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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI Commencement Speech by Ann Hood

Media Contact: URI Communications, 401-874-2116

University of Rhode Island
119th Commencement Speaker
Author Ann Hood
1978 URI Alumna

Listen to Commencement Ceremonies Online

It is such an honor to be here today and to be asked to be the commencement speaker. As many of you know, I am a member of the class of 1978. I received a BA in english, one of those degrees that make parents shake their heads in despair. However, standing here today, I guess I disprove the old joke that says: the science graduate will ask: why does that work? The engineering graduate will ask: how does it work? The business graduate will ask: what does it cost? And the liberal arts graduate will ask: do you want french fries with that hamburger?

I know how quickly many things we learn here fade. In a few years, or a few months, or as soon as you take off your cap and gown, you will forget the names of monarchs you memorized, the stanzas of poetry you analyzed, the equations you solved. But you will never forget the times you and your roommates stayed up talking all night about love and politics and the politics of love, or singing arm and arm as you walked across the quad, or watching the sunrise on Narragansett beach. In other words, you will remember what was important.

I would like to ask each of you to do some things for me right now. Almost three decades ago, I sat right where you are sitting. And there are 5 things that, had someone from the future come, tapped me on the shoulder, and whispered in my ear, I wouldn’t have believed for a minute.

The first is that I already knew the man that I would one day marry, that we had passed each other every day in the student union, attended the same parties, and even shared the same good friends. So I want all of you to look around because that stranger in the row behind you could be the very person you spend the rest of your life with.

The second thing I would not have believed is that I would actually end up living in Rhode Island. As I sat at graduation, all I wanted was to see the world, to move far away, to go. So please, remember these trees, the smell of Rhode Island in summer, the crunch of snow beneath your feet, the taste of a Del’s lemonade. Remember them, and leave them if you must, but return to them, even if only in your mind.

The third thing I would not have believed, even though people said it all the time, is that life really is short. So please, when you leave here and go to your family and friends, hug them hard and tell them that you love them.

The next thing I would not have believed is that some day I would walk into bookstores and find my name on books there, nestled on a shelf somewhere between Hemingway and John Irving. So dare to imagine great and unimaginable things for yourself.

And finally, of course, I would not have believed that I would be the Commencement Speaker in 2005. So take this advice: get a Bartlett’s Book Of Quotations and begin making notes as soon as possible. In case you find yourself in the same position one day, you’ll be prepared.

My own commencement speaker was Sarah Caldwell, a distinguished woman who produces, directs, and conducts operas. However I confess that I cannot recall a single thing she said. I hope I do not suffer the same fate.

One of my most influential professors here was Doctor Warren Smith with whom I studied Shakespeare. And in his honor, I would like to share a quote from Shakespeare that reflects my message to you: “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”

Put another way, one day I was watching the Oprah Winfrey Show—one of the greatest perks of being a writer is a lot of free time and a lot of idle things such as reading magazines and watching daytime television that we get to call research—anyway, one day I saw maria shriver on the Oprah Winfrey Show. And she said, women who don’t break rules, don’t make history.

Yes! I said, knowing she had just put into words for me the very thing I was trying to articulate for you today. Of course, the same is true for men. If they didn’t break rules, we wouldn’t have airplanes, ipods, frozen food or california wines.

But imagine: if Clara Barton hadn’t broken the rules by walking behind enemy lines during the Civil War to deliver supplies to wounded soldiers, we wouldn’t have the Red Cross.

Or the African American writer, Zora Neale Hurston, who refused to assimilate at a time when blacks were being urged to do so, and instead celebrated and embraced her culture and heritage.

Or imagine if Jane Goodall had not gone to Africa in 1960 when women were told it wasn’t safe. Instead, without any formal training, she went to Tanzania and began the longest continuous field study of animals in their natural habitat.

Of course, the list of men and women who broke rules and began political, cultural and scientific revolutions is endless and it is glorious. Picasso, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Maya Lin, Alan Ginsberg, the Wright Brothers.

And this is the one message that I want you to take with you after the applause dies down. Break rules. Take risks. Do not only do what is expected of you. Do more than what is expected.

The Reverend William Sloane Coffin said: Rules, at best, are sign posts. Never hitching posts.

Trust me. I practice what I am telling you. When I told my seventh grade guidance counselor that I wanted to be a writer, he laughed at me, and suggested I look into nursing or teaching. When I was a senior here at URI, I followed my friends to a seminar on how to write your resume. I went with them to buy business suits with little floppy ties and sensible shoes. I had student loans and an expectation to get a real job, one with a pension and paid vacations.

Terrified, I broke those rules. I moved to New York City with all of my belongings in a hefty trash bag and one thousand dollars—my life’s savings—in my pocket. I did ask the liberal arts question: do you want french fries with that hamburger, while I wrote my stories in a lined notebook. I kept my rejection letters in a box under my bed. And then, when that one was full, in another box. There were many times, like when I didn’t even have the money for a subway ride, or the credit card company was calling for payments, when the lure of what was safe and expected, almost reeled me in. But faith in myself, faith in my dreams, faith in the value of risk and a love for breaking rules, kept me going.

I promise you that it was worth every sleepless night, every cold twenty block walk down New York City streets when I got thephone call saying my first book had been accepted for publication.

I don’t know what your dreams are or what rules you must break to make them possible. But I do know that you must have faith that they are possible.

I love the recklessness of faith, someone once said. First you leap. Then you grow wings.

Graduating Class Of 2005: Leap!