NBC's Brian Williams to graduates: 'You are an unstoppable force'

The keynote speaker at Elon University’s 123rd Commencement exercises used humor and poignant stories from his work to remind the Class of 2013 about the value of time in a world where their leadership is needed.  

Elon University awarded nearly 1,200 bachelor's degrees on May 25 to students in the Class of 2013. Elon President Leo M. Lambert shook the hand of each graduate.

It is time for young people to check the self-esteem and self-celebration created by parents who never wanted their children to experience failure, and for NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, another growing concern that he’s noticed is the changing nature of relationships in an era when social media has created a misguided notion of “community” for youth.

But there is time for graduates to address these generational concerns, though they should note that “time” is relative: just ask the family of a solider who died in Afghanistan this week or the parents of children killed by an Oklahoma tornado days earlier.

Williams’ keynote remarks capped an emotional Saturday morning as Elon University celebrated the achievement of 1,173 students who received their bachelor’s degrees on a crisp sunny day Under the Oaks of campus in front of the West residence hall.

The anchor and managing editor NBC Nightly News and the father of a graduating senior, Douglas Williams, observed how the students in his presence have already surpassed his own educational attainment.

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams: "You have a degree from this institution, which means you are an unstoppable force."
“I’m a college dropout. So effective today, all of you have something I don’t have, something I failed at, something I failed to achieve,” he said. “That is cause for congratulations, and sadly, that is cause for a warning. No excuses. I’m not big on excuses. Job-finding, world-saving. You have to go out and go after it now. You have a degree from this institution, which means you are an unstoppable force.”

Yet Williams said many young people are held back by their own unrealistic assessment of their strengths and abilities. Describing a culture of “entitlement and expectations,” which drew rousing cheers from parents, Williams described for graduates how attitudes have changed.

“All the people who applauded?” he said. “We were basically under the assumption we were losers unless proven otherwise in this country. It was just a grinding existence when we were coming up. You guys came along a little different. ‘Hey, mom and dad, I breathed today,’ and we would order the ice cream cake.”

“It’s a generational mindset shift. If wasn’t your fault. We did it! We just thought, ‘Oh my God, we can’t let them fail at anything! This is terrible!’”

Williams said that students today represent the first generation for which “hate via a ‘send’ button is assumed,” that it’s ubiquitous and expected, and that the corrosive effects are now baked into them.

“You are the first generation with the routine obsession of poring over imagery, pictures of yourself, hundreds, perhaps thousands of them that you feel best represent you to the outside world,” he said. “What’s any of that going to mean, long term? We have changed. We’ve gone off on our own with our devices, in just the course of one generation, and we haven’t put our arms around what this change means yet.”

An online audience isn’t a “community,” he said. The people gathered together around the graduates are a community, individuals with their own hopes, dreams and fears. That should make graduates pause before sending a tweet or posting photos on social media.

“Stop yourself,” he said. “Before you say something to your followers, consider being a leader instead. Consider grit and consider drive. You’ll need both as you go after it as you leave here.”

Williams spent part of his allotted time offering comments to graduates that reflect what all the parents in attendance may have wanted to share. He also took a panoramic photo from the podium, joking that it’s one thing that would all enjoy. (>>Click here to view the photo)

“What can I say about all of them as they look at you?” he said. “They want you to know they are so proud of you. They want you to know they’ve really watched you change over these four years. They are so happy not to pay Elon any more money!”

Williams ended his remarks with a gesture that brought tears to the eyes of many listeners. Reflecting on an Oklahoma father who lost his young child earlier in the week in a devastating tornado, a death cited minutes earlier in his remarks, the venerable news anchor pulled out his own baseball. Williams looked to the graduates and found his son, Douglas, and he tossed the ball to his youngest child.

A classic Commencement tradition continued Saturday as graduates processed through the ranks of the Elon University faculty on their way to the formal ceremony "Under the Oaks."
Referring to the father in Oklahoma who would give all he has to be able to throw a ball to his child, Williams gave a thumbs up to Doug after lobbing the ball. “When you get home you return the bargain by throwing that back into my mitt, which is the mitt you learned to pitch into, and then we will be whole again, because all of this has us thinking about time.”

Williams has been a strong advocate for Elon and a key figure at the university in recent years. He chairs the School of Communications Advisory Board, mentoring students on their academic and career opportunities. In 2011, Williams moderated a special Convocation for Honors featuring a panel of distinguished guests who explored choices that must be made in our nation to respond to threats to democracy, the economy, public education, the environment and civil stability around the world.

Williams has received 11 Edward R. Murrow Awards, 12 Emmy Awards, the duPont-Columbia University Award, the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism and the industry’s highest honor, the George Foster Peabody Award. He is a native of Middletown, N.J., where he was a firefighter for several years before attending Brookdale Community College, Catholic University and George Washington University.

He today serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.

Thousands of family members and friends attended the ceremony "Under the Oaks."
Graduates on Saturday also heard from Aisha Mitchell ‘12, a youth trustee at the university (>>Click here to watch her video), and Molly Shoop, president of Elon’s Class of 2013. Mitchell welcomed students into the alumni body and encouraged them to remain active with their alma mater.

“Today you will leave. You will leave KOBC. McMichael. Acorn. The Root – can we all just take a  moment of silence for The Root? – Moseley and the Oaks. But what won’t leave you are the friends that you’ve made and the knowledge you’ve gained,” Mitchell said. “The relationship you and I have with Elon is a lifelong one.

“Your Elon experience doesn’t end after today and I hope you will stay connected to this great community. … I challenge you to let the fire of the Phoenix continually burn inside of you.”

Shoop told her classmates that despite its “bubble” reputation, Elon has been a place of support in a world filled with challenges and anxiety. “I can’t think of a better place to prepare us for the world outside of Elon,” Shoop said. “Elon has been home when home felt so far away. It has been a safe haven when all seemed uncertain.”

In his charge to graduates, Elon President Leo M. Lambert shared his hope that each man and woman seated before him would “live a life of joyfulness,” a quality he learned firsthand from an older sister who suffered from severe epilepsy. His sister, Louise Lambert, experienced chronic seizures, injuries that would result from those seizures, and even a malignant brain tumor during her 40 years of life.

Yet memories of Louise were not about hardship, he said. She was “the most joyful person I have ever known” who “honored anyone who walked into a room with a huge, intelligent, authentic smile.”

Below normal temperatures made for a pleasant if cool ceremony in front of West residence hall.
Lambert said he wanted graduates to follow such an example. “Today, you are surrounded by some of the people who love you most in the world,” he added. “Remember on this special day that your life is a gift to so many people other than yourself. And when you live it joyfully, in the spirit of giving, gratitude and concern for the happiness of others, your spirit will live on past your mortal years on this earth.”

Lambert also shared with graduates the meaning behind a young oak sapling that each member of the Class of 2013 would receive as a gift from the Office of Alumni Engagement following the ceremony.

“The oak is a symbol of strength. Plant your young tree, and let it serve as a reminder that you have been prepared by your education to be a strong force for good in the world,” he said. “Remember, too, that we are the Phoenix. We have faith in the promise of renewal and of new beginnings.  

“God bless and Godspeed. Long live Elon!”