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Meredith Vieira on Balancing Career and Family: Commencement Season (Part 1)

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Meredith Vieira delivered the following commencement address at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts on Sunday, May 18, 2008:

Thank you President Bacow. Thank you to the faculty and fellow honorees, trustees, the alumni, friends, families, and graduates. This is very emotional. I realize if I were to apply here today, I would never get in.

So I’m really grateful to be invited back. I was invited to a dinner last night at the president’s house and I couldn’t go because I had an accident Friday on the Today show. We had New Kids on the Block performing and it was raining, the indignity of it all, and I fell on the stage and just took my shin off. I was lying in my hotel last night, at the Taj Mahal—the hotel, not the actual Taj Mahal. I was on drugs but I’m not delusional. And I had time with my leg up to think about how I got here today.

I don’t make speeches. Despite what I do for a living, I’m basically kind of shy. But about a little over a year ago, Larry, you know Larry, Larry called. We traded phone calls and I finally reached him and he was on his sailboat. He said to me, “Listen, I want you to give this speech in 2008.” And I had just started at the Today show and everything I read said the show is going to tank now that Katie was gone. I said, “Listen, Larry, I could really screw up my job and then you’re not going to want me here giving the commencement address. He sort of laughed and he said, “Don’t worry about it.” And then I said, “Plus, I don’t even know what I would say to these students.” He said, “Oh, you’ve got a year to think about it.” And then there must have been a gust of wind because his voice sort of trailed off and the last thing I heard him say was, “Speak from your heart, Meredith.”

So for the past year I’ve been trying to think of what I should say to you. Obviously I should try to inspire you or maybe alert you to some of the potholes along the way that you’re going to face. Or I could cut right to the chase and tell you the real story behind Barbara Walters and Star Jones. I know, I know. And I do know. Actually, you know what, I’m going to get to that, I am going to get to that.

But first—yeah—but first, as I look out over your faces, the graduates, I’m so impressed by the mission of this school to create real leaders. Back when I was here, I was a student here from 1971 to 1975, I’m going to be honest, I wasn’t much of a leader, except for January 1975, I led a group of female students across the campus streaking. Literally. Yeah. It was really cold, I remember that. And at one point, you know, I looked over my shoulder and the only behind I saw was mine. So as I was crouching in the bushes waiting for the campus police to drive by with the high beams on because, you know, got to catch these girls in the act, it struck me that every leader, no matter how small, occasionally will find themselves alone and exposed.

After that I did actually make a little bit more of myself, albeit with my clothes on—and quite frankly, I advise you do to the same, keep them on—to the point where nowadays, people your age often come up to me—we have a lot of interns at the Today show—and they’ll say, “How did you get where you are? What did you do? What is the formula for success?” I tell them all and I’ll tell you, the only formula is that there is no formula. There is no easy way to get from point A to point B, nor is there any right way.

In fact, my career, if you want to talk about a fluke, I was the kid at Tufts University who went through every major. I came in as a math major. I moved from that to drama, to French, to astronomy. I was brought into the dean’s office who said, “Stop it, pick one.” The only one I could pick was English because that’s where I had enough credits. So I totally relate to the students out here, the graduates who might be a little scared right now. Maybe you don’t know where you’re headed. Maybe you haven’t found your passion. Maybe your parents are looking at you like, “What are you going to do?” and you’re scared. I felt all of that. I felt very lost.

And then, again in January—a lot happened in that January, I tell you, in 1975—I took a class here in broadcast journalism. It was pass/fail. I don’t even know why it took it. I had no interest, none. I didn’t see myself as a broadcaster in my future. I took this class. It was given by a reporter from CBS Radio in Boston, WEEI. Back then it was all news. I think maybe now it’s all sports but back then it was all news. And I found that I liked it. I really liked it. At the end, they had a final project. We were broken down into groups of four or five and we each had to do a mini radio documentary. We would research it, report it, write it, and then one person would narrate the documentary. I happened to be the one chosen to narrate ours.

They brought in a muckety muck from CBS to critique it, a man named Bill Shermer, a wonderful man who has since passed on. He listens to all these documentaries and when ours comes up he says, “Whose voice is that?” I raise my hand and he says, “I want to see you after class.” I thought, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen?” I go out into the hallway and he says, “Have you decided what you want to do with the rest of your life?” Now being a Tufts student, I knew— philosophical deep question, ponder for a moment. And I did and then I said, “Gee, I don’t know.” He said, “Well, I do. I truly believe if you open up your mind you have a future in this business.” And he offered me an internship. And literally, that’s all it took. It was in that moment. It was one person seeing a spark in me and opening a door that I went through. It was that simple. Had I not taken that class, I don’t really know what direction. I would have found a direction, but that’s what put me on the path.

A few weeks later I learned something that is probably the first lesson I’m going to impart to you: remember to always ask questions. I’m an intern now, two weeks before I have to start. They give me a call and say, “You’re going to be ripping wires.” Okay, ripping wires. Radio station. Wires out of the walls. A little weird that they’d have me do that, but fine, I’ll do that. I went and I bought a new pair of overalls because I thought, “Gee, I’m going to look cute.” And actually that was the style back then. I show up to work at 4 a.m.—talk about ironies, I’m back on that schedule—I show up at WEEI and people are looking at me weird, like “Why are you dressed in overalls?” Finally it dawns on somebody about my confusion. Ripping wires, what they meant was ripping the wire services, the copy off of UPI, Reuters, AP, not wires out of the wall. Eventually they stop laughing, although if anybody that I knew back then sees me they always bring it up. I learned a lesson that day: no question is too stupid. You’re not as smart as you think you are. You never will be. There’s always room to learn. Don’t be scared to ask. Luckily for me Bill Shermer still took a chance on me, which I’m very grateful that he did.

But you’re going to find that in life, occasionally people will not be on your side. And then what do you do when you hit that first wall? Mine occurred about two years later. I had moved from radio to television, Providence, RI, and about a year into that job, and I felt pretty secure, I was brought in by the news director on a Friday, because that’s when they do it to you. And he said, “You know what, you don’t have what it takes.” And they let me go.

Photo courtesy of Tufts Journal

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