Renowned Actress and Activist CCH Pounder Tells Fellow IC Grads to Use Their Education as the Springboard to Courage and Passion

CCH Pounder — cofounder of Artists for a New South Africa and an actor with numerous film, television and theater credits, including the Na’vi spiritual leader Mo’at in “Avatar” — returned to IC on Sunday, May 23, as the guest speaker at her alma mater’s 115th commencement. Though her audience held some 1,300 new graduates and their guests, Pounder said she came back to the institution where she had earned a degree in theater arts because there was someone in the assembly she wanted to talk to.

“It’s just one person,” Pounder said. ‘”You’re here in this crowd. You’re armed with knowledge, but you’re not sure. You’ve made it this far. You’re going somewhere. You’re above average, but you don’t always feel it. You want to do something special, but you’re just one person. What could you possibly do?”

The first thing, said Pounder, is to realize that graduating from college is a vital first step. The next step, she added, is to find the courage to change when you find yourself in a discouraging situation.

“Misery can be so familiar and so comfortable,” Pounder said. “You’ve got to suffer sometimes to make change happen. . . . Moxie, courage, pluck, you have to learn those on your own, there’s no curriculum for that, but an education plus opportunity, that’s the pot at the end of the rainbow.”

Once courage is developed, Pounder said, passion soon follows.

“If you’re an Ithaca College theater graduate, you know what passion and 100 percent looks like,” she said. “It’s getting back in your car after an audition and calling to find out if the leak in your bathroom got fixed or if your friend needs a ride to the airport. It’s not going over and over again in your head what you did in that audition, because when you were there, you gave it 100 percent.”

The confluence of education, courage and passion, said Pounder, were what sparked her involvement with Artists for a New South Africa, a group she joined because she was passionate about freedom and want to help alleviate the suffering brought about by South Africa’s system of apartheid.

“If you think a group of educated actors from TV and films can’t be part of a massive, nation-building initiative, think again,” Pounder said. “There is so much education can do. Thank you for completing this four-, five-, or six-year task. It will buoy you up for the rest of your lives and take you places you can hardly imagine. Thank you for considering sharing your knowledge with someone next door or the child a thousand miles away. Thank you for taking the average you and pushing through to the excellent you. I’m sorry you all had to hear this when I only came to speak to one person. I hope it was helpful. I hope you heard me. I hope it was you.”

The ceremony began with board of trustees chairman C. William Schwab ’68 welcoming the new graduates to the fold of alumni.

The proceedings also included senior class president Kylie Burnside advising her fellow graduates and their guests to focus on what she called the Three P’s: People, Places, and Passion. “Continue to fill your lives with the people who challenge you, make you better, bring you happiness and add more meaning to your life,” Burnside said. “Also, remember to return the favor.” The places we come from, she added, define who we are, while the places we have yet to visit open our eyes, hearts and minds. Passion, Burnside concluded, is striving to do your best, whether you’re a prospective Olympic athlete or a street sweeper. “If you work and live with passion and intention, you will master your own happiness and end each day knowing you’ve done your best.

Following Burnside’s remarks, David Seidorf, senior class director of internal communications, joined his fellow class officers in presenting the class gift to President Tom Rochon and alumni trustee Amy Doonan Cronin ’82. Thanks to the participation of 472 seniors who achieved a record-breaking 32 percent class participation rate, $51,656, was raised in support of the “Class of 2010 Scholarship in Memory of Andrea Morton ’10.” That total included a match by board member Caroleen Feeney ’86 and a $5,000 gift from the family of a graduating senior. (That family also gave a $20,000 class gift allocated to the Roy H. Park School of Communications.) The scholarship was named for a much loved classmate who passed away in April 2009 after a brief and sudden illness. In memorializing Andrea Morton, Seidorf described her as “a remarkably active, accomplished and compassionate young woman.” In addition to the scholarship, the class of 2010 raised $26,758 to support other allocations.

President Tom Rochon then addressed the gathering, basing his comments on the two questions — “How do I want to live my life?” and “Who do I want to become?” — inscribed on the medallions distributed to the graduates before the ceremony. The questions were attributed to President Emerita Peggy R. Williams.

“Think back to that afternoon in August 2006,” Rochon said, referring to the graduates’ first day of class. “You had lots of questions. Will I succeed at this level? Will I fit in with other students and find my niche? Will I like it here?”

That those nervous freshmen of 2006 are now confident graduates proves, said Rochon, that the answers to those early questions were in the affirmative.

“In fact, in retrospect, you realize today that the questions you asked at the beginning of your first year were far too timid,” the president said. “You wanted to know if you would make it, perhaps thinking of college as a kind of test that you needed to pass. But you have done more than just make it — you have prospered. You have been transformed. You have capabilities that you may not even have been seeking when you started at Ithaca College.

Whether being transformed into effective communicators and critical thinkers was the result of a mentoring faculty member, an inspiring fellow student, participation in extra-curricular activities, or hard work and determination, the maturity the new graduates achieved during the last four years will serve them well as they consider their answers to the questions on the medallions

“The true transformation within you, the mark of your education, comes not from the diploma [you receive from Ithaca College] but instead, from your increased understanding of how you want to live your lives and who you want to become,” said Rochon. “I hope you will carry that medallion — and those questions — with you no matter where you go, no matter what you do.”