SAINT VINCENT COLLEGE
2019 DECEMBER COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS
BY PAUL SIEFKEN
PRESIDENT AND CEO OF FRED ROGERS PRODUCTIONS
Saturday, December 14, 2019
Robert S. Carey Student Center
Saint Vincent College
Good morning. It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, isn’t it?
Saint Vincent president, Father Paul Taylor, Archabbot Nowicki, members of the board of directors, distinguished faculty and staff, proud parents and even prouder grandparents – for this graduating class, you’ve all embodied one of Fred Rogers’ most honored philosophies – that “One of the greatest dignities of humankind is that each successive generation is invested in the welfare of each new generation.”
To the graduating class of 2019, I’m honored to have the opportunity to share some thoughts with you on this very special day. You’ve worked hard. You’ve studied late. You’ve made lifelong friendships. You’ve become part of a unique community here at Saint Vincent.
And now you head out to participate in a bigger world community equipped with the knowledge and life lessons Saint Vincent has provided.
It’s a big transition and big life transitions can be exciting, they can be scary, they can be joyful, they can be hard. College graduation can be all of those things. I know mine was.
But managing that transition is what graduation ceremonies are for, right? Signaling the end to something and the beginning of something else. You’ve no doubt been through many ceremonies in your life – in religious settings, school settings, athletic settings or family settings, each one marking a new stage in life with new challenges and surprises.
At Fred Rogers Productions, we produce a television program for preschoolers called Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. It’s filled with little strategies to help children through the new experiences they face daily.
But I’ve found that some of those strategies can be helpful for people at any age. One that comes to mind today is: When we do something new, let’s talk about what we’ll do.
So let’s talk about “some new things” that the members of this graduating class are about to do.
You’re heading into new careers in the medical sciences or business and finance or communication or public policy. And many of you may also be thinking about a world filled with new responsibilities – bills and taxes and figuring out whatever it means to dress “business casual.”
I’m still trying to figure that one out.
But just because you’re graduating and taking on new challenges doesn’t mean you need to leave behind the wonder and altruism and optimism of youth. In fact, I hope you’ll hold on to it with all of your might. That doesn’t mean you should be childish in your behavior. We see way too much of that in today’s news. But instead, be child-like in your view of the world and the discoveries it offers every day. It’s the questions you asked in childhood that led you to where you are today, after all.
In his song “Some Things I Don’t Understand,” Fred Rogers explored the innocent and often profound questions we ask when we’re young.
Mister Rogers sang:
“Why, why, why, why, why, why? I wonder, why? Why do I wonder a lot?”
He calls out the kind of basic questions kids ask. Questions like:
- Why is water so wet?
- Why is the sky blue?
These are fundamental scientific questions, aren’t they? And we should keep asking them.
As Fred Rogers said, “Children’s play is not just kids’ stuff. Children’s play is rather the stuff of most future inventions.”
Children also ask questions with beautiful honesty that are at the heart of philosophy, social justice and religion.
- Why do people have different color skin?
- Why is that man asking you for money?
- Why do people have to die?
We struggle to answer these questions for children - because we don’t know the answers ourselves.
So, let’s keep asking the same questions as adults – don’t let curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge end with your college years! Be childlike! I’ve managed to make a career out of it.
I have been working in children’s television for 24 years. First at the Cartoon Network, then at PBS KIDS and now at Fred Rogers Productions. Before children’s media, I worked as a high school English teacher, both in Atlanta and in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Prior to that, I worked as a camp counselor at a YMCA camp for the summers during my college years.
I’ve spent my entire career working with and for children. And believe it or not, it’s been hard work, but it also reminds me every day that there’s nothing more powerful than a child’s enthusiasm.
Fred Rogers sometimes liked to say that “The child is in me still, and sometimes not so still.”
Now, just because both Fred Rogers and I chose careers focused on children doesn’t mean that’s the only path to hold on to the spirit of childhood. We can choose to face new experiences every day that fill us with a kid’s anxious adrenaline - that keeps life interesting and wonderful.
Of course, we can also choose, and many people do, to avoid new experiences as much as possible. Maybe it’s because we think adulthood is about choosing a path and sticking to it. Or maybe we find comfort in routine and narrow points of view.
But as you start on your career path, remember the child that is in you still. And remember that children hate to be still.
Young children have an incredible capacity for love and joy and wonder and play. They have a strong sense of right and wrong, of fairness and justice. They can be incredibly determined one moment and heartbreakingly vulnerable the next. They’re instinctive risk-takers who will dance and sing in a crowded room and at the same time they’re cautious of meeting new people one-on-one. They’re inherently creative and spontaneous. And while they can be swayed toward mischief, they are naturally inclined toward kindness. But they are NOT inclined to stagnate.
Change is an everyday occurrence. And they grow and learn because of it.
Another musical strategy from Daniel Tiger tells children that “Things can change and that’s okay. Today we can do things a different way.”
And that message is timeless. As you head to your next adventure after graduation, embrace new experiences and change the way your inner child wants you to.
He’s no Daniel Tiger, but Benjamin Franklin once said, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.”
That means raising your hand when you’re presented with a new opportunity to follow your passion – even if you know it will be hard. Embrace it and make the most of it.
In 2012, when I was the director of children’s programming at PBS, I was presented with just such an opportunity. We had just premiered Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on PBS. I had been working with the good folks of Fred Rogers Productions for more than a year to get it on the air. That’s when I got a call from Bill Isler, a Saint Vincent alum and the president of Fred Rogers Productions at the time.
He wanted to gauge my interest in running production for the new series that the company was managing. Interesting, I thought.
And then he said, this is also about succession. How would you like to be the next president of our organization?
Now that’s a phone call. That’s a big job. And it’s the only one like it. I was terrified.
Who was I? Could I really be the head of the company that Fred Rogers founded?
I was born in 1970, so I was in the first generation of PBS KIDS. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street were must-see TV in our house when I was young. And now I’d be working alongside many of the people who had worked with Fred for years and practically raised me!
I stammered something to Bill about being honored, flattered I think I said.
And then Bill said one of the kindest things anyone’s ever said to me. He said, “Don’t be a jerk. This is a job offer!” (He might have used slightly stronger language).
That broke the spell. Sure, it would be a big challenge. A big change. A tremendous responsibility. But Bill’s frankness allowed me to hear the child inside me that said, that might be fun, too.
And it most definitely is.
I am privileged to work at an organization that any child would love. It’s a place where we’re always asking questions. Where it’s impossible to be too earnest. Where there’s always an invitation to do the right thing. Where we take risks but also recognize people’s feelings of insecurity. We do our best to model kindness in everything we create.
One of my favorite quotes from Fred Rogers speaks to the meaning of success. He said: “The thing I remember best about the successful people I’ve met all through the years is their obvious delight in what they’re doing … and it seems to have very little to do with worldly success. They just love what they’re doing, and they love it in front of others.”
And I do love my job.
Where else could a person have so much fun while also helping children and families in such powerful ways?
We strive to continue the work that Fred Rogers started for the very same reasons he cited:
- “to give an expression of care, each day, to every child,”
- “to make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable,”
- “to show and tell what the good in life is all about”
- “to make goodness attractive.”
And we work with the determination of a four-year-old learning to tie her shoe. That’s part of following Fred Rogers’ example as well. He was not only a person of enormous talent and scholarship and faith. But he was also someone with a tremendous sense of purpose and a tireless work ethic.
For instance, listen to Fred’s thoughts on accomplishing one’s dreams. He said: “What makes the difference between wishing and realizing our wishes? Lots of things, of course, but the main one, I think, is whether we link our wishes to our active work. It may take months or years, but it’s far more likely to happen when we care so much that we’ll work as hard as we can to make it happen. And when we’re working toward the realization of our wishes, some of our greatest strengths come from the encouragement of people who care about us.”
So, what makes our dreams come true? Our vision a reality?
And supportive partners who really care.
One might ask, “what can I do with the problems of the world being as big as they are?” Look at Fred. He followed his interests and his passion with rigor and made a little TV show and he did the best he could.
He had no idea that the impact would be as staggeringly inspirational as it has become. But the thing that led to his impact was the dogged pursuit of his vision.
Look at the work being done right here at Saint Vincent by Dr. Dana Winters at The Fred Rogers Center. Her simple interactions program for early childhood educators and caregivers has been recognized on the international stage for its innovation. At its core, simple interactions proposes that you as a human being – as a “care-giver” – have everything you need to help children succeed simply by affirming the importance of positive, responsive, supportive, human interaction that leads to connection, reciprocity, inclusion and an opportunity for children to grow.
Love and attention and connection – we all have that within us.
That humanity is part of the Saint Vincent mission – to enable you to integrate your professional goals with the broader purposes of human life.
When he first started Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred recognized the power of television to impact people’s lives. And he saw that it was not being used to its potential. Slapstick comedy and violent cartoons were all that television was offering for children.
He knew that media could be put to better use. To expand people’s worlds and share their experiences and to connect in a meaningful way with the audience. And he felt a moral obligation to use the power of media responsibly.
In his 1999 induction into The Television Hall of Fame, Fred said: “I feel that those of us in television are chosen to be servants. It doesn't matter what our particular job, we are chosen to help meet the deeper needs of those who watch and listen - day and night!”
“We all have only one life to live on earth,” he said. “And through television we have the choice of encouraging others to demean this life or to cherish it in creative imaginative ways.”
Those words were given to an audience of television people. But we can replace the word television with any profession, can’t we? We have a choice of encouraging others to demean this life or to cherish it in creative imaginative ways.
So as you leave this ceremony today – transitioning into the beginning of something new - remember to be childlike. To work hard. To love what you do in front of others. To trust and act on your humanity. And to be yourself.
Because as Fred famously said: You are a very special person. There is only one person like you in the whole world. There’s never been anyone exactly like you before, and there never will be again. Only you. And people can like you exactly as you are.
Thank you. And congratulations on this very special day.
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