Scripps College Commencement 2019


Poppy MacDonald ’97

May 23, 2019

The video of this speech is available here.

Good afternoon. These speeches generally open with a long list of acknowledgments–and for good reason, because there’s something very special happening today, and no one here had less to do with it than I did.

So before I say anything else, please let me say, President Tiedens, distinguished faculty, distinguished family, parents, friends, and, most importantly, the class of 2019, congratulations and thank you so much for the chance to be a tiny part of your big day. It’s a great honor to be invited back to Scripps and to join you on Elm Tree Lawn as you embark on the next step in your life journey.

Commencement speakers are required to tell you that a commencement is a beginning, not an end. Many of you already know exactly what comes next in your plan. I know this, because when I visited with many of you on campus in the Fall of 2017, you were hungry for advice about how to achieve your incredibly detailed, well-researched career goals.

But I bet there are at least a few of you who are like I was on graduation day – uncertain about which trail you would blaze.

I graduated with no job and no idea what would come next. All I knew is that I had a flight the next morning to Washington, DC, and I was going to be living in a group house I’d never seen with a group of people I’d never met. A friend found a “roommate wanted” index card that had been tacked to the bulletin board in the basement of the U.S. House of Representatives, a sort of prehistoric “Craigslist” for nerds like me.  I was happy with “Metro accessible,” which means near the subway, but they had me at “furnished room for $330 a month.” I was looking forward to that next adventure, with a goal of working on Capitol Hill, in some office—perhaps any office—to wedge my foot in the door.  That was my entire plan.

I know Scripps students of today are thinking further ahead. I had the privilege of visiting campus recently for the Scripps-in-Residence program, and I could not believe it when first-year students were coming in asking me for career advice based on a chosen profession.  As a first-year, I didn’t even know my major.

In my first year at Scripps my idea of planning ahead was remembering to set my alarm Saturday night so I could get to Sunday brunch before the cafeteria closed.

While some of you have your next step planned and others are still deciding, I know that all of you have big ambitious goals for yourselves and the impact you hope to make on the world. And it’s my job to remind you that, thanks to your time here at Scripps, you are already much closer to those goals than you realize.

This is a good time to stop and reflect on how far you’ve come already. I bet that all of you worked very hard to get here. And I bet that some of you, like me, are the first person in your family to graduate from college. My parents were 19 and 20 when I was born, and raising a child was unexpected for them.  They wanted to offer me the best life, as parents do, but even in their wildest dreams did not envision their daughter going to a school like Scripps, so they encouraged me toward options that were open to me with a high school diploma. 

When I decided I wanted to go to college, my family was supportive, but finances were very tight, so community college seemed like the right next step. In one of the great fortuitous moments of my young life, a friend’s father I should broaden my pursuits and encouraged me to set up a meeting with him. I had not realized he was Dean of Admissions at Willamette University in my hometown of Salem, Oregon.

He looked over my transcripts, explained financial aid, and wrote up a list of colleges he thought I might like to attend. He pointed out “and I did put a women’s college on there.” “Oh, Mr. Sumner,” I explained, “you don’t know me very well, I have no problem speaking up with men in the room.” He told me, in the kindest way possible, I had no idea what it meant to attend a women’s college, and I should investigate it a bit more closely.

People talk about how mind-opening college is, but I had no idea how limited my thinking had been. My first day in class at Scripps, I sat in my very first women’s history course, and Professor Liss asked us all to go around and give our definition of feminism. I recall thinking it was a derogatory word, but I didn’t know exactly why. Thank goodness she didn’t call on me first, because I began to hear my classmates describe it as empowering, defined in some ways as women leading whatever life they wanted without limits … and whoa! 

And when I realized – too late – that everyone studied abroad their junior year, only I didn’t have enough credits in Spanish, I came back to tell her that I had signed up to go to the only two countries where Scripps didn’t offer the language but did offer a study abroad program. Professor Liss said she would indulge me in Nepal, but then I needed to do a semester in DC to understand how my history degree could lead me to a future career. And it was in DC with an internship at The McLaughlin Group, one of the first of its kind media roundtable shows like Meet the Press, that I had an epiphany – that people would actually pay me to follow the news, write about it and explain it to the public. So, I could continue the learning and analysis that began in those first years at Scripps, and perhaps turn them into some kind of career.

So how did I get from that group house to this stage? I’m not going to shower you with aspirational pointers like: “Make your first million by the time you’re 30” or “Be effortlessly chic.” Those sound great, but how do you actually do it? Rather, I am going to share with you five practical lessons that I hope will be a foundation for your success, applicable to whichever path you choose.

First, follow a budget. I got my first job on Capitol Hill, in a very glamorous position of answering phones and constituent mail, at a premium, total compensation package of 19 thousand dollars…which in today’s dollars translates to —about 19 thousand dollars! And after accounting for my rent, utilities, and, ehhhhmmmm…student loan payments…I had 15 dollars of discretionary income every two weeks. Ture story—15 dollars to burn.

That’s where another lesson I learned at the Claremont Colleges came in: find out which Congressional briefings and receptions offer free food.

Build your lifestyle based on what you make for a living. There’s a lot of pressure to wonder how some people can afford things you can’t or to try to keep up with your friends. If you find yourself wondering how someone else is affording so much more than you, keep in mind the answer might be credit card debt. So, never make decisions about what you should be spending based on what you see others spending.

Second pearl of wisdom, introduce yourself to as many new people, ideas and opportunities as possible…network. And this doesn’t just mean in the professional sense of the word; get out of your comfort zone of the people you know, the people you work with and the people who largely share your same views. Live in a group house with strangers, go places where you don’t know anyone, attend receptions of organizations you are interested in learning more about, volunteer and don’t bring a friend with you.

The most important thing you may hear me say today is that if you do this right, you may never have to apply for a job. I didn’t. After I got my first foot in the door on Capitol Hill, I have never had to apply for another job. Seriously. For every position I have held since, I certainly had to interview and strongly advocate for myself to prove I was the right choice for the role, absolutely, but every job opportunity has come to me based on the network I formed introducing myself to new people, places and experiences. From launching the World Poll for Gallup, to spearheading POLITICO’s first subscription business, to my role as President of two major DC media companies, these opportunities – which felt like very big leaps for me at the time, came because I followed this rule….meet new people, forge strong relationships, and earn their respect and trust.  

Third, raise your hand for every opportunity that interest you and keep raising it…even those you think you are completely underqualified for—especially for the ones you think others will consider you underqualified. These opportunities are the best way to make the biggest leaps forward; and the more your raise your hand, the better the chances the right person will notice you and your efforts.

Early in my career, when I worked for a U.S. Senator answering constituent mail, the Press Secretary job opened up; while it was my dream job at the time, and it never occurred to me that I would be considered qualified for the job. However, as the candidates for the job began arriving, I saw a peer walk in to interview who had my same role for another Member of Congress. It literally took my peer raising her hand to remind me to raise my own… And then I began reading every major paper every morning, learned the names of reporters on every beat, wrote a sample press release that ended up being used in place of the one that had been written by the existing communications staff….and landed the Press Secretary job.

And suffice it to say that when I landed the job, I did not knock it out of the park from day one. In my first day as Press Secretary, a reporter called, and I decided it would be a good idea to explain why I thought the Senator hadn’t made up his mind about the impeachment of President Clinton.  The Chief of Staff called me in to ask why I had decided to talk to a reporter on my very first day on the job….and his very heated response was along the lines of “you got very lucky, because you happened to be right, but if this happens again, you will be fired.” Take a risk and go for a big job but know you will make mistakes. Then learn the lessons of those mistakes.

And because you’ve had the great fortune to receive a Scripps’ education, ask yourself every day if you are making a positive impact on the people and community around you.  All of us want to make a positive impact. All of us want to make a difference in the world. But one of the things you learn along the way is that there are numerous ways to do that. When you commit to something, dedicate yourself to making an impact and decide if the sacrifices you are making are worth it; volunteer, serve, take the hard jobs, build something out of nothing….whatever that means to you. The most rewarding moments of my career were building new products that didn’t exist previously: The World Poll for Gallup, the first subscription business for POLITICO, and now building a national audience for USAFacts.

Today, a life of impact for me means ensuring that the decisions driving our democracy are based on the best possible data.

USAFacts was started out of a belief that information about how our federal, state and local governments spend money to improve the lives of Americans should be accessible by elected officials and the public. And while people may disagree about the right way to move our country forward, debates should begin with an agreement on the indisputable facts.

And finally, remember that at the end of the day, who you are as a person is more important than what you do for a career.  Every interaction you have matters; leave your workplace, the people you meet, and your world better than you found it. My future path was impacted because a friend’s father saw my potential, made time to learn more about my goals, and because he invested time by drawing up a list of possibilities I hadn’t imagined and helped me believe I could achieve them. Be that person for someone else.

Lift another person up along the way, and keep track of the people you help. That is why impact for me also means serving as a Board member of Running Start, dedicated to helping young women get equipped to run for office early.

We are constantly reminded of all the many ways the world is designed for men, not us. Despite the fact that women are half of the U.S. population and a record number of 125 women in Congress, we still only makeup 23% of an elected body designed to represent us.

We still haven’t had a woman in the Oval Office; and yet we know from research published in Harvard Business Review that countries led by a woman have an average of 4% higher GDP growth.

And women are just 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs – however, McKinsey has found that companies with more women in top management perform 15% better than the industry median.

Here, too, you have an advantage. I did, too. Because while we may be in a world designed for men, we went to a school designed for women. That means we’ve gotten a glimpse of what a more equal world should look like.

And with that, I believe, comes a responsibility. Take what you’ve learned here at Scripps and bring it with you, wherever you go, whether that’s moving to new city and a group house full of people you’ve never met or wherever that might be in your next chapter.

Wherever you go, and I bet you will go far, help another person get there, too.

That’s the value of a Scripps education. Giving students “the ability to think clearly and independently” was one part of Ellen Browning Scripps’s vision, but empowering us to “live confidently, courageously, and hopefully” was too.

You have learned the importance of envisioning a better world and you have been endowed with the courage and the confidence to be a part of making it a reality. That is platinum.  It’s not even gold.  It’s invaluable.  It’s your superpower because you were lucky enough to get here.   There is no one more qualified to live a life of impact than you.

That is why I am so excited to see what you do and where you go—and why I am so honored to be here with you at the beginning of whatever it is that starts for you today. I hope you will keep me posted on your next steps, and my door and phone line is always open to you.

Thank you and congratulations Class of 2019:  it is truly an honor to be part of the final day in your journey at Scripps that sends you off into the world to lead!

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