes that seemed mortifying to her at the time but now feel like moments of resilience and humor. She recalled not realizing she was sitting next to Chance the Rapper at a White House state dinner; accidentally cc’ing an entire press corps on a trash-talking email; and, to the Commencement crowd’s delight, being goaded into leaping a track hurdle during a 2008 campaign stop as traveling press secretary to then-Senator Obama—only to rip the back of her pants.

“If you think something you do in the next 10 or 15 years is so embarrassing that it will ruin your career, I want you to remember that I split my pants in front of the future leader of the free world,” she laughed.

Psaki headlined a joyous 2024 Commencement celebration. GW is the only university that holds its graduation ceremony on the National Mall, a tradition that was interrupted when the COVID-19 pandemic forced initial ceremonies for the Classes of 2020 and 2021 to be moved online. (A joint ceremony for the classes was held in October 2021 on the Mall.) Psaki alluded to the crisis that caused many of the day’s graduates to miss their in-person high school ceremonies—and forced them to quickly learn how to handle adversity.

“You persevered, and you’ve emerged stronger and with a better understanding of the world than most graduating classes before you,” she said. “And in the process, you learned the importance of resilience and the ability to respond to circumstances you can’t control firsthand.”

Jen Psaki receives honorary degree
With the help of Provost Christopher Alan Bracey (r), Jen Psaki received her stole recognizing her honorary Doctor of Public Service degree from the university. (William Atkins/GW Today)

At the same time, Psaki reassured graduates that they should allow themselves the flexibility to occasionally fail without worrying that it may leave a black mark on their future resumes. While noting that she often tells her 8-year-old daughter that “perfect is boring,” she said she never regretted the life and career risks she took—and even the sometimes embarrassing mistakes she’d made.

“Things that seem big in the moment can also end up not being that big a deal and your ability to navigate through those moments that don’t go as expected is often far more important than how you navigate the days that go well,” she said.

Psaki asked the graduates to extend grace to people struggling around them—whether it’s their parents, their future partners or themselves. She closed by reminding them that even amid turbulent times they should look forward to bright days ahead.

“To finish college at a moment in history like this one, when it can seem as if the world is falling apart around you in multiple ways takes not only resilience but also optimism that there is a future for you,” she said. “And I promise you: There is one. Just don’t let any mistake or any loss or, God forbid, any ripped pair of pants get in the way of clearing the hurdles before you.”

Welcoming Graduates

Provost Christopher Alan Bracey opened the ceremony by welcoming graduates and family members. He also noted the contributions of alumni and donors who funded scholarship opportunities. Recalling his yearly Convocation address to incoming classes, he asked the graduating students to reflect on their own first year at GW—when they were bursting with excitement about the opportunities ahead.

“You are now in a position to look back at your time at GW and see that everything we said you would experience did indeed come to pass,” he said, pointing to the relationships they forged, the skills they developed and the perspectives they gained from studying in the nation’s capital.

“You have broadened your horizons and set yourself firmly on the path of excellence for whatever you do next.”

Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights, J.D. ’82, echoed Bracey’s call to acknowledge the critical role fellow graduates, faculty and family and friends played in guiding them through their GW journey. “You leave GW a stronger, wiser scholar and individual who will celebrate successes and face challenges with equal confidence,” she said. “You are destined for great things.”

Speights introduced GW President Ellen M. Granberg, who was presiding over her first Commencement since becoming the university’s 19th president last summer. Granberg urged the graduates to savor the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with earning their degrees while cherishing their “only-at-GW” memories—from life-long friendships to life-changing classes and opportunities on Capitol Hill and beyond. “These unique moments are all a part of what makes a GW experience so special,” she said.

Ellen M. Granberg
GW President Ellen M. Granberg delivered her first Commencement on the National Mall address as leader of the university on Sunday. (William Atkins/GW Today)

In his remarks, Maxwell Gocala-Nguyen, M.A. ’16, president of the GW Alumni Association, welcomed graduates to a family of more than 330,000 alumni from around the world. He asked them to actively embrace their role as mentors for students who would one day follow them across the Commencement stage.

“As new alumni, you hold a unique perspective in helping to bridge the community to prospective and current students,” he said. “Your engagement with our community allows GW to grow in outreach and impact.”

Revolutionary Inspiration

Gocala-Nguyen also introduced the Class of 2024 student Commencement speaker, Yahya Aliyu, B.S. ’23, who earned a M.S. in biomedical engineering.

Aliyu described a generational journey to GW. His father, alumnus Zakari Aliyu, M.P.H. ’99, left his native Nigeria nearly 30 years ago to move to Washington, D.C. When Aliyu was just 7 years old, the family returned to rural West Africa where his father led the revitalization of a large public hospital. They returned to Maryland prior to Aliyu entering high school, and when he began considering colleges, his father had just one request: “I was free to apply to whichever universities I so desired,” Aliyu recalled, “so long as GW was one of them.”

Yahya Aliyu at podium
Class of 2024 student Commencement speaker Yahya Aliyu, who earned his M.S. in biomedical engineering on Sunday, celebrated the value of GW with his fellow graduates. (William Atkins/GW Today)

It was a decision Aliyu never regretted, he said. In a speech that quoted inspirations from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Sir Isaac Newton, Aliyu cautioned against rigid thinking and pursuing education as a commodity for boosting earning power. Instead, he celebrated the value GW places on higher learning as a means of cultivating minds and enriching lives.

“As GW students, our graduation canonizes us as revolutionaries—a name we chose for ourselves,” he said. “We are inspired by those revolutions that have ushered in new paradigms of thinking, introduced ground-shattering innovations and challenged the status quo to make the world a better place.”

Honorary Degrees

Granberg then returned to the podium to confer honorary degrees.

She announced that Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr., founder of the Institute for Religious Freedom and Democracy in the Columbian College of Arts & Sciences, was selected to receive an honorary Doctor of Public Service. Loeb, the U.S. ambassador to Denmark from 1981 to 1983 and a delegate to the 38th session of the UN General Assembly, was unable to attend the ceremony and will receive the degree at a later date.

Granberg also bestowed honorary doctoral degrees in public service to Psaki, former D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, B.A. ’64, and entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist Jon Ledecky.

Former D.C. Mayor and GW alumnus Vincent C. Gray, B.A. '64, earned an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree on Sunday. (Joy Asico/GW Today)
Former D.C. Mayor and GW alumnus Vincent C. Gray, B.A. '64, earned an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree on Sunday. (Joy Asico/GW Today)

In her introduction, Granberg noted that Gray, a clinical psychology major at GW, broke racial barriers as the first Black student admitted to the university’s fraternity system. She highlighted Gray’s long record of service—as a steadfast advocate for the residents of his hometown of Washington, D.C., and as a champion for underserved communities such as homeless people, at-risk youth and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Providing remarks on Gray’s behalf, his wife, Dawn Kum, urged students to follow his example of striving toward their goals in the face of challenges.

“No one finds success in a straight line. We take a few steps forward, round an unforeseen turn, maybe take a step backwards, but always keep our eye on the prize and move ahead,” she said. “That got you here today, and that is what has brought Vince here too.”

In his remarks, Ledecky, who served on the GW Board of Trustees for five years and founded the Fortune 500 company U.S. Office Products in 1994, paid homage to his father who immigrated to the U.S. from the Czech Republic. Ledecky recounted how his father worked as a dishwasher at a New Jersey Turnpike restaurant while raising a family, saving loose change to buy a house and eventually earning his B.A., M.B.A. and Ph.D.

As he thanked his parents for their hard work and sacrifice, he asked students to rise and applaud their own loved ones for their encouragement and support.

Jon Ledecky at Commencement on the National Mall
Entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist Jon Ledecky, co-owner of the NHL's New York Islanders, fires up graduates as he received his honorary Doctor of Public Service degree Sunday. (William Atkins/GW Today)

The co-owner of the National Hockey League’s New York Islanders, Ledecky cited sports metaphors to usher graduates on their next steps forward.

“Hockey is life,” he said. “It goes by faster than a slap shot. You want to avoid the penalty box at all costs…. You need good coaches and teammates too.

“Find something you love as much as hockey players love hockey and try to become great at it.”

Two graduates—Fernando Muñoz Dominguez, who earned a LL.M. in international environmental law; and Samyudha Rajesh, who received a B.A. in international affairs with a minor in journalism and mass communications—assisted Granberg in presenting the honorary degrees to Gray and Ledecky.

Joseph Decilos, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications and photojournalism, helped Granberg present Psaki with her honorary degree.

The Main Event

Later, the proud moment for the Class of 2024 arrived when friends, family and loved ones cheered graduates as they received their degrees.

In her charge, Granberg complimented the graduates as “an exceptional group of motivated and talented individuals” who did much more than “fulfill these requirements and check the necessary boxes to get here.” Instead, she applauded them for following their passions while discovering new interests, charting new academic ground and making their marks in fields like athletics, the arts and sciences and service to their varied communities.

“During your time at GW, you have explored who you are and learned about the world you occupy,” she said. “Today, as you prepare to embark on the next chapter of your lives, I charge you to keep alive the same passion, curiosity and commitment you brought to and cultivated here at the George Washington University.”