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My Speech To Princeton's Class of 2009

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This morning I gave the Class Day address at Princeton -- I was selected by the students and it was quite an honor, although slightly daunting to follow in the footsteps of Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld. At the precise moment I got up to walk to the podium after being introduced by Neil Chen, Class Vice-President, a hawk dropped its half-eaten lunch (a dead bird) in front of me -- it landed with a thud. I didn't know whether it was a thoughtful gift or a weird omen -- paging Tippi Hedren! The student speakers were incredible. Jackie Bello and Jason Gilbert had the crowd eating from the palms of their hands and were a tough act to follow. My producer Tony Maciulis cried. President Shirley Tilghman and the other speakers were great, too...this generation came of age during 9/11 and are entering the world at a very difficult time, but I have no doubt their intelligence and ambition will see them through. Good luck to all of them -- and please excuse some of the racier jokes -- I was encouraged to be saucy and sassy!

Remarks as prepared for delivery:

Thank you, 2009-06-01-katieprincetonvertical.jpg Neil, for the kind introduction, and thank you for inviting me today, Madame President, Deans, and most of all Graduating Class of 2009.

It's a tremendous honor to be part of your Class Day. When Princeton called to invite me I was thrilled. It also gave me a perfect excuse for turning down Harvard and Yale - my safety schools! And since I’ve been called a cougar lately in the tabloid press – today I’m very happy to be an honorary tiger! Coming here was a real no brainer! After all, I can see New Jersey from my house!

But a funny thing happened on my way to Class Day... I was pregaming in the Slums when there was a "noise complaint" and P-Safe busted me and took my Prox. Luckily I wasn't McCoshed, so I headed to the Street, where I tried to complete a Prospect 10...but was sidetracked playing ROBO at T-I. Very savage! Then I headed to Hoagie Haven and enjoyed a Fat Lady...and polished it off with a donut from the WA. Boy, you Princetonians really know how to live!

But, actually, I do have a bone to pick with you. I have discovered I am the first female Class Day speaker in Princeton's history. OMG, WTF [Thanks for the LOL]

All these years, and only one woman? Now, I understand this isn't Lilith Fair and there are plenty of great men out there...... but you actually asked Bradley Whitford of the West Wing BEFORE you had a woman? I understand the concept of casting a wide net...but great women like Madeline Albright, Sally Ride, Mother Teresa, Ellen Degeneres all bested by a fake political advisor to a fake president!? And then you had Stephen Colbert, a fake TV anchor? Actually, Stephen could be a REAL anchor...with just a little more product in his hair! I must say, I'm shocked you didn't invite Doogie Howser this year, a fake doctor and graduate of Princeton Class of 83. Or maybe you did, but he was too busy on the set of "How I Met your Mother." Or as we call it, My Favorite MILF.

So, I'd like to officially welcome Princeton to the 21st Century. You've embraced the female gender at the perfect time...because it's been quite a year for women.

After all, a Latina has just been nominated to the Supreme Court...only the third woman in history. And I heard she graduated summa cum laude from a little school in New Jersey! Hillary Clinton was the first serious female presidential candidate and made 18 million cracks in the ultimate glass ceiling. And then of course, there's Carrie Prejean, Miss California. No one has done more to motivate gay rights activists since Anita Bryant. [Your parents know who she is.]

In any event, it is an honor to be here and I am moved to be sharing this special moment with parents and professors who may have woken up to me on the Today show....and with students who MAY wake up in time for the CBS Evening News. Although based on the average age of our viewers, I think you're probably watching "Shot at Love with Tila Tequila" instead.

But seriously, thanks for inviting me, and congratulations to you on your graduation....or, more appropriately, your commencement....because the fun is just beginning.

I'm sure you don't need a newsflash that getting a job is no stroll down Nassau Street. I read a study recently that said only 20 percent of graduates who've applied for jobs have one right now. That's down from 51 percent in 2007. In this economic climate, graduates of the Wilson School might actually have to get a job in Government!

There may be some opportunities in the Republican Party. They're still looking for an effective spokesman, and the only person they can find so far is Rush Limbaugh....and he won't take the job because he doesn't want to give up his prescription plan.

But as you head out into this daunting job market, at least you have many illustrious alumni lighting the way.

Like The First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama. She was class of 1985, and now she's wowing them in Washington.

Or...Queen Noor of Jordan, who has traveled so far and done so much in the name of humanitarian causes since her days here on this campus.

The prolific and brilliant writer, Joyce Carol Oates, now a Princeton Professor. Wendy Kopp - Princeton '89 - founder of Teach for America, who has placed 20,000 teachers who have impacted the lives of more than 3 million students in this country. And for 200 please Alex - who is Larissa Kelly? The third all-time jeopardy winner - Class of 2002!

There are a few noteworthy men who were proud to go to Princeton as well...a list that reads like a who's who of American History. James Madison, John Foster Dulles, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Malcolm Forbes, James Baker....and Lyle Menendez, who's currently serving a life sentence at the Mule Creek State Prison in California. Hey, you can't win 'em all!

I would also like to salute notable Princeton grad...Mayor McDaniels...of South Park.

An impressive number of technology giants have also graduated from Princeton. From the father of modern computing, Alan Turing, to Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, to EBay founder Meg Whitman. And I understand Amazon's Jeff Bezos is offering to replace the Firestone Library with a Kindle. It really makes you wonder why they even built Stanford!

Also doing his part to advance Princeton's impressive technology footprint--Class of 82's David Duchovny, who is single-handedly supporting a major segment of the on-line industry. Apparently, these days Agent Mulder is really into the Triple X Files.

And topping off the list, there's former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. Given his status as client number nine, it seems particularly fitting that he's a graduate of "Woody Woo." Yesterday you heard from another impressive graduate... General David Petraeus who earned his PhD here in 1987. He's the architect of the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy and has had a brilliant career in the US military. And I understand Class of 54's Donald Rumsfeld has been charged with guarding the Big Cannon.

I don't want to say he's taking his job too far, but he's reportedly been telling President Obama there are Weapons of Mass Destruction hidden at Rutgers.

There certainly ARE many successful graduates of Princeton. And now...it's your turn. More than ever in my lifetime, this nation needs some big, bold thinkers. We need innovators. We need people who look beyond a paycheck and see possibilities.

You've got your degree. NOW, you're about to enroll in a new kind of learning experience. There are plenty of lessons along the way...if you keep your heart and your mind open on the journey.

First, success only knocks on your door if you win the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. All the rest of us have to work for it...hard.

There's that old joke...How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. That's a major point Malcolm Gladwell makes in his book "Outliers." He writes that to truly master something, you need to spend at least 10-thousand hours doing it. Take Bill Gates, for example. He dropped out of Harvard and he still became Bill Gates...by devoting his every waking moment to building and understanding computer codes. The Beatles might have seemed like an overnight sensation, but they played together more than a thousand times before that famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. For them, it really was a hard day's night...night after night after night...for four years!

I'm no Beatle or Bill Gates, but I've learned the importance of hard work, as well. I was a desk assistant at ABC News in Washington where my major responsibilities were Xeroxing (hey, it was the dark ages!) and making coffee. When I moved to what my network colleagues referred to as Chicken Noodle News in 1980, I finally got a chance to do some reporting...and the President of CNN said he never wanted to see me on air again. It could have been demoralizing; instead I found it motivating! And rather than let the turkeys get me down... I just kept practicing. And I actually got better.

Even today I spend hours preparing for interviews that sometimes are edited down to only a few minutes. It takes a lot of effort...to make things appear effortless.

This year I had the privilege of interviewing Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the man who successfully landed a flight on the Hudson River after birds knocked out both engines. He saved all 155 lives onboard. While his story is about heroism, it's also about experience and hard work. He said to me: "For 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education, and training. And on January 15th, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a sudden large withdrawal."

In other words, practice, practice, practice. It always pays off.

Next, don't be a hater. Princeton has taught you to think critically, to approach things with a healthy dose of skepticism...and that's a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say. But you really must guard against the cynicism and nastiness that are so pervasive today, particularly on the internet. It can be a wonderful, powerful and equalizing tool, but it's also populated by haters and trolls. People think they can say or do anything online under the cloak of anonymity. Don't get sucked in...In his book, entitled "Snark", David Denby writes, "Snark often functions as an enforcer of mediocrity and conformity. In its cozy knowingness, snark flatters you in assuming that you get the contemptuous joke. You've been admitted or re-admitted to a club, but it may be a club of the second rate."

Rise above the collegial nastiness and instead....celebrate excellence. The joy of reveling in someone else's success is much sweeter than the bitter vitriol of sites like Juicy Campus. By the way, Juicy Campus RIP. Shutting that website down, in my view, was a huge victory for civility.

Third, I have a message particularly for all you young women here today...or as Beyonce might say, all the single ladies. John Lennon, once wrote "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

I'm sure you are all graduating with big career goals. You may also have a dream of being married and having a family, and at some point the career may take a backseat. There is no more challenging, rewarding or important job than being a mom. I just want to say this--sometimes dreams of domestic bliss are interrupted by reality. People get divorced. People die. You need to protect yourself. I was very happily married to a wonderful man. He was diagnosed with colon cancer and nine months later, he was gone. I was a single mom with two very young children. This was not part of the plan. Luckily, I had a career and therefore the financial independence to support my children. Many women in my situation are not nearly as fortunate. And while I don't mean to be a Debbie Downer, I want you all to be prepared for the unexpected and approach some of the big life decisions you'll be making with your eyes wide open.

And another thing you probably need to realize: It's not all about you. As you venture out into this big bad world, I hope you each find a way to make it better. As anchor of the Evening News, I've been to Iraq and Afghanistan. I was there for a matter of days...not months or years. No matter what your opinion may be about the wars this nation is fighting, the men and women of the military are making sacrifices every day...and deserve our respect and support when they're deployed...and when they come home.

But there are many ways to serve. When my husband Jay died, I felt I needed to do something. I needed to educate Americans about colon cancer, the second leading cancer killer of men and women in this country...I needed to help them understand that this cancer can often be prevented entirely if people get screened. I didn't want others to experience the pain my family had endured.

So, I did what any self-respecting journalist with a built in bully pulpit would do...I had a colonoscopy on national television. At one point, loopy on anesthesia, I believe I told the world that I had a pretty little colon. I was fortunate to be able to reach a large audience, and colonoscopy screenings increased by 20 percent. Researchers called it "The Couric Effect." I think it's the Katie and Jay effect. There are people I may never meet who are now living healthier lives...with emphasis on LIVING...simply because I helped bring colon cancer out of the closet.

And I was so gratified to be part of a team that helped organize Stand Up 2 Cancer, which raised over 100 million dollars to fund the unsung heroes of this countries...scientists who work day in a day out...without fame or big checks so many more people can live with cancer and not die from it.

There are smaller, quieter ways to serve...that are just as important. I recently interviewed two adorable sisters for a series we're doing called "Children of the Recession." They are nine and five...their parents both lost their jobs and the girls ended up walking the streets and riding the trains of Chicago with their mother. Then an organization called "Safe Families" stepped in and now they're being taken care of by a wonderful couple until their parents can get back on their feet. I met many families who opened their homes and hearts to kids in distress. THAT...is service. So is tutoring a child. Working at a soup kitchen. Driving an elderly neighbor to the grocery store.

Never underestimate the contribution you can make. Its been said: "If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito."

So give something back. After all, you're graduating from Princeton! You are so lucky. And do me a favor...thank your parents or whoever helped you achieve this goal. Then, transform your gratitude into action...and give back to a world that has already given you so much.

When President Obama announced he was choosing Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court it was a reminder that the American Dream is alive and well...that a young Puerto Rican girl who grew up in a housing project in the Bronx could earn a seat in the highest court in the land. She congratulated the single mother who raised her to be a judge and her brother to be a doctor. Parents, your children, too, can achieve anything because you gave them strong shoulders to stand on and the tools they'll need to succeed. Remind yourselves of this when they ask if they can come home and live with you while they look for work!

But maybe the silver lining of these tough economic times is that it may be the wake up call helps recalibrate our values.

The eighties -- thank GOD -- are long over. Luckily none of you remember them. Gordon Gecko from the movie "Wall Street" was wrong...greed is not good. We can finally burn the bumper sticker that says: "he who dies with the most toys wins." The truth is closer to the old Italian Proverb that says: "At the end of the game, the king and the pawn go back in the same box."

What really matters in the end is how you've played the game of life...that you've lived it with honor, integrity and character... old fashioned qualities that never go out of style...whether you're a fan of Ella Fitzgerald or Lady Gaga.

Finally, take some chances. Get out of your comfort zone, even if that's extremely uncomfortable.

Mark Twain once wrote, "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do."

When I left the safe confines of NBC News, a friend wrote me a note that said, "Boats are always safe in the harbor. But that's not what boats are built for." So sail away, even if the waters are choppy and the territory uncharted...you'll be amazed at what you learn about the world and about yourself...and through it all, cherish the handful of people you can always depend on to throw you a life preserver when you need it the most. And don't forget to wear sunscreen.

To the Class of 2009...congratulations, safe travels...and good luck. I can't wait to feature you in the future on the CBS Evening News. Thank you.

Photo: Denise Applewhite, Princeton University