Savannah Guthrie to Graduates: Take a ‘Big, Giant, Daring Leap’

Ms. Guthrie delivered the university’s graduation address Sunday on the National Mall.

Savannah Guthrie
NBC News' TODAY co-anchor Savannah Guthrie urged graduates to take risks and make bold choices in pursuing their passions during her Commencement address Sunday at the base of the Washington Monument on the National Mall. (William Atkins/GW Today)
May 19, 2019

One of the “biggest, craziest jumps” Savannah Guthrie made was just after law school, when she thought she had her future planned.

She had a prestigious clerkship lined up with a federal judge. But she realized she didn’t want it. It wasn’t her dream.

“I still had that nagging hope that one day I could really make it in television news,” the co-anchor of NBC News' TODAY told George Washington University graduates on Sunday on the National Mall. “And so, what I did next was insane and unthinkable. I quit, before I even started.”

Although she had “less than nothing,” at that point, it was a moment of truth—a moment to jump, she said.

It worked out eventually, and Ms. Guthrie found a job with a legal network looking for a lawyer with TV experience a few months later. Her vision for herself was starting to come true.

All the opportunities, and the challenges, would help her get where she is today. The experiences illustrated one of Ms. Guthrie’s observations: Life doesn’t follow a straight line.

“It was a zig-zagging, dotted, sometimes broken line, with pauses and detours and beginnings that ended too soon and endings that turned out to be beginnings,” she said, advising graduates to think big and then head in that “general direction.”

The journey will involve setbacks and adversity, she warned, and moving out of one’s comfort zone or wheelhouse.

“Your blossoming and your growth—which is to say, your success—is always, always, inevitably, on the other side of a risk,” she said. “It’s on the other side of a bold choice. It’s on the edge, waiting for you, on the other side of your fear.”

Sometimes a leap will “stick”—and sometimes it won’t—but “there is no wasted opportunity,” Ms. Guthrie said.

“Your obstacles, your broken places, the spots where you’ve healed, the things you’ve overcome—this is the source of your strength, and it also is the source of your beauty.”

Concluding her remarks, Ms. Guthrie left graduates with a few extra pieces of advice: don’t worry (“life can handle a few of your missteps—even the biggies”); “don’t waste your time feeling ‘old’ when you’re young”; don’t compare yourself to others (“the life you’re making is enough”); and look around and appreciate your surroundings (“don’t miss the monuments”).

Washington Monument in background of Commencement stage with Guthrie speaking at podium

(Photo by Dave Scavone)

Congratulatory remarks
Remarks from university leaders preceded Ms. Guthrie’s Commencement address.

Provost Forrest Maltzman welcomed graduates, highlighting the “one-of-a-kind” opportunity to celebrate Commencement on the National Mall. GW is the only university that holds its graduation ceremony on the Mall.

Dr. Maltzman recognized the achievements of GW’s graduates and those who supported them—family, friends and fellow alumni alike—and said Sunday’s setting on the grounds of the Washington Monument, which was dedicated to the nation’s first president and GW’s namesake, was a “fitting tribute to your achievement.”

Dr. Maltzman also introduced GW President Thomas LeBlanc, who—after taking a photo to document the historic surroundings—continued “an important Commencement tradition” by thanking the parents, families and friends of the graduates.

In his remarks, outgoing Board of Trustees Chair Nelson Carbonell Jr., B.S. ’85, who has served 17 years on the board, including six as chair, reflected on the effect GW has had on his success.

“I can never repay GW, and I will remain forever grateful to the university,” Mr. Carbonell said. “GW has given you the tools you need to meet the challenges of the future with confidence. We are proud of you, and I know you will always be proud to say that ‘I am a graduate of the George Washington University.’ ”

Richard Jones, J.D. ’84, president of the GW Alumni Association, noted the opportunities he received from attending GW on scholarship and welcomed graduates to the GWAA and community of more than 290,000 alumni around the world. He asked graduates to “leverage” their education in the coming years.

“Stay connected to your faculty, classmates and other GW graduates. Opportunities you didn’t expect will come from these continued ties,” Mr. Jones said. “Give back to your community and to your alma mater. The spirit of giving and of service is a common thread that unifies the entire GW alumni community. Raise high and proudly share your GW affiliation at your job, where you live and with your friends. Believe me, GW will be a conversation starter and an important point of connection for you in the months and years to come.”

Special recognition
Student speaker Tyriana Evans, who earned a B.A. in journalism and mass communication, spoke about the fear many have in attending college—leaving home, making friends, finding passion—and overcoming it.

Tyriana Evans speaking at podium

Tyriana Evans, B.A. '19, focused on overcoming fear in remarks to her fellow graduates. (Photo by Rick Reinhard)

“Well, let me tell you. You conquered fear,” Ms. Evans said. “In spite of every fear that tried to deter you, you made it.”

But not without professors, family and friends, she added.

“The next time you hear fear whispering into your ear, remember your time at the George Washington University and every lesson learned that taught you to be brave, to look fear straight in the eyes, to say never again will you cause me to doubt myself and tell me I’m not good enough,” she said. “Because that is not true.”

Dr. Maltzman also recognized this year’s three recipients of the George Washington Awards, presented to students, faculty and staff who have made extraordinary contributions to the GW community.

Jeffrey Akman, vice president for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences; Christopher Stevenson, graduate student in the master of public administration program in the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration; and John Carruthers, program director of the master’s program in Sustainable Urban Planning in the College of Professional Studies received the awards this year.

Three other graduates—Peak Sen Chua, Samantha Lemieux and Matthew Lish—assisted Dr. LeBlanc in conferring honorary degrees Sunday to Ms. Guthrie; alumna and world-renowned scientist Christine Darden, D.Sc. ’83; and businesswoman, philanthropist and humanitarian Cindy McCain. Dr. LeBlanc highlighted the recipients’ many achievements and officially awarded a doctor of public service to Ms. Guthrie and Ms. McCain. Dr. Darden received a doctor of science.

In her remarks, Dr. Darden recalled her path to finding her passion in mathematics and engineering, and the challenges she had to overcome to progress academically and professionally.

“As you graduate and move into the future, if you haven’t already found your passion, try to perceive what it is you really enjoy,” Dr. Darden said. “Try to move in that direction and to remove or go around any roadblocks or detours that you may encounter. Most important, however, keep moving and persist.”

Ms. McCain, widow of Republican presidential nominee and U.S. Sen. John McCain, said she owed her honor Sunday to her late husband, who taught her sacrifice, character-driven leadership, generosity, humor and dignity.

“Please remember, always be true to yourself, do everything you do from your heart,” she asked graduates. “Listen to your heart.”

Main event
Later, GW’s most important degree recipients of the day got their turns after Dr. LeBlanc offered his charge.

Emphasizing the importance of empathy, Dr. LeBlanc charged graduates to “work hard to understand one another, share in each other’s accomplishments and joys” and consider why someone sees the world differently. 

“As a computer scientist, I have spent a lifetime studying unfeeling machines that perform many of the tasks of humans, but never with empathy,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “No, the job of thinking of others, and the impact our actions have on others—that job is ours.”

Thomas LeBlanc taking a picture from commencement stage at speaker podium

GW President Thomas LeBlanc takes a photo before addressing university Commencement attendees on the National Mall on Sunday. Dr. LeBlanc emphasized the importance of empathy. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Dr. LeBlanc noted various disciplines in which graduates may have encountered empathy during their time at GW: the arts and humanities, often powerful vehicles for shared expression; law, through creating a just society; medicine, through a promise to deliver effective care to all; and science and engineering, through constructing environments that strengthen all communities.

“I charge you to develop greater empathy every day, in your personal and professional interactions and as part of your lifelong journey of learning. I believe that what you discover—from others, about others and with others—will have a positive influence on you and your community,” he said. “Each of us has something important to contribute to our society—make your contributions while lifting up others, too.

“Class of 2019, I know that you will continue to bring distinction not only to yourselves but also to your families, to your communities around the world and, beginning today, to your alma mater!”

Watch the full ceremony


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