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2021 Commencement Speaker

Liz Tigelaar '98, Emmy and Golden Globe nominated television creator and executive producer, spoke to graduating seniors.

Liz Tigelaar

I have to give a huge thank you to President Collado, the senior class officers, and all of Ithaca College for having me here today.  

If my parents could have ever known back in 1998 that their tuition money would have led to this—and not me living in their basement, which was their greatest fear, and they actually moved to a house that didn’t have a basement, I think, just so I wouldn’t live in it—their ’98  selves would have been thrilled. And I’m so glad that I get to share this moment with them, my wife Alison, my son Wilder, my own Ithaca tribe, and especially all of you. 

We named our son Wilder after a book that I love and a quote in it. Cheryl Strayed is one of my all-time favorite authors, and in her book “Wild” she quotes one of my all-time favorite poets, Mary Oliver. And the quote is: “Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” And that’s the thought I want to talk to you about today.  

I also want to add one more thought just because I’m here, and this is a total non sequitur, but my dad’s a dermatologist, and I feel compelled to tell you, you need to not only sunscreen your face, but also your neck, chest and the tops of your hands. No one’s going to tell you this until it’s too late. Start now. It’s going to make all the difference when you’re my age.  

Your life is wild and precious. Right now, you are sitting here—six feet apart—with a lot of questions, and a lot of unknowns. More unknowns than ever because of what you’ve been through this year.  

I remember being where you are now, 23 years ago. I didn’t think twice about the simple joy of getting to live in our shit-hole house on Prospect—full of awful wicker furniture and a random bird that lived there. Living with my 10 best friends. I didn’t think twice about getting to have my family on campus when I graduated. Or not fearing that on Fountain Day, Senior Splash, we could be transmitting a global disease as we jumped in slightly questionable water together.  

We were all very carefree back then—innocently sharing Genny Lights, accidentally peeing on the Textor ball, and tragically puking in a white Toyota Camry. I’m not naming names; everyone here knows who they are. 

"Your year has been very different. You have lived through a global pandemic, classes on zoom, and now a graduation your parents can’t attend in person. In many ways, you were robbed. That is true. But in what was stolen, something was left. A gift. And that is true too. And that is what life is going to bring you. Losses that have gifts. You have to be resilient. Yes, grieve the loss, but find the gift. "

I bet no class has ever loved jumping in that fountain more than you, and that’s because of your losses and what you learned from them. You now know what you take for granted, you can lose. You now know that what you hold most dear can be taken from you without warning. You now know how good it feels not be behind a screen. So don’t just take a picture on your phone today; take it in your mind.  Enjoy this moment; you made it. 

Right now you’re probably consumed with a zillion questions with no clear answers. I definitely was. I sat in Park senior year being like, “How do you write a script for a TV show?” “You need an agent.” “How do you get an agent?” “You have to write a script for a TV show.” I wanted answers. We all want answers. And answers are good; answers are necessary, but the beauty of life comes in the questions, the unknowns. So if you can find the gifts in the losses, you can also find the gift in the unknowns. 

Someday—probably by my age—hopefully with a great neck and back of your hands, you will have lived into so many answers. You’ll likely know your career, the place you’ll live, who you’re going to spend your life with (if you want that), how many kids you’re going to have (if you want that too). You’ll have all the answers that society uses to validate you and measure you. You’ll basically be swimming in a sea of knowns, so relish being in a moment where there’s so much to discover.  

It’s the unknown, the things you can’t yet see, that make life so wild and precious. Don’t rush through them to get to the answers, it’s the moments between the answers that will shape you and reshape you and grow you into who you want to be. 

Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. You’ll be tempted to, but don’t. You’re not allowed — I will not allow you. Think about what you want to do. It is your life, and it goes so fast.  

Ask yourself: What would make life great for you today? And if you know the answer, go do that. And then ask yourself the same question tomorrow. 

When I left Ithaca, I left with my greatest dream very much alive inside of me. I wanted to write for TV. So I set off to do it, in my own Camry. The first job was an internship through Ithaca LA on “Dawson’s Creek. I was hired by an Ithaca alum, Ilka Rivard—who I first I thought was a different Ilka who I’d had to share a bed with on spring break in Georgia because I was there for crew and I had weirdly gotten into a fistfight with the girl I was originally sharing a bed with…it’s a very long story. Ultimately my fault. But when I met Ilka at Dawson’s I was like “Oh my god, it’s me Liz, we slept together on Spring Break in Georgia” -- turns out, wrong Ilka, there were two, but she hired me anyway. 

My point is: Find your Ilka, any Ilka, because that connection began my whole career. This college doesn’t leave you when you leave it. It’s a part of you forever, so use it.  

Now, I reflect on my own career and aspirations, and I think back to “Wild,” and how, even only a few years ago when that book came out and then the movie, it made me think of all I still longed to do, and I had so many questions of how to do it and, even, if I could. 

I wanted to work with people like Reese, who starred in “Wild,” and Cheryl, who’d lived it, people whose talent inspired me and intimidated me and could help grow me into the writer I still wanted to be.   

So now a few years later I’ve worked with Reese on “Little Fires Everywhere” and I’m working with Cheryl, and I’m working with these people I Iove, and I think of all the losses that were gifts and all the questions that became answers, and how lucky I was to leave here with the education I had, the opportunities it afforded me, and the drive to go out and do every wild and precious thing I longed to do, even if I had no clue when I was sitting here exactly how I was going to do it.  

There’s absolutely nothing that made me special, but it was this place that made me believe I could. And if I can, so can you. So go out and go after your own wild and precious life and enjoy it. 

Thank you.