NBC'S Anne Thompson Urges Graduates to Follow the Truth

May 22, 2017


Stonehill's 66th Commencement ceremony was led by Anne Thompson, Chief Environmental Affairs correspondent for NBC News. Over the course of her career, Thompson has led national coverage on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the Catholic Church, and the Martha Stewart trial. She has also served as NBC’s Chief Financial correspondent and has won numerous awards including the Gerald Loeb Award and an Emmy. Read her full remarks below, or watch them here.

Father Denning, Bishop Colgan, Ms. Burton, Mr. Simpson, members of the Board of Trustees, parents, and most of all, to my fellow members of the Class of 2017: Welcome to the real world!

Watching you process down the hill to join us on the quad this morning, I couldn't help but think of the journey you have travelled, from cornerstone to capstone.

Far from those days of being uncertain freshmen. You are tanned, rested and ready from Cape Week. You have survived being exiled to Lot 17... and then moved, and then moved... and then moved again. And reputation has it that you know how to hold open a door. Courtesy, flexibility and knowing how to have a good time... just a few of the ways your Stonehill education has transformed you.

A great college education should be a transformative experience, developing your mind with intellectual rigor and your heart with compassion and a strong sense of community.

Now you are asked to transform the world... no pressure.

Guide Posts for Life

But before you do go out there and make things a whole lot better for all of us, I want to suggest three guideposts to look for throughout your life. Keep them in sight, learn from them and let them lead you to where you're going to go, because the truth, dreams and faith are never bad places to turn. They inform us, give shape to the pursuit of big questions, and add strength to our arsenal for dealing with the ups and downs that life is absolutely guaranteed to drop on your doorstep.

The first thing I suggest you let guide your way is the truth. We are a society today that is better educated than ever before, with more information available to us than ever before. Yet, we are bitterly divided by what we choose to believe. The information machine that in many ways makes us incredibly powerful also serves as an almost paralyzing counterbalance, because we rarely can agree on what the facts are.

We're sectioned off into believing in the sources we choose, rather than in the facts that are proven. Sne of our most significant American writers, Flannery O'Connor, observed, "the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."

As someone who covers the environment, I am asked all the time if I believe in climate change. My answer: I believe in god, climate change is science.

And if we go to Webster's definition of science we see that it is defined as, "the state of knowing… knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.”

Here's what the science tells us: The last three years have been the hottest since record keeping began in 1880. The arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the earth. The chemistry of the oceans is changing, becoming more acidic as they absorb carbon dioxide created when we burn fossil fuels.

Growing zones in this country are shifting north, fish stocks in the Gulf of Maine are moving north as well in search of colder waters.

We know the climate is changing. We know that adding more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere warms the earth. These things are true. They can be measured. Proven.

Where climate change may take us is open for debate, so is what we should do about it. But what can't be debated is that it's happening. it's a fact, it's the truth. Truth allows us to move forward, to solve problems, to take action, to develop a foundation for growth. Pursue the truth relentlessly, and life will never be boring.

It will be frustrating. As Flannery O'Connor suggests, it will be uncomfortable, but it will give you meaning and God knows, everyone needs meaning in their life.

The pragmatism of the truth is what allows us to dream. When anchored in reality, we're free to let our spirits soar to the outer limit of our imaginations. Many of you are sitting out there today with big dreams. You want to change the world. You want to create works of significance. Some of you might just want to stay out of your parents house and find a job.

Dream Big, Focus Small

Take your classmate Tommy Farrell. Tommy asked me on twitter, if I could steer him to the right path for a career in broadcast journalism. I told him: go to medical school.

But seriously, whether it is broadcast journalism or teaching or investment banking or even the medical profession: dream big and focus small.

Now I know that may seem contradictory, but when you think of what you want to accomplish few people do it in one big leap. It really happens in a series of small steps: Little truths that add up to a big dream.

When I started my career as a broadcast journalist, I dreamt of accomplishing two things: I wanted to get a job in Boston and then I wanted to be a network correspondent.

The problem was, when I got hired in South Bend, Indiana, I had never done a TV news story. The last news story I had written was for my high school newspaper.

I had to learn, how to write a lead sentence, how to ask a question, how to follow up on a story, how to hold a microphone…

Covering City Hall in South Bend, I was a very, very long way from my dreams, but I was taking the small steps necessary to ultimately cover that distance. Take those small steps in your life and learn. Keep your focus always on the bigger goal, and you will get there.

Look at the example we see in Pope Francis. I have been privileged to cover him, travelling on the Papal plane and around the world, I've seen his work with my own eyes.

Four years ago, if you wanted to talk about a near impossible task... it was becoming the 265th successor to St. Peter. The Catholic Church was mired in scandals: abuse, financial irregularities and declining mass attendance on both sides of the Atlantic.

Today, the narrative of the Catholic Church is much different... the basic message of Christ: of mercy, compassion, do unto others as you would have them do unto you is front and center, because those big ideas of Francis' papacy are illustrated by his small gestures: Kissing a faithful man covered with tumors. Celebrating his eightieth birthday, not with a lavish party but with a humble meal shared with 8 homeless people. They had breakfast. Bringing three refugee families, all Muslim, from Lesbos, Greece to Italy, on the papal plane no less, to start new lives.

Francis has a bold dream for what the Catholic Church can be. The execution of that dream is conveyed by small steps in the face of big problems, showing that each of us can do something even when the challenges seem insurmountable, and contribute to a solution. That is how you achieve your ideals, how you reach your dreams.

Now, you will try to control your destiny. You might develop a five or a ten-year plan to keep your dreams on track, and that is great. But be open to serendipity. Life will inevitably surprise you... take you in directions you never imagined, and still deliver you remarkable joy.

It will also disappoint you, and break your heart. Those experiences will ultimately reveal who you truly are. They will reveal your character.

I never got that job in Boston. Lord knows, I tried. All those small steps: stories, live shots, breaking news, never got me to that goal.

It did get me to NBC, but not before a stack of rejection letters came my way over a ten-year period as I tried and tried to get to the network.

Though I never had a job in Boston, I was at the World Trade Center when the towers came down. I've asked questions of presidents and the Pope. My job has taken me to the Olympics, and to bayous of Louisiana, where I lived for five months as that part of the world fought mightily to survive the BP disaster.

I will always love Boston, but I wouldn't give back one of those opportunities for the nicest condo on Beacon Hill or a decade's worth of season tickets to the Celtics, Bruins  and Red Sox combined. Put me in a box up in Foxborough for the past decade… okay, maybe.

Unexpected Gifts

My point is, in trying to reach that unrealized dream, there are so many unexpected gifts you will receive just by making the attempt.

I had faith that it would take me to a good place and I have found that to be true. And faith is the last but most significant touchstone I hope you keep with you as you move on from Stonehill.

Faith is the security blanket that never fails. The friend that's always on the end of the line when you call (or text). The parent who picks you up in the middle of the night. It's the dog by your side, the old jacket you pull on when you feel the first nip of fall on an August night.

I learned a lot about faith when I got cancer, twice.

Been sick as a dog twice, bald twice, not a hair to be found… gone, in front of millions people everyday with wigs, tattooed eyebrows and false eyelashes. What I joke are my drag queen periods. In fact, if I had come to speak to you last year, I would have worn a wig.

Twice, I have looked at the end of my life, and did the morbid calculations that disease often invites. And in each instance, I have found that prospect of potentially limited time has brightened my life.

Questions of fairness certainly arose but eventually slipped away. I lived in the faith that I had all I would need. I am far more appreciative of what really makes life a success: the family I love, the friends who enrich and support me, work I am still passionate about, the sound of the waves on Cape Cod's shore line.

True happiness I know is not measured in the number of followers on instagram, the likes on facebook or the zeroes on a paycheck… it is treasured in the small magical moments of life. I have faith in these. I hope you will too.

Moments that ultimately answer and define the big questions of life: Who am I? What values will I pass on to my children? How will I improve my community whether it is within my home, my office or maybe even a larger stage?

Unplug

You don't need cancer to find your faith. But I would suggest you do need to occasionally "unplug." Pull out the earbuds, turn off the media, (heresy, I know) and take time to be still. It is hard to hear your own voice, if you are always listening to someone else's.

It's hard to know the truth. It's hard to dream. It's hard to have faith if you're constantly bombarded with incoming information.

This is not something you can just do once. To hear your soul, it is a discipline that must be practiced over a lifetime. When you are quiet, when you are still, you can hear the unmistakable authority of your heart's own conviction. That's what pushes us over life's obstacles, keeps us moving forward when we have failed spectacularly, when we are so tired we just want to quit. It is in those moments of struggle, that what we believe gets us home.

And that brings me to my final point, on faith… faith should never be blind, I believe. It is as much a journey full of questions and challenges and moments of doubt as anything else in life. But more than anything you will ever do, faith is what endures. That was brought home to me in a very visceral way in Rome, on the day then Pope Benedicts' resignation became official.

I was standing on a rooftop, doing what amounts to color commentary as Benedict left the Vatican for the final time as Pope. He walked across the piazza, got into the white helicopter and took off. Heading south to Castel Gandolfo, his chopper flew over the ancient relics of Rome. When it buzzed past the colosseum, the juxtaposition of those two entities illustrated one of the greatest truths I've encountered.

Two thousand years earlier, there was no more powerful force on earth than the Roman Empire. The colosseum... its ultimate symbol of tyranny. There, Christians were stoned to death, crucified, or thrown to the lions for their beliefs.

Now that colosseum is a ruin. Two thousand years later, the leader of the faith the Roman Empire tried so hard to extinguish was flying over its once terrifying symbol of power. Man-made empires, fortunes, armies, machines had all come and gone. Faith is what lasts.

Blessed Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, insisted that the whole person be educated. The mind and the heart, an education of intellect and faith

You leave here equipped with those extraordinary resources.

As you go forth, may you draw on your faith, dream big and focus small, and use truth to guide you to the creation of a better world.

Congratulations!

Watch Thompson's Commencement speech below, starting at 38 minutes.