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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

Novelist and short story writer, he has published 28 works of fiction, including the PEN/Faulkner Prize-winning World's End, which recounts 300 years in upstate New York.

The world seems to be closing in on us in a frightening way, as you, the 2020 grads, must now begin to negotiate an environmental bill that is long overdue. That's a real burden. But perhaps the good news is that now more than ever we can see the cost of the destruction we've wrought on the earth and use that as motivation to push for a greener society. Or let's make that more definitive: we will make ours the greenest society yet. Which means that new fields and opportunities will open up for you in a society that seeks to preserve rather than expend the environment. Enjoy them. Embrace them. And keep your ideals and passions alive into the green, green future. Congratulations, all. “

Darnell Martin

The first African American woman to direct a film for a major Hollywood studio—"I Like It Like That” (1994), which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. She also directed Oprah Winfrey’s production of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and wrote and directed “Prison Song” and “Cadillac Records.”

Find out who you want to work for and call their office and send them emails and cards saying why you want to work for them and what you can bring to the table that no one else can! Head up! Write! Create! That’s the only real and priceless commodity — what you dream.

No one can dream the way you do. No computer. No one.”

David Quammen

Author and journalist whose books include The Song of the Dodo; The Reluctant Mr. Darwin; and Spillover, a work on the science, history, and human impacts of emerging diseases (especially viral diseases), which was short-listed for eight national and international awards and won three.

“You all are emerging from SUNY Albany at an extraordinarily difficult time to be newly minted college graduates, in search of direction, in need of making a living, and we geezers (some of us, anyway) sympathize deeply. We also salute your achievements and your forbearance, in crossing the finish line which is also a starting line.

With all that in mind, and upon invitation, I presume to give you a few words of advice. Now is a time to squint your eyes against the sandblasting furor of this pandemic, but don’t close them completely—don’t close them to either the dangers or the beauties of our strange world. Draw on your liberal education, if you’ve gotten a liberal education, and on your scientific education if that’s what you’ve gotten, for more than job opportunities; draw on those years of education, reading great books and learning about great discoveries, also to steady yourself in a shaky culture.

Keep yourselves safe, from the coronavirus, and keep yourselves sane, with whatever means of soul refreshment are available currently in your neighborhood. Remember that social distancing should not entail emotional distancing. This emergency, with family and friends separated from you in space, is what Skype and Zoom were invented for.

Listen to some music (and please forgive me for saying so) that was created before you were born. Then listen to some music, at least a touch, that was created before your parents were born.

Make better decisions, please, especially about the climate problem and losses of biological diversity on Earth, than my generation and the one after it have made.

Finally—then I promise to stop—one piece of advice that will seem counterintuitive. Beginning from this risky time, as you chart your way through life and career, take some risk. Choose the right risk, but take it.”

Jerome Charyn

Author of 50 books in the last 50 years. His recent novels have fictionalized the lives of Emily Dickinson, Abraham Lincoln, and Jerzy Kosiński. His new book is The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt and His Times.

“If you want to be a writer, don't start out trying to earn money from your writing.

Find a job that will occupy your mind as little as possible, and keep your energy so that you can learn how to write.

You will be an apprentice the rest of your life no matter how well you succeed. Writing is a craft that is never never mastered.”

D. Colin

Poet, UAlbany alumna (master’s degree in Africana Studies) and a tutor in UAlbany’s EOP program.

“It’s really important to celebrate that level of achievement, especially for first-generation students. I know what that’s like to be a first-generation college graduate. I can’t imagine not being able to share that with family and friends.

At the same time, we need to remember that they did all the work and they made it up to this point and they’re still getting their degree. Now they can go out into the world and hopefully make it better than it was.

This pandemic is highlighting and helping people to see how extreme disparities can be, especially in a time like this. And it’s an opportunity for 2020 college graduates to think outside the box and to make the way that we live in this country better.”

Robert Cooper

Troy-based photographer

“I would say it’s really important to document everything that’s going on right now and to blog about it, take photos, post stories on Instagram and be a documentarian of the coronavirus pandemic. Because in 20 years, when we look back on what’s going on now, it will be seen as important history. You’re going to want to have a document of what you saw and felt and did in order to show future generations how you got through it.”

Lorrie Moore

American fiction writer whose works include Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?; Birds of America; A Gate at the Stairs; and Bark.

"Advice for the Class of 2020?


And be kind."

Charles Brandt

American former investigator and writer, best known for writing the memoir I Heard You Paint Houses that is the basis for the 2019 film “The Irishman.”

“Advice for the Class of 2020? At 78 the highlight of my life has been getting married and having children and grandchildren, but then I’m ITALIAN.”

Your turn:

Do you have some advice to offer The Class of 2020?

We encourage you to share your very own mini-commencement address below.

Thank you!

The NYS Writers Institute


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