Students studying outside the library

Commencement Address

Craig Melvin, Class of 2001
May 17, 2015

To President Samhat, the distinguished Board of Trustees and the faculty and staff, thank you so much for the invitation to return to my beloved alma mater. I am humbled, honored and thankful your first six choices were all busy this Sunday morning.

Thank you to my family and friends who are here with me today, including my mother and my wife.

My 14-month-old son is here today, too. Delano Melvin just learned to walk, so he’s at the point where he stumbles around and occasionally tips over. He’s done a fair amount this weekend … much like his father 15 years ago at the Kappa Sigma house. Speaking of House Number 4, I can’t believe they’re finally relocating The Row and building a beautiful arts center in the space. If those walls could talk, I wouldn’t be here this morning … or likely employed by NBC News.

For 20 years, the president of Wofford College has stood in this space to give you that final inspiring push through the gates. It wasn’t just the breaking with tradition to have me that was flat-out stunning. It was the fact that I was a magna cum lucky graduate who spent a fair amount of his four years here giving Dean Bigger unbelievable grief. Sure, the seeds of intellectual curiosity were planted here, but they did not take root and blossom until I stepped into the real world and realized what a gift I had been given at Wofford. While it wasn’t at first sight, I did fall in love with learning and this is where the love affair started.

In Old Main with Dr. Wilson dissecting the classics, in Daniel with Dr. Jeffrey trying to make sense of what the founders intended, and in Olin with Dr. Ginocchio examining some of the root causes and effects of inequality. For me, in so many ways, this is where my journey started … sitting on this lawn 14 years and three days ago, equal parts sad, ecstatic, worried and nervous. Thank you so much for having me back. It means more than you know.

To the Class of 2015, congratulations on commencement, the beginning … which, if you really think about it, is an odd title for the day because in so many ways, this is the end.

Sure, for many of you, it’s the end of the loathsome 8 a.m. class. The end of study sessions and exam week. The end of stressing over grades.

But it’s also the end of it being ok to hit your parents up for money to finance your college lifestyle; it’s the end of that lifestyle. No more waking up whenever you want on a semi-regular basis, afternoon naps, eating calorie- and fat-filled garbage day and night with no consequence. No longer will it be acceptable to wander around in public wearing sweat pants, flip flops and the same shirt for three days. It’s the end of video game marathons and binging on Netflix.

And here you thought this was going to be one of those uplifting, motivational commencement speeches. I’m a journalist. I traffic in truth, and the truth is real-world work is an unglamorous grind. You’ll likely end up over-worked, but under-paid. That won’t slow the tide of bills that washes ashore every month. Wi-fi isn’t free.

Soon, the college diet will catch up with you, so while your bank account may not swell as fast as you like, your waistline almost certainly will. Friends who used to be just a few feet away, down the hall, or across campus, suddenly end up scattered around the country. You’ll vow to stay in touch and visit, but the truth is the rat race gets in the way. Everything you’ve heard about that dreadful race is also true: bosses who make your toughest professor seem like an elementary school substitute; long days and short nights. The truth is, that fear and uncertainty that’s gnawing at you this Sunday morning is completely justified. Morbidly obese, lonely and poor. A pretty grim picture on your special day, huh?

Not so much. In a few moments, when you turn your tassel and walk through the gates, you’ll start a journey that’s going to move faster than you think, but it’s breathtaking … filled with unimaginable happiness and triumph, but also unpredictable setbacks and sadness. You’ll change and grow and learn how to navigate its unpredictable twists and turns.

Let’s talk about that journey for a few moments.

Growing up, I’d always enjoyed watching television and even at a young age followed closely current events, so one day, when I was 16, I was engaged in my post-school day ritual – snacking and watching “The Flintstones” when a commercial came on. (Don’t judge.) WIS television in Columbia, S.C., needed high school reporters to tell stories of particular interest to teenagers. I was their man. I hopped in my dad’s ’73 green Pontiac LeMans, headed to the mall and auditioned. Six years later, and a few weeks after leaving Wofford with my government degree in hand, I found myself working at the same station and I was stoked. For me, the newsroom was a professional paradise – the constant hustle and bustle and a new and exciting story to be told every day – one day I was at the State House working on a story about a woefully underfunded and underperforming school system, the next I might be reporting on the then mediocre Gamecocks. No two days were alike. There was just one problem. I was 22 or 23 and living below the poverty line.

My first job paid less than tuition at Wofford – not saying a lot today, but 15 years ago, that was a big deal. I couldn’t afford an apartment, so I lived with my parents for six months. You’d be surprised how motivating that can be professionally. Soon I moved into my grandmother’s house which they owned, and I paid Mom and Dad rent when I could. By “when I could,” I mean “rarely ever.” But, here’s the thing: It didn’t matter. I’d found my “thing” … storytelling, reporting.

I was blessed beyond measure at an early age because I’d found “it” – that thing at which I simultaneously excelled and was totally fascinated by … that thing that fueled me and challenged me. I’ve spent my days ever since going to a job I absolutely love, but don’t think it’s lost on me that most do not. Marriages and mortgages force many to settle for safe. Safe sucks.

Finding your place in life is a hard thing to do, and I was blessed in finding mine early. There are likely many of you in the audience who have not yet found that “thing.” And that’s ok. In fact, perhaps it’s better. Life’s journey is much more than just that … a journey, if the whole thing isn’t scripted.

But some words of advice … you’ll spend a third of the journey at work … shouldn’t it be something you find rewarding, meaningful, even fun? Maybe it’s shaping and molding young minds. Maybe it’s serving our country in the military; maybe it’s healing the sick, or using the law to protect the vulnerable; maybe it’s introducing the lost to salvation, or running your own business, or maybe it’s a field that doesn’t yet exist. So you’re still trying to figure it out? There’s certainly no shame in that. The only shame is waking up one morning years from now to realize you’ve spent the better part of your professional life working a job that’s eaten away at your soul.

As you start the journey … find your thing and do your thing.

Success will come. You’re terriers. This magical place has equipped you with the tools to succeed. Making a living will come easy. Making a life?

That’s a bit trickier.

What does that even mean? Is the TV guy going all existential at Commencement? Much to Dr. Michelman’s chagrin perhaps … I am not.

A quick story. A true story.

One of the highlights of the time here at Wofford was when my younger brother, Ryan, came to visit on his spring breaking during my junior year. We lived in Shipp at the time. Ryan and I are 6 years apart. We spent the first 14 years of his life at war primarily because it seemed to me most of his young life was devoted to being a pain in my _____. He’d pick up the phone if I was on with a girl. Yes, we had phones in the house. They were plugged into the walls. We actually had to talk to girls then on the phone. Consequently, my generation learned rejection far earlier than yours. I digress. He was a tattle-tale. He always wanted to hang out with me and my friends. We had nothing in common. He was obsessed with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I was obsessed with trying to get girls to talk to me on the phone. But that week he was here at Wofford, I discovered something.

We actually had things in common and the kid I left home when I started college was growing into quite the young man. We had a blast that week at Wofford, and it started a bond that’s one of the strongest I have. He went off to Winthrop. Eventually, I moved to Washington, D.C., for a new job. He came to visit from time to time in D.C., and Ryan landed an internship there so he crashed again … this time for a few months. That’s when he revealed he’d met the woman of his dreams and wanted me to meet her. Ryan and Zully were the perfect match and he was ultimately about to convince this woman to marry him. I’m constantly amazed by the generosity of women.

In the Melvin family, the Golden Age was upon us. I, too, had fallen in love and managed to trick my amazing wife into marrying “me.” And we headed off for the New York area. My father was about to retire after 40 years at the post office. Ryan and his wife had an adorable little girl named Jasmine Melvin whose smile could light up a cave. She loved princesses and Dora the Explorer.

Our journey was near perfect. Then one Sunday, long before the sun came up, my cell phone rang. In Ryan’s voice, I heard a desperation and panic I’d never heard before and never since. He and Zully had taken their baby girl to the emergency room in Maryland because she had a bad tummy ache and had become so tired so fast, they were worried. After a while, the doctor hurried out and said my niece had to be rushed to nearby Children’s National Medical Center. Tests showed she had a tumor the size of a grapefruit in her belly.

Jasmine was 2 and was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare pediatric cancer. It’s always rare until it’s your brother’s baby girl. Treatment started immediately. The tumor was inoperable, so there was chemo and radiation. Nurses and doctors in and out day and night poking and prodding, trying their best to figure out how to kill the cancer. Eventually Jasmine would lose her hair, but never her spirit. My brother and his wife turned to their faith and leaned on each other. Their strength in the face of incomprehensible adversity was nothing short of remarkable.

But the cancer was too much. She died in June 2012. You cannot imagine the depth of the despair. My brother was supposed to be here this morning, but he and his wife couldn’t make the trip. She gave birth this past Tuesday. My nephew’s name is Jayden Ryan Melvin.

I asked my brother this week to share with you how he and his wife dealt with the loss. Here’s his response:

“There are going to be tough times but remain patient and know that the tough times will pass. Know that others are watching you and are rooting for you. Once you know your purpose, things begin to make more sense. It may be helping others deal with the same things that you had to go through. It may be building your community, inspiring people. Look for your purpose and be great at it. Lastly, prayer – always have faith and talk to whoever you talk to. Know that God always has your back and that he gives his toughest battles to his strongest warriors.”

On the journey, when the unthinkable happens … when the cancer comes, or that dream job goes away, when all seems lost … figure out how to keep going. Look around and hold on to not what you have lost but all that you still have left.

Here’s the thing about the journey. The road is littered with distractions … everyday these (holding up his cell phone) things, designed to help you connect, steal more and more time – tweeting, posting, Snap-chatting, Yik Yakking, Tindering the day and night away instead of actually talking and connecting with friends and family.

Disconnect. Try desperately to be present every step of the journey.

Laugh until you cry like those nights in Greene and Marsh.

Be selfless and generous and find uncommon ways to do good like Public Safety Officer Dwayne Harris, Class of ’86, who despite having three children of his own living at home, adopted four others because he and his wife couldn’t bear the idea of the siblings being separated in foster care.

Make that setback a speed bump, not a roadblock, like Natalie Hahn, who’s graduating today after beating ovarian cancer her sophomore year. It was her chapter, not her story.

Work harder than most like you did in Milliken, but occasionally unwind like they’re about to turn off the stereo at House Number 4. You’ll stumble, but that’s ok. It’s part of the journey.

It’s cheesy. It’s hokey. It’s a poem that was first published in 1934. I’ve found it to be an enduring truth about my personal journey.

When you get what you want in your struggle for self and the world makes you king for a day.
Just go to a mirror and look at yourself to see what the person has to say.
For it isn’t your mother or father or wife upon whose judgment you must pass.
The person whose judgment matters most in your life is the one staring back from the glass.
They’re the one to please. Never mind all the rest. They’re with you clear to the end.
You’ve passed life’s most challenging test when the person in the glass is your friend.
You may fool the whole world on your journey through the years and get pats on the back as you pass.
But your final reward … your FINAL reward … will be heartache and tears, if you’ve cheated the person in the glass.

Find your thing and do it.

Figure out how to keep going.

Don’t cheat you. Make yourself happy on this journey and try to enjoy every possible moment, because, I’m telling you, it goes fast.

May God bless the Class of 2015 and may he continue to shine his face upon 429 North Church Street.