Convocation

Laura L. Sydell '83

Laura L. Sydell '83
Convocation Remarks
August 28, 2017

“You Are So Lucky. Really.”

Thank you so much for having me here. Thanks to President Gregg Vincent for inviting me and to the William Smith Alumnae Association. It is so nice to be back on this campus. Especially at this time of year when it’s all green and please go take a dip in beautiful Lake Seneca before the winter sets in. I do still remember the very cold winters here -- on the upside -- it makes it easier to study.

I was thinking that the last time I was here was also the last time I used a typewriter. Do you guys even know what a typewriter is? Or whiteout? And do you have any idea what Microfiche is? No...You just Google stuff. When I was here there were no cell phones. More than once I managed to be out of my room when my parents called and I could just say I was in the library studying.

The world changes; and the world you are about to enter as adults is going through a growth spurt and with it there are a lot of awkward phases.

And I want to say to you...that you are all very, very lucky to be here. No matter how challenging your studies may be at times -- this is still a lucky place to be. You have a moment to take a breath and examine where you fit into the arch of history and what contribute on you can make that fits with who you are.

You’ve got the space to step outside of the daily worries that will take up a lot of the time in your post college life -- to think bigger. And you will be able to do it with a community of people who support that kind of thinking.

I want to share with you to some thoughts on what was most important to me about the time I spent here so and perhaps you can find something in my story that inspires you.

I happened to be a history major when I was here and that may not be your path - but I know the colleges have always taken pride in giving people a rounded education. This is a liberal arts college -- take advantage of that. Even if you are pre-med find time for some history, literature anthropology. You won’t regret it. And to those who are on a humanities path -- take some science -- the hard core kind. Learn about the central and sometimes contradictory ideas that are the foundation of our society and civilization.

Take the time here to look at yourself in the context of the long arch of human history and despite the challenging times in which we currently live—and I won’t kid you, these are challenging times -- still, a bit of a look at the history of humanity should tell you that you are living in a time when there is less war, less famine, and longer life expectancies than ever before for humanity. You are lucky. A thousand yeas ago, you’d be worrying about the next plague and whether some other tribe was going to show up to take your crop.

And as many injustices as there are left in the world there is more tolerance now than ever before. When I was growing up...pretty much all newscasters and anchors were men. While men still have the most high profile TV news shows there are a lot more women and I am fortunate to work at one of the most pioneering places for women in broadcast journalism.

When I attended the colleges I never imagined that among the among the most popular hosts on TV would be a lesbian who was legally married to another woman and a single African American woman who grew up the poor daughter of a single mother. I mean of course Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey.

A lot of what you learn here may not seem terribly applicable to the rest of your life – I cannot confirm reading Nabokov will result in more than good conversation.

And yet....it could turn out to be very important.

I want to explain how my honor’s thesis on Dostoyevsky underlies a project I’m doing right now at NPR.

My major was actually Russian Cultural history-- I looked at how historical events were reflected in the art and literature of Russia. Ya Towja Ugelia po Russki eeYik . And that's about all I remember how to say.

The focus of my honor’s thesis was an image that appeared in 3 novels by Dostoyevsky -- I know this sounds obscure...but bear with me. I'm going to explain how that thesis has stuck with me to this day and continues to inform my work as a journalist.

In three of Dostoyevsky’s novels an image appears in the meandering minds and strange philosophical meanderings of the characters of the Chrystal Palace. . It was a building made of iron glass that had been constructed to hold all the latest technology from around the world during 1851 World's Fair in London. The world was in the midst of the industrial revolution and many of the great thinkers of the time believed that science and reason would end war and all the worlds’ ills. Dostoyevsky did not believe this. One of the novels it appears in is Crime and Punishment -- which is truly one of the greatest novels ever written. The main character Roskolnikov kills an old woman -- a pawnbroker -- who he believes is a pox on the world anyway -- Roskolnikov thinks he is rational man and as such he can make his own morals, know what is best and not be bothered by conscience. The image of the Chrystal Palace appears as the symbol of the kind of future looking great man that Roskolnikov believes himself to be. One who can make decisions in a reasonably way -- for the good of the world. In the end he is so bothered by his own conscience that he turns himself in. He discovers that in fact – he has not just a head – but a heart.

So, what does this have to do with the Laura Sydell of today who covers the impact of technology on culture and society for NPR? What Dostoevsky taught me is that we humans are not always rational -- we don't always do what's in our best interest or in the best interests of others.

The inventions of industrial age and advances in science have made the world better and safer. We have clean running water, anti-biotics, and more dependable food. But, we also have terrorism; people still murder others, do drugs. And so forth.

I would argue that Today -- the Chrystal Palace is Silicon Valley -- As part of my job I have met some of the most brilliant people -- Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg ,Sergei Brin the co-founder of Google. Most recently I did an interview with a guy named Vint Cerf. He invented the Internet -- Really. At least he was part of the small team that invented it. I took the opportunity to ask Mr. Cerf if he knew his invention would change the world. He said...yes...he imagined it would allow all kinds of communication between academics and different kinds of people. And then I asked him...did you imagine it would also create online harassment, cybercrime or that terrorists would use it as a recruiting tool -- and he said...and I quote: "Yeah well...to be honest...no".

And this interview will appear in an upcoming story on NPR that's part of a series that looks at the sometimes darker side of what happens when great new technologies meet human nature. And I really feel deeply that underlying this series I'm working on is all that time I spent reading Dostoyevsky. And that every time I hear a tech visionary tell me about all the wonderful things their new invention is going to do before I write my story is the lesion I learned reading Dostoyevsky. Yes. Mr. Zuckerberg -- Facebook is bringing us all closer together -- but we might not always use that ability for the good. We might share fake news -- just for the fun it. And I really feel like my reporting is better for having read Dostoyevsky.

But, my early years as a journalist were at WNYC in New York. I was reporting on the culture and politics of NY City’s various racial and ethnic communities. That included a Russian community. But, I will also say that the fact that I had learned a great deal about the culture other than my own helped me to approach the Dominicans, the Haitians, the Orthodox Jews, the African Americans, and so forth. By studying and learning about one culture different from my own I was able to understand how complex each one is. That the way people behave and think and see themselves is interwoven with the place they grew up ...with their family histories, their first language. And as a public radio journalist I enjoyed nothing better than to listen and try to understand where people were coming from.

I'm going to give you one more reporting story here. In 1987, there was an African American teenager named Tawana Brawley who was found in a rather horrible state covered with feces with racial slurs scrawled on her body. She accused four white law enforcement officials of raping her. A grand jury determined her story was false and that what most likely happened is that she made up a story to avoid being punished by her step farther.

A few years later, one of the officials she had accused sued the four men who represented Brawley legally and publicly at time. He said they knew she was falsely accusing him of a crime and yet her adult representatives still continued to tell that story to the media. You may have heard of one of the men on trial for defamation - - his name is Al Sharpton.

I got to sit through that defamation trial – IT WAS FASCINATING. And what was fascinating wasn’t really what happened on the stand or during cross examination. What was most fascinating was the response in the courtroom.

Every day there were also supporters of Sharpton’s and his friends who came to the courtroom to support them. They were almost all African American.

They watched as the defendants continued to argue that Tawana Brawley had been telling the truth – she had been attacked by four white law enforcement officials. They made this argument despite the grand jury report and a lot of other evidence showing that these men were innocent.

Now, I saw no evidence that prove that she was telling the truth presented on the stand. But, all the African Americans in the courtroom seemed to be convinced that Brawley had told the truth and that she had been raped by white law enforcement officials.

Now, I could have just seen them as crazy or misguided.

But, I had taken the time to know something of the history of African Americans in this country. Under slavery and the segregated Jim Crow south did know and had spent time learning about the history and cultures of blacks it was all too common for white law enforcement officials to abuse their authority and to protect white men from the very real accusations of black women. That history was alive in that courtroom. It was a lens through which they were looking at this case. I made sure to bring to my reporting an understanding of history and why so many African Americans believed Tawana Brawley despite all the evidence to the contrary.

I was a white, Jewish kid from the suburbs – but my education had helped me understand that history is alive. It shapes our views in the present. And my old friend Dostoevsky was with me too. Because I understood that people are not always rational. There are deeper forces at work in us.

And the study abroad program here is great...going forth and use it. I wish I had gone to Russia when I was here.

But, it will help you understand how others see the world.

Now I know that there is a lot pressure on you all to be practical. History and literature are great -- but, not everyone is going to work for public radio and you may want a job at Google or to head off to law school or medical school. And I do not want to tell you not to worry about those things.

You are so lucky to be here. You've got the rest of your life to be practical. Take some of the time you have here to study arts and humanities history. All of that is going to make you better at what you do. I guarantee that when I talk to people at these companies they want people who think creatively.

Steve Jobs – the co-founder of Apple computer said that the people who created Apple were great musicians, writers, artists who also happened to be great computer programmers.

The other thing that's important while you're here is that you don't just spend your time in class. Find an outside activity here that you love. It could be a sport, the newspaper or the NPR affiliate station here. : For me, it was the theater. I actually didn't have anything to do with radio when I was here. I did a lot of acting. As you can see I did not end up in the theater. But, I learned a lot that helped me end up where I am now. And I made friends who shared a common interest.

I know there are always parties here on campus and you should enjoy them...but it's really great when you spend that free time partying with people that share a common interest the way I had friends in the theater here. We had fun and we practiced our acting and talked about theater geeky things like which Ibsen play was the greatest.

And I learned something about working together. One of the key things about Theatre is that it only works if everybody comes together -- the lighting designer, the costume designer, and the actors. Working on a production was good preparation for life. No matter what you're doing in life-- working with other people -- seeing what you're good at and what they are good at and how you can come together to create something that's bigger than you could do alone is an important life lesson. We need each other.

I did briefly give acting a try. But, I struggled with the need to constantly have to go on auditions. However, part of why I took to radio was because being on the air is like a performance. When we write stories we talk about scenes -- and I collect sound effects...so it's actually very theatrical. And though you may hear my voice on the air and I do the writing and the sound collecting -- I can tell you that without the engineers, the editors, the producers -- I could not do it. That final story on the air is as much about them as it is about me. It's a group effort.

You are so lucky to be here. Really.

Take some risks while your here. It's a great place to flop because there's less at stake --- your job won't depend on it and there are people here who are trained to help you sort out how to make it better.

The theater was a great place for me to learn about taking risks. I was involved with a workshop with an experimental theater troupe called the Iowa Theater lab that came here for a trimester. I think you all have the semester system now...but back then the year was broken into three parts. It was a dozen or so of us who took this lab. We each got teamed up with a partner and we had to create a 10 minute piece together. My partner was terrific...let me just say that I learned that sometimes you are not the best judge of your own performance. I think my partner did not want to be insulting about the fact that some movement I was using really wasn't working. But, when we performed it...I sensed something was wrong. Afterwards the leader of the troupe kindly came up to me and explained that no one understood what I was trying to say. He gently helped me realize that I wasn't sure what I was trying to say either. But, other than making a little bit of a fool of myself...nothing was lost...and I realized that sometimes it's really important to try to grasp what you might be trying to say before you say it.

This is a small school and that means you can really get to know your professors. Take that opportunity. This is a time in your life when there are people around you who are invested in your success. That is really special. It doesn’t happen that often.

Though this is only four years of your life -- it will be very well be more consequential than any other four years - this is a pivotal time - you are sowing the seeds for the person you will become outside of here.

And last but not least - - follow your curiosity and your heart. They are both muscles. If you don’t use them they atrophy. These colleges were where I learned how to keep them in shape.

As I’ve made choices about what to do with my life I’ve always checked back in with that part of me that was formed here. I’ve always followed my heart and my head.

The Chrystal Palace is a lovely place – but no one wants to live in a house where everything will break if you laugh too hard or dance too fast.

Figure out what keeps your head and your heart going while you’re here. You are so lucky to be here. Really.

Laura L. Sydell
William Smith '83

Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.