Last week, I had one of the most joyful experiences of my life: shaking the hands of 1,200 jubilant new graduates on a stage surrounded by towering cedars and overlooking the main square of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.
These students had chosen me to help celebrate their big day by sharing my take on success and their futures with a commencement address. After I had given the speech, the college president invited me to shake a few hands as the students came up to receive their diplomas. I couldn't stop. One by one the students processed up the ramp and across the stage, beaming with a sense of accomplishment and pride.
Being Evergreen (where freedom and individuality are celebrated and whose mascot is a geoduck), half of the students ornamented their green robes and mortarboards with funny or outlandish accessories. While there were plenty of plain old hardworking students, the procession sparkled with a festival of variety -- veterans, vamps, grannies, moms with little kids in their arms, Native Americans, nerds, anarchists, jocks, stoners, and flamboyantly gay people. Looking into the eyes of nearly every graduate in that carnival of humanity, I was inspired by a beautiful and consistent thread connecting the amazing variety of people whose hands I shook. They had each worked hard for a degree because they had a mission in life to fulfill -- and this day was a springboard for that determined future.
After a thousand handshakes, hugs, and high fives, I realized I was having the time of my life. The president said no speaker had ever stayed to shake hands like this, and I could sit down and relax. But I was an honorary part of the Evergreen family, privileged to be witness to so much joy, and having an absolute blast.
Preparing and then giving the speech was a rich experience. Rather than ad lib from notes, as I would normally do, 24 hours before the event my staff and I decided I'd treat it as a "read essay." I've never read a talk before. In fact, when people read talks (especially pastors reading sermons), I wish they would just follow an outline and speak from their hearts. That's my standard operating procedure. But preparing for this talk, I had so much I wanted to share in my allotted 20 minutes. The ideas and concepts were complex, and the wording needed to be finely crafted. And I wanted to be positive and uplifting. (I tend to rant.) With the help of my closest friends and staff, I massaged what I wanted to say into a tight essay, tweaked my references and phrasing to be in tune with my audience, "killed a few babies" (editor talk for deleting favorite bits that just don't quite fit), and came up with a transcript I liked. Giving the talk -- which ran 22 minutes -- to 1,200 graduating students and three or four thousand friends and family was an absolute delight. If you'd like a traveler's answer to "plastics," check this out.
Thanks to the wonderful faculty and 2012 graduates of Evergreen for the honor of being a part of your commencement. If I inspired you half as much as you inspired me, it was a huge success all around.
Follow Rick Steves on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RickSteves