Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 2005 Commencement

American University
School of Communication/Kogod School of Business
Commencement Address
Judith A. McHale, President and CEO of Discovery Communications
May 8, 2005
[as delivered]

Thank you, President Ladner and Provost Kerwin for that kind introduction. And thank you for all the outstanding leadership you are providing to this great institution.

I’m particularly delighted to be here today because there are so many connections between Discovery and AU. Over the past couple of weeks I can’t tell you how often I’ve been in an elevator with someone who has stopped me and said, “You’re going to be speaking at AU. I graduated from there.” So, I am absolutely delighted to be here today.

I also would like to offer my best wishes for a happy Mother's Day! My husband and I are blessed with two wonderful sons, one of whom is here today providing me with his support and affection…and, more often than not, his very honest feedback. So, I’m sure he will be critiquing my speech when I’m finished. Of all the jobs I have had-President, CEO, board member, lawyer—being a mom is the most difficult, but it is also the one I cherish the most.

I would like to thank all the professors, administrators, faculty, teacher's aides, friends and family members for having done so much to shape the minds and dreams of today's graduates. You constitute the essential community in their lives.

To the parents of the class of 2005, I can only say the moment has finally come.

I expect you are thinking with some amazement about how short the interval is between diapers and diplomas. I imagine your emotions are mixed — you feel a little bit sad, a little relieved, a little astonished and totally proud.

To the class of 2005: Congratulations! You did it! Sit back, relax and savor the moment. Graduation is one of the five great milestones of life: the others being birth, death, marriage and the day you finally pay off your student loans. I remember that day very well!

Today is a time for celebration, for looking back and admitting that all the hard work of reading and writing, studying and cramming before tests, getting carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of so many hours at the computer, was worth it.

In future years, you will recall this ceremony and you will understand that today, May 8, 2005, was the day you first began to forget everything you learned in college.

The fact that you are here, that you have made it to this achievement, shows that you are gifted and serious-minded, with promise and high purpose for yourselves and the future.

You are graduating at a remarkable moment for America and for the world. So much has happened over the past four years since you began your studies. Natural disasters have destroyed communities and claimed countless lives. Trust in our leading corporations has been shaken. Technology has become a great enabler, but also a formidable change agent, disrupting the established order for many.

But we know that for this class there is one catalytic event that will always stand out above all else. For those of you who have been here four years, you arrived in Washington to begin your college experience on August 27, 2001, just two weeks before our nation and this capital city experienced one of our greatest tragedies.

The attacks of September 11th changed our country and our world. Never before have we been so challenged. Because you were students at the American University — in the heart of this nation's capital — you knew the impact of this tragedy first hand.

You endured the fear and insecurity...the increased flights patrolling our skies...the threat of deadly anthrax. The new Homeland Security Department stands right across the street from where we sit today—a testament to the new era that we now have entered.

You will be the first class whose entire college experience was impacted by that tragic day. Like your fellow classmates who are in the graduate programs, we have learned much about ourselves since then. We have learned about those in the world who wish us harm. We have learned about those who wish us well. We have learned about the power of our inner resolve, and the strength of our vibrant differences.

It has not been easy. Our immediate sense of vulnerability has been hard to shake. Those intense first feelings of community and bonds as a people — here in America and indeed around the world — have not been easy to maintain.

But I hope above all else — in spite of the differences — that we all, and especially those graduating today, have learned one essential lesson: that we need to be part of the world around us...that we need to be committed to helping one another...and that there is a value in engaging with the world and doing our part. This is true in our personal endeavors as well as in our professional and business lives.

That is what I want to talk about today.

John F. Kennedy had the opportunity to address this great university in June 1963, a few short months before his death. He once said, "Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation."

Over forty years later, the community of American University is using its greatest abilities to make a difference during these challenging times...responding with optimism, a sense of mission and a commitment to engage in the world.

Some of your classmates answered the call to duty and are serving in Iraq and on other dangerous missions.

Others have responded by volunteering their services to the biggest causes of the day. Students from American University spearheaded relief efforts for tsunami-damaged areas in Southeast Asia, including adopting a village to ensure that support would continue long after the immediate relief ended.

And many of you heeded a call to public service volunteering in last year's presidential election.

The challenge now, as you enter the workforce, is to find the right balance between pursuing your career goals and giving back to your community.

Some see a false choice: that being professionally successful somehow precludes you from contributing to society...that your day job has no larger consequence for our world.

I have always believed that both are possible.

Your place of employment is where you spend the most time, energy and personal commitment. You should be proud of where you work. You should be motivated to help your employer. A job should not be just a paycheck, it should also be a passion.

I am extremely fortunate that my personal experiences and career path have reflected this belief. My father was an American diplomat for over two decades. He served at many posts around the world, including South Africa during the darkest days of apartheid.

Our family lived in Johannesburg in the late '60s and early '70s, and I remember watching my dad hold secret gatherings, in our home, with members of all racial groups. He took considerable risk by hosting these discussions. But through the dialogue he fostered, people whose own government repressed them found hope. It took twenty more years, but those people , and their country, finally discovered the warm embrace of freedom and equality.

Living in South Africa during the days of apartheid and witnessing the inhumanity that political system inflicted on its people influenced my career choices.

My interest in learning about the legal system and becoming a lawyer was born. More importantly, my experiences instilled in me a sense of public duty and a greater appreciation for social responsibility and freedom of expression.

With the inspiration to break down barriers to information and an understanding of the vital role of communications in our world, I eventually began working in the cable industry as a lawyer. This was during the earlier days of cable television, and I was thrilled to be working in an industry filled with innovators and risk takers.

While I had happily accepted my first opportunity at MTV, I later jumped at the chance to work at Discovery Communications.

Admittedly, many of my friends thought I was crazy. To leave New York City, and the hot network that MTV quickly became, for the sleepy confines of the Discovery Channel in Landover, Maryland, seemed a bit unconventional at the time.

Almost twenty years later, the decision has worked out pretty well. Discovery has grown substantially, operating networks in over 160 countries.

But what makes Discovery so special is that the company is not preoccupied with the bottom line alone. Discovery is committed to being a strong business that engages the world and makes a positive difference.

From our very beginning, Discovery has made improving educational achievement a priority. In fact, John Hendricks, Discovery's founder and chairman, originally called the company the Cable Education Network. Although that name later changed to the Discovery Channel, education remains part of the company's DNA.

Satisfying curiosity, expanding knowledge and revealing new ideas are at the heart of Discovery's mission.

We believe as a company that the private sector has an obligation to give back to the communities it obligation, not only to take wealth out of the community, but to invest back in the people and the places who make us successful.... an obligation to do our part and to make a positive difference in the lives of employees, customers and the general public.

Some call this doing well by doing good. Some believe it makes good business sense. Others, say it's simply the right thing to do.

I believe it is all of the above. Companies exist to make a profit and create shareholder value. But the best companies can be a catalyst for building a stronger, more dynamic civil society.

This happens in countless ways:

Sometimes the greatest differences can be made, not by any global business deal, but in the most basic business decisions in your own backyard. That is what happened when Discovery decided to move our headquarters from Bethesda to nearby Silver Spring as part of the revitalization of that downtown area.

Soon, very soon, the question will fall to you: How can you translate the high ideals, imbued by the historic experiences that changed your class, into action? How do you best utilize your degree both to create value for the enterprises in which you will work, and to do your part to engage the world?

For the graduates of the School of Communication, you have chosen a profession that gives you great influence to share ideas, increase understanding and connect people to the world. For the graduates of the Kogod School of Business, you have gained the necessary tools to master finance, industry and trade, which could — and should — lead you to success and corporate influence.

There are no absolute principles that anyone can give you about how best to chart your course in these forceful times. But no matter what career you choose, there are a few suggestions I would like to offer that might help you to do well and to do good in the world you are entering.

First, and most important, find your passion. No matter what it is—working on Wall Street, starting your own business, writing music or becoming a television executive — you must determine, what do you care about? What inspires you? Where do you want to make a difference?

Second, always remain flexible. Thinking anew, thinking outside the box, thinking creatively is more important now than ever. There isn't an institution or organization in the world that can't use new ideas and won't reward you for coming up with them.

Third, develop strong communications skills. You can have big thoughts or small ones, but you will not have the impact you seek unless you communicate effectively. Articulating ideas, confidently and clearly, is how you bring about change.

And finally, teamwork is the key to success. It is true that we live in a society that promotes celebrities and star power. But the truth is, for most things in life, you need other people to help you. You will have to inspire, convince and engage people. You have to be good and honest colleagues. You have to know when to follow and when to lead. Getting the job done in this complex world takes collaboration and old-fashioned teamwork. And that's true now more than ever.

With students representing all 50 states and over 160 nations, the American University truly is a global institution. The diversity of experiences and perspectives gained within these great halls will make you smarter, more empowered citizens. And, as you move forward, embrace that diversity, as it will help you and the teams you work on, become stronger and better equipped to meet the difficult challenges confronting your generation.

There are no road maps or magic formulas to guarantee success. But I am confident you can chart an exciting new course that will reward you and at the same time fulfill your dreams.

You and your families and friends should be very proud. In spite of the challenges of our times, you should also be very hopeful: for all the possibilities of this new age are open to you. Hold up the highest vision possible for your life, and it can come true. I believe, as I hope you do, that the work of your life can be what President Kennedy said, a "benefit for everyone."

I mentioned teamwork a moment ago, and I know a little something about good teams. I appreciate all the honors and tributes I have been fortunate to receive because of Discovery. But, I know that my success has been the result of a terrific team of 5,000 people, some of whom are with me today, who have applied their creativity and passions to jobs they love. So, on behalf of the team at Discovery, I thank you so very much for the honorary degree you have conferred on me today.

Thank you.