top of page
  • NYS Writers Institute

Words of advice for the Class of 2020

Recognizing that commencement ceremonies for colleges -- and high schools -- have been cancelled across the country, we asked a selection of authors, poets, and filmmakers to share advice for the Class of 2020 who are beginning their adult lives in a time of pandemic.

After reading these selections, please share your own words of advice -- or commencement address --- as a comment below.

A message from Paul Grondahl

Director, NYS Writers Institute

This is not the way we wanted your story to end, University at Albany’s Class of 2020.

Nobody saw this surreal plot twist coming and now the coronavirus pandemic has irrevocably disrupted your final semester at UAlbany, along with altering all of our narratives in many ways.

We at the Writers Institute want you to know we are sorry that public health mandates regarding Covid-19 forced postponement of your commencement ceremony.

We hope that it is possible for you and your families to return safely to campus for an in-person graduation celebration in the fall. That remains undetermined.

In the meantime, we wanted to offer you our heartfelt congratulations on your accomplishment. You did it. You finished. You graduated. You earned your diploma. We are very proud of you. You deserve to celebrate. Share your success with family and friends who supported you along the way.

As you contemplate the next stage of your journey, we wanted to share some words of encouragement, advice and helpful insight from some wonderful writer friends of ours. Some are UAlbany alumni. Many have come to campus as visiting writers and have talked to students in their classrooms, offered small craft talks and held large audiences spellbound at public readings. Perhaps you met some of them.

We asked these writers to share their thoughts with you, our UAlbany graduating seniors.

We hope that you take away something useful, thought-provoking and perhaps even inspirational from these collected remarks.

We wish you all the best as you go forth as UAlbany alumni. We hope that you will come back to campus to visit us. Stay connected to UAlbany. You will always be welcome here. We will forever remember you.

Stay safe and healthy out there. And don’t forget the sunscreen.

We are #OneUAlbany. You are now #OneOfTheGreats

Go Great Danes! Unleash your greatness on the world.

Paul Grondahl


Alicia Ostriker, New York State Poet

Author of more than 10 poetry collections, including The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog.

“I would like to tell the graduating class of 2020 to learn about the past and learn that this moment, which seems to overwhelm us so much, is distressing and disastrous, but it’s not the end of the world. There have been moments before and there will be moments again that will seem as horrendous as this one now does.

There is a line I like from poet Allen Ginsberg who said,

‘Imagine the past. Remember the future.’

I think the best thing young people can do is to read the literature and the history of the past. Recognize that this moment is part of a vast continuum and that will help encourage and inspire them to play some part in that vast continuum.

Try to pay less attention to your devices and television and do not go along with the crowd.”

Nikki Giovanni

American poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator. Named as one of Oprah Winfrey's 25 "Living Legends."

“Congratulations Graduates!

As you go forward into a world that desperately needs strength and truth we, the previous generation, wish you well. You may not be able to change this world but you must be sure, at a time of lies and disease, you don’t let the world change you.

There is nothing to be afraid of. The color of your skin neither gives you an advantage nor a disadvantage. Listen to the best of yourself. The sun will rise, the moon will set; you will fall in and out of love. Life is a good idea. Choose it over all other choices.”

Marc Guggenheim

Comic book writer, novelist and writer-producer of “Arrow” and “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” and other films and TV shows. UAlbany alumnus Class of ’92.

“I’m a big Billy Joel fan and I like he quote he used, although he didn’t create it. ‘In an age of incompetence, being competent makes you remarkable.’ Whether you go into the work force or go onto graduate school, how you conduct yourself is really important. Being professional and the best person you can be sets you apart from everybody else.

The way to succeed is always going that extra mile, always delivering more. It’s not about being competitive, but about being competent as Billy Joel said.

It’s the little things. If I deliver a script, I always make sure to proofread it carefully so there are no typos. It’s little things like that that really add up. A strong work ethic is always helpful, too.”

Mahogany Browne

A leading poet-activist of the New York City arts scene.

“Class of 2020,

the world is still ahead of you, waiting for you to correct what has been so utterly wrong.

do not despair, you were built for the work, the love and a new world. we defer to you for guidance.

we are so proud to know you got NOW!

B. Janet Hibbs

Co-author, The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years"

“Stress and loneliness is bad for your mental health as well as your immune system. So during this lag time while the economy and hiring picks up: Volunteer for something you believe in. Whether that is as a climate change activist, a community improvement project, or a political movement. Become part of something larger than yourself.

Your generation can change the world. We need you!”

Mark Nepo

Bestselling author of 20 books, a graduate of the University at Albany. In 2010, Oprah Winfrey chose Nepo’s book, The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have as one of her "Ultimate Favorite Things."

“Upon your graduation, I have no advice but more a bearing witness of your call and unasked for destiny. For during these trying times, we depend on each other, more than ever, to restore what matters when in trouble, so we can make good use of our heart. No one quite knows how to do this, but learn it we must. And though you didn't ask for this, your generation will determine how loving a society will be on the other side of this pandemic.

So when in doubt, keep giving. It will save us all. Your heart knows the way. I, like so many others, will be listening for your wisdom as it unfolds. And so, I offer you two quotes to bless you on your way.

The first is from Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, "I believe what the self-centered have torn down, the other-centered will build up." And the second is a small poem of mine, which reads:

The mystery is that

whoever shows up

when we dare to give

has exactly what we need

hidden in their trouble.

Congratulations and many blessings, Mark Nepo

Stanley Nelson

Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, MacArthur “genius” Fellow, National Humanities Medalist, director of the current Netflix hit, "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool."

“Do anything to stay in your chosen profession. Internships, volunteer, anything. Show up for everything, and show up early.

Continue to learn, college is an END and a BEGINNING!


Ed Yong

Staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers science, and author of I Contain Multitudes.

“As you build yourself, don't forget to build others, too. Recognize any privilege or luck you've enjoyed, and honor it by helping those who've enjoyed less.”

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

UAlbany alumnus Class of 2013, and author of the acclaimed short story collection, Friday Black

“You’re going to have the most unique experience in some ways. Graduation ceremonies are only special because of all that came before it. Graduation matters because of all the memories you created before, the friends you made and the experiences you had. That is what you should hold onto.

My larger advice is that this is a great time to stretch your imaginations. Nothing has to be the way it is now or the way it has been. We are discovering that forcefully and in a traumatic way.

This pandemic taught us that things change in an instant. Young people need to remember that they can change things. They do not have to accept things as they are. We have the ability to make them better. I take hope in understanding that we can move things in a different and better direction and that is a powerful thing.”

Gish Jen

Major American fiction writer and author of the new bestseller, The Resisters, a novel about a family struggling to maintain normalcy and find value in their lives in a near-future American dystopia.


I applaud each and every one of you for the time, smarts and effort you have put in to reach this moment. It is hard to know what advice to give, but I will say that as a fiction writer, I learned a lot from architects, who never develop just one scheme for a project.

They always develop at least three--and so, too, I have done as a novelist. I never settle for just one possible plot--I make myself think of three or more. And, so perhaps, you might, too, as you look forward. Don't make one plan--make many. For though it may seem as though nothing could be worse than starting out during a pandemic, life, in truth, has never been about Plan A and Plan B. It has always been about Plan C, and D, and E, and F. Hang in there! The world needs you.”

Diane Ackerman

Author of two dozen highly-acclaimed works of poetry and nonfiction, including New York Times bestsellers The Zookeeper's Wife, A Natural History of the Senses,The Human Age, and Pulitzer Prize finalist, One Hundred Names for Love.

“Follow your curiosity and passion. If you do, it will show, so you'll most likely be successful. But even if you're not successful in the traditional ways, you will at least have lived an exciting life. And try to find ways to apply some of your expertise and professional goals to climate change, because, although your generation didn't create the planetary chaos we're experiencing, it will be the one that's able to find ingenious ways to remedy it.

What a unique opportunity, fascinating challenge, and great adventure.“

Joseph LeDoux

Neuroscientist and author whose books include Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety and The Deep History of Ourselves: The Four-Billion-Year Story of How We Got Conscious Brains

“Challenges in life present you with the opportunity to put your special talents to use in new ways, or develop talents you don't have, and maybe even find talents you didn't know you had all along.”

T. C. Boyle