When Oprah talks, Harvard listens
CNN — Harvard University's 362nd commencement ceremony was held this afternoon, as onlookers fanned themselves on a warm Massachusetts day.
Centenarians, accomplished alumni and graduates were recognized during the celebrations. The school's band and choir performed a rousing rendition of the "Harvardiana" march. But the star of the show was commencement speaker Oprah Winfrey, who also received an honorary Harvard degree earlier in the day.
Wearing an appropriate shade of crimson, Winfrey took the podium to a standing ovation.
"Oh my goodness, IIIIII'M AT HAAAAAARRRRRVAAAARD!" she boasted in traditional Oprah style. "Not too many little girls from rural Mississippi have made it all the way here to Cambridge," she said, addressing her remarks to anyone who has "felt inferior or disadvantaged or screwed by life."
She started her speech by addressing the struggles and criticism she has endured in launching the OWN television network. The invitation to speak at the commencement, Winfrey said, came the day she read a particularly unkind headline about her network in USA Today. "And they're the nice paper!" she exclaimed.
She decided to turn her network around by the time she spoke to the Harvard class of 2013.
"Failure is just life trying to move us in a different direction," she told them. "This last year I had to spoon feed those words to myself." Winfrey advised the graduates learn from their mistakes, "because every experience and encounter and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you who you are."
Winfrey complimented the graduating class on their good fortune to have a Harvard degree, and mentioned that when a resume of a Harvard graduate crosses her desk, she sits up a little straighter.
"The challenge of life is to build a resume that doesn't simply tell a story about what you want to be but who you want to be," she said. "When you inevitably stumble and find yourself in a hole, that is the story that will get you out."
And while figuring out who you want to be, "don't expect the clarity to come all at once, right away," Winfrey advised. But, she hinted, the graduating class of 2013 may have an ace in the hole for that endeavor.
"Your generation has developed a finely honed radar for B.S.," she said. "Can you say B.S. at Harvard?"
Real progress, the progress needed to break through the cynicism and political gridlock so prevalent in the country today, she said, requires an authentic way of being. Honesty and empathy, she shared, are the necessary tools for a brighter future.
In all the interviews she has conducted, from politicians to criminals to everyday people, Winfrey said the common denominator was a desire for empathy and validation.
"They ask, 'Was that OK?' I've heard that from President Bush, I heard that from President Obama," she said. "I even heard that from Beyonce in all her Beyonceness."
"They all want to know one thing: Was that OK? Did you hear me, did you see me, did what I said mean anything to you?"
She advised the graduates to strive for one ultimate goal: to "fulfill the highest, most truthful expression of yourself as a human being. You want to max out your humanity."
She concluded by asking, "Was that OK?"