ITHACA, NY — Amy Kule, the 1987 Ithaca College history graduate who plans and produces the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, returned to her alma mater on Sunday, May 20, to give the college’s Commencement address. As Kule spoke, she was flanked by a pair of giant helium balloons from the parade, and as she concluded her address, the audience was showered with confetti. In between, Kule told the 1,360 graduates and their guests to take a deep breath, grasp the reins of their lives and find their passion.
“If it was possible to be both shy and defiant, then I was both,” Kule said. “My focus was slightly off and I found myself pushing the boundaries of what I told myself I would never want to be and spent far too much time concentrating on trying to be what I thought others wanted me to do. I was forgetting to pay true attention to who I was and what I wanted. I don’t want this to sound too harsh, but it’s true: without a firm grasp, or focus, on what you desire, you will never find your right path.”
Find that path, Kule said, and you’ll find yourself. And don’t let your fears get in your way.
“You will find the most onerous chains to break in our lives are the ones that you’ve tethered there yourselves. The world is moving at an incredible speed right now, and let me say it’s very easy to lose focus. . . . But in order for you to move forward today and begin to find the path that leads to your personal passion, it’s also important to understand and embrace professional and personal failure.”
A newly minted graduate’s first job out of college may be less-than-ideal, Kule said, but accepting it as a challenge is the first step to self knowledge.
“Your first job is a character test. Learn the lessons and use what you’ve learned to plow forward. Personal and professional growth will come as a result of the sum total of your experiences—good and bad.”
Kule illustrated her point by referring to her own work history. After leaving an unsatisfactory entry-level job to work at Macy’s, she not only discovered opportunities, she made her own.
“Out of the six or seven titles I’ve had at Macy’s, only one of them existed before I got there. I’m not bragging, I promise. I’m simply urging each of you to create your own opportunities. And there’s absolutely no substitute for this — find what you’re passionate about and stick with it. . . . Life changes once you find your passion.”
Leading “the world’s greatest parade,” Kule said, has shown her how to lead her life.
“People think I have one of the most fun and satisfying jobs in America, and they’re absolutely right, but for all the wrong reasons. In theory, I cut a ribbon and walk 2.5 miles in heels down the streets of New York. It’s not a bad gig, and on the outside it looks very easy, and hopefully, on Thanksgiving Day, it is. Much like life, though, the real work leads up to the big day, and you can’t do it alone. The parade, like life, is a sum of parts. But instead of clowns and cheerleaders and stilt walkers, floats and balloons, I hope you have enormous success, a little bit of failure, a lot of laughter, a few road bumps, a loving family, and hopefully only a touch of sorrow.”
The ceremony began with board of trustees chairman C. William Schwab ’68 welcoming the Class of 2012 to the fold of alumni. A trauma surgeon, educator and administrator, Schwab also accepted an honorary Doctor of Letters degree for his lifetime of service to humanity and for his more than 20 years of visionary leadership of the college. A professor of surgery, coauthor of a definitive textbook on surgical trauma care, and former chief of the University of Pennsylvania’s Division of Traumatology and Surgical Critical Care, Schwab has garnered numerous national honors, including the Surgeon’s Award for Service to Safety from the National Safety Council.
The proceedings also included senior class president Jimmy Knowles reminding his classmates to treasure the challenges they faced over the last four years. Overcoming obstacles, Knowles said, helped him and his classmates grow from callow freshmen into critically thinking college graduates.
“Our peers and educators have come together on this campus to offer you such broad perspectives of this world, be it their majors, their ideas, or their own lived experiences. Each of us has the incredible opportunity to gain so much from these diverse perspectives, and we have been fortunate to learn through these past four years that with an open mind, you are not only able to change your perspective but also change the perspective of those around you. . . . We have seen the world change around us, we will continue to see the world changes around us, and we have and will continue to inspire that change.”
Following Knowles’s remarks, the senior class officers presented the class gift. Thanks to the generosity of 529 seniors — which constituted a record-breaking participation rate — the Class of 2012 raised $31,862. The majority of those funds will support the creation of the Class of 2012 Emergency Financial Aid Scholarship, which will provide aid to Ithaca College students facing an unexpected financial situation that jeopardizes their continued enrollment.
President Tom Rochon then invited the assembly to think of Commencement as another step in a continuing series of profound transformations.
“In the four years most of you have been at IC as students, the world around us has shifted measurably,” said Rochon. “Dictators who had been in office for decades and who appeared to have enough muscle to last forever are now gone. The global economic meltdown happened while you were here. Trillions of dollars in wealth disappeared. . . . An African American was elected president of the United States while you were here, and that was truly a watershed moment in American history.”
Those world-altering changes will continue at a breakneck pace, the president said, but as old paradigms topple, the members of the Class of 2012 will be positioned to forge new ones.
“You are graduating from college at a time when hierarchy and established authority have never been in more dubious control. You are an independent thinker at a time that calls for fresh approaches. You are adept at communication at a time when the media of communication have never been so open to anyone who has something to say. In just a few years you’ve been on the IC campus, there has been a revolution in what can be said, who can say it, and how it can be disseminated and who will find it.”
Whether it be the economy, the institutions of society, or the power centers of government, Rochon said that things have never been more open for insurgent outsiders to be heard and to make a difference.
“It may look like your elders are in control of things and that you have no opportunity for participation or influence. But look more closely and you will see that a lot of your elders are actually throwing up their hands and asking ‘Now what do we do?’ They are going to look to you for answers, and you are going to be ready.”
In closing, the president referred to the inscription on the medallions passed out to the graduates before the ceremony: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase; just take the first step.”
“It is with awe and great joy that I send you off with a personal message from me to you, albeit one borrowed from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I hope you will think of this message whenever you are unsure of your next step in life, or whenever you doubt that you will be able to create for yourself the life that you want.”