The May 20, 2014 Gallatin graduation at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall was honored with the presence of John Ridley (BA ’87), writer of the 2014 Academy Award-winning screenplay 12 Years a Slave. Dean Susanne L. Wofford welcomed the families and the nearly 500 undergraduate and 50 graduate Gallatin students to the ceremony. In a speech that invoked the wistful lyrics of Lou Reed, the cool wisdom of both Tupac and Shakespeare, and Patti Smith’s punk rock call to arms, the dean urged students to figure out how to respond to the demands of this moment in history and “to gather together [their] youthful idealism, energy and creativity, and go out and take on the world.”
In her introduction for the 2014 graduation speaker, the dean described Ridley as a writer with a reputation for social relevance who has shown a willingness to forgo political correctness in pursuit of honest storytelling. Ridley’s wide-ranging body of work includes the feature films U-Turn, Three Kings, Undercover Brother, and Red Tails; the hard-hitting novels Those Who Walk in Darkness and A Conversation with the Mann; and a graphic novel, The American Way. The feature film Jimi: All Is by My Side, which Ridley wrote and directed, will be released in June 2014.
When he took the podium, Ridley used the speech as a moment not only to reflect on his own experiences at Gallatin and beyond, but also to ask the graduates to consider how their time at Gallatin can help them forge ahead. He urged graduates to make sure that their work speaks with individuality and strength of vision. “In all aspects of life it’s easy to rail against what’s imposed upon you,” he said. “It’s far more difficult to set goals for yourself, and then live up to them. Equally, there are few things more rewarding in life than surpassing your own expectations.” Ridley defined success as action. “People don’t have to understand the things that you do,” he said. “Just let them witness all that you can achieve. Explanations are often found best in accomplishment.” With these words in mind—and with years of study behind them—the Class of 2014 headed out into the world to make their mark.