Delivering the Commencement Address at Harvard University
May 31, 2013
Oh my goodness! I’m at Harvard! Wow! To President Faust, my fellow honorans, Carl [Muller] that was so beautiful, thank you so much, and James Rothenberg, Stephanie Wilson, Harvard faculty, with a special bow to my friend Dr. Henry Lewis Gates. All of you alumni, with a special bow to the Class of ’88, your hundred fifteen million dollars. And to you, members of the Harvard class of 2013! Hello!
I thank you for allowing me to be a part of the conclusion of this chapter of your lives and the commencement of your next chapter. To say that I’m honored doesn’t even begin to quantify the depth of gratitude that really accompanies an honorary doctorate from Harvard. Not too many little girls from rural Mississippi have made it all the way here to Cambridge. And I can tell you that I consider today as I sat on the stage this morning getting teary for you all and then teary for myself, I consider today a defining milestone in a very long and a blessed journey. My one hope today is that I can be a source of some inspiration. I’m going to address my remarks to anybody who has ever felt inferior or felt disadvantaged, felt screwed by life, this is a speech for the Quad.
Actually I was so honored I wanted to do something really special for you. I wanted to be able to have you look under your seats and there would be free master and doctor degrees but I see you got that covered already. I will be honest with you. I felt a lot of pressure over the past few weeks to come up with something that I could share with you that you hadn’t heard before because after all you all went to Harvard, I did not. But then I realized that you don’t have to necessarily go to Harvard to have a driven obsessive Type A personality. But it helps. And while I may not have graduated from here I admit that my personality is about as Harvard as they come. You know my television career began unexpectedly. As you heard this morning I was in the Miss Fire Prevention contest. That was when I was 16 years old in Nashville, Tennessee, and you had the requirement of having to have red hair in order to win up until the year that I entered. So they were doing the question and answer period because I knew I wasn’t going to win under the swimsuit competition. So during the question and answer period the question came “Why, young lady, what would you like to be when you grow up?” And by the time they got to me all the good answers were gone. So I had seen Barbara Walters on the “Today Show” that morning so I answered, “I would like to be a journalist. I would like to tell other people’s stories in a way that makes a difference in their lives and the world.” And as those words were coming out of my mouth I went whoa! This is pretty good! I would like to be a journalist. I want to make a difference. Well I was on television by the time I was 19 years old. And in 1986 I launched my own television show with a relentless determination to succeed at first. I was nervous about the competition and then I became my own competition raising the bar every year, pushing, pushing, pushing myself as hard as I knew. Sound familiar to anybody here? Eventually we did make it to the top and we stayed there for 25 years.
The “Oprah Winfrey Show” was number one in our time slot for 21 years and I have to tell you I became pretty comfortable with that level of success. But a few years ago I decided, as you will at some point, that it was time to recalculate, find new territory, break new ground. So I ended the show and launched OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. The initials just worked out for me. So one year later after launching OWN, nearly every media outlet had proclaimed that my new venture was a flop. Not just a flop, but a big bold flop they call it. I can still remember the day I opened up USA Today and read the headline “Oprah, not quite standing on her OWN.” I mean really, USA Today? Now that’s the nice newspaper! It really was this time last year the worst period in my professional life. I was stressed and I was frustrated and quite frankly I was actually I was embarrassed. It was right around that time that President Faust called and asked me to speak here and I thought you want me to speak to Harvard graduates? What could I possibly say to Harvard graduates, some of the most successful graduates in the world in the very moment when I had stopped succeeding? So I got off the phone with President Faust and I went to the shower. It was either that or a bag of Oreos. So I chose the shower. And I was in the shower a long time and as I was in the shower the words of an old hymn came to me. You may not know it. It’s “By and by, when the morning comes.” And I started thinking about when the morning might come because at the time I thought I was stuck in a hole. And the words came to me “Trouble don’t last always” from that hymn, “this too shall pass.” And I thought as I got out of the shower I am going to turn this thing around and I will be better for it. And when I do, I’m going to go to Harvard and I’m going to speak the truth of it! So I’m here today to tell you I have turned that network around!