Baltimore native and National Public Radio fixture Farai Chideya is used to addressing a large audience. The News and Notes correspondent reaches hundreds of thousands of people of all ages with every broadcast. Her alternative news blog, popandpolitics.com, is popular among 20- and 30-somethings. And two of her three books are used as college textbooks.
The broadcaster based in Culver City, Calif., also has shared her thoughts and wisdom at college commencement ceremonies. Now she's about to return to Maryland to share some more.
On May 16, graduating seniors and their families will file into Villa Julie College's gym in Stevenson to hear what she has to say. She recently spoke to The Sun about how she plans such addresses and what she is looking forward to doing on her trip back to Maryland.
You graduated from Harvard in 1990. What was your commencement ceremony like?
We had different ceremonies: one big one and others within our houses. A house is kind of like a dorm: You stay there for three years of your college career and you become very close to people. So the ceremonies in-house are the ones you vest a lot of emotion and energy in. ... I can't remember his name, but the German premier gave the speech. I just remember everybody kind of blanked out. He was no doubt saying something that wasn't very inspirational; we were talking amongst ourselves. But when it was over, everybody cheered. I mean, part of that is that you can't control the audience. I've given these speeches before, and the No. 1 rule is: Keep it brief and it's not about you, it's about them.
So you've given commencement addresses before? Where?
Yes, I've given one at the USC - University of Southern California - School of Journalism. That was the departmental address. I also gave Berkeley's black graduation address. So that was a specialized address. Then I also gave an address at one of the universities in Chicago, I can't remember which one. ... . I've had a great time with it. I try to be inspirational and always try to be brief. Brief is 15 minutes or less. Those are my instructions at Villa Julie as well.
I know you grew up in Baltimore, but aside from that, why Villa Julie? Do you have any connection there?
No. Except for my good friend from high school, Chris Reed, who is now a professor there. He was the one who very graciously put my name on the list.
How do you go about writing a commencement address?
I was very happy to speak with the president of Villa Julie. He and I talked about the fact that many of the graduates are parents and work and many of them are also the first in their families [to go to college] and, while that's not my experience, it's definitely an experience I can relate to. My grandmother went to college after having six kids. It was really difficult for her to go back after having six kids and having worked for a while. My grandfather never graduated from high school. And so both of my grandparents struggled very hard to create a learning environment for the rest of my family. And so that kind of environment - of making it a priority to get an education, making it a priority to want to work, to like to work and say 'Oh, I can go back to college' - is something I really encourage personally.
So have you started writing the speech you're going to give? Do you know what it's going to be about?
I don't generally write speeches. I sit down and mull it over and jot down notes and I'll take a notecard, but I don't give prepared speeches. I never have a written version of the speech. In order to get a written version of the speech, you have to get a transcription. ... What I do is, I come up with a theme. You know the groundbreakers - they're the ones that are so out in front and can work for change. ... I try to use anecdotes from my own personal life and then, when I give a speech, I think that it may be less polished if you don't write things down but I think that it's more emotionally satisfying.
I get the impression after looking at popandpolitics.com that you seem to be interested in engaging younger people. Even though there will be some older people graduating at Villa Julie, why is this so important to you?
I think that I have benefited so much from any number of opportunities. I think everybody goes through life thinking other people have more than they do. And there's plenty of things that might challenge you to be content. ... One of the things that my family taught me is that no matter what cards you're dealt, you play your hand. One of the reasons I talk to younger people a lot is because the message is that 'we are lacking.' They're seeing kids on the MTV [My Super Sweet 16] show whose parents can afford to spend $50,000 on a party and they seem ungrateful. We live with the sense that someone else got a break and we didn't, and to some extent that may be true. But we all have the ability to grow and achieve. It's important that people know there can be second and third and fourth chances. I want to reinforce that we have the ability to make our own lives meaningful.
Do you know any Villa Julie students?
No, I don't know any Villa Julie students, so it should be great when I get to meet them. But it's definitely going to be an experience to get to meet Chris' students - I'm excited to see what they're like. But also with News and Notes, it's given me a chance to really meet the people. I mean, obviously Baltimore is one of our strong markets. We air on WYPR and WEAA. So it's great not only to be giving a speech in Baltimore, my hometown, but also in Baltimore, the city where our show reaches a wide audience. ... And I'll certainly talk a little about what I do for News and Notes and NPR because I think people are interested in how you get a message out - whether it's a message talking friend-to-friend, parent-to-child, teacher-to-student, but also taking it to the larger world. And that also relates to, not students per se, but to lifelong learning, that whole concept of lifelong learning. You don't even have to do it in a structured environment. You can do it by paying attention to the news and by talking to your friends and family, and by being politically aware of what's going on in your neighborhood. And that's certainly something I'll also talk about.
How often do you get to come back to Baltimore?
Pretty often. You know, I'd always love to come more. Especially because NPR is based in Washington, every time I come to D.C. to work I always come see my mom and my cousins and my aunts and uncles. I'm still friends with several people from Western High [School]. And I think Villa Julie is going to try and find out what Western grads are in the graduating class so I can meet some of them.
Is there anything in particular you're looking forward to coming back to see in Baltimore?
I mainly like hanging out with my family. Of course, there are so many things that I love about Baltimore. The museums, I think, are great. The [American] Visionary Art Museum is great. Maybe what I'll go do is visit the [Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture], that's one I haven't seen yet. ... My family has always been heavily into museums, the Walters [Art Museum], the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Visionary Art. So maybe this is my chance because a picture of my mom as a child is actually in the Reginald Lewis Museum. She grew up in Turners Station and there was a picture of her elementary school class. I'm very excited about this. It's very nice to be welcomed home and I'm very much looking forward to it.