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June 2012

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Cynthia Brinkley, BJ '91, Delivers the May 2012 Commencement Address

J-School Commencement May 12, 2012
Soon-to-be graduates from the Missouri School of Journalism stand during the 2012 commencement ceremony. Photo courtesy of Grad Images 2012.

She Encourages Graduates to Prepare for Future Challenges

Preparation is the key to future success, noted Cindy Brinkley, BJ '91, as she addressed the 550 Missouri School of Journalism graduates during May commencement activities.

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"You cannot study for The Arab Spring, or the 'Occupy Wall Street' movement, or a hundred-year tsunami or a new advertising challenge," she said. "But you can 'prepare' for them by learning your trade and honing your instincts."

Brinkley is the vice president of global human resources for General Motors. In this role, Brinkley leads corporate human resources and diversity strategies and key initiatives designed to drive business results and support GM's 210,000 employees worldwide.

Brinkley joined GM from AT&T Inc. where she was senior vice president, talent development and chief diversity officer. She was responsible for identifying and developing future leaders, companywide training, building the new AT&T University, employee engagement and diversity management.

A native of Milan, Mo., Brinkley also holds a bachelor of science degree in political science from Truman State University. She is active on numerous national boards and co-chaired the MU billion-dollar fundraising campaign.


Cindy Brinkley Commencement Address


Missouri School of Journalism
May 12, 2012

Dean Mills...distinguished faculty and administration...honored guests...parents, families, and friends...and most importantly, members of the Class of 2012!

Cynthia Brinkley, BJ '91
Cynthia Brinkley, BJ '91

Thank you for having me here to speak with you this evening. It's always a pleasure to be back on campus, and I'm honored to be part of today's commencement exercises.

I remember very clearly when I sat where you sit today. I recall the excitement of graduation. And I recall the promise - and anxiety - I felt about starting my career.

Many of you will leave here today and step into your first jobs as professional journalists. It is a magical time, when possibilities are endless and the whole world seems to beckon.

I'm reminded of one of the first times I had the opportunity to hire an employee. I was working for Southwestern Bell in Texas.

After several rounds of interviews, I had all but selected the young woman I wanted to hire. She was professional, courteous, conscientious. Seemed like a great fit. As I gave her the good news, I said there were just a few formalities we had to take care of before she could start, including a drug test.

Suddenly, a very concerned look came over her face, and she shifted uncomfortably in her chair.

"Anything wrong?" I asked.

"Well," she said. "This, uh, drug test? Is it something I can study for?"

Well, maybe if I worked for a pharmaceutical company it would be!

But this was the phone company - so I told her, "No, this is one test you cannot study for."

Though, in retrospect, I suppose you could prepare, you know, if that's something you needed to do.

But you know what? Over the years, I've discovered that what was true for that drug test is true for a lot of other things in life and in journalism.

You cannot "study" for The Arab Spring, or the "Occupy Wall Street" movement, or a hundred-year tsunami, or a new advertising challenge.

But you can "prepare" for them by learning your trade and honing your instincts.

More to the point, you, as journalists, have an awesome responsibility - in Walter Williams' words, "a public trust" - to be fair, to be accurate, to report the truth.

Many of you will do even more than that. You will shape public opinion, you'll set the tone for public discourse, you'll make the world a better place.

You can't study for those things, either.

But you can prepare for them. By mastering your profession. By being so good at what you do that you earn the chance to make a difference.

Let me suggest three things that experience tells me you will have to do if you are to make that happen.

First, you will need to play to your strengths.

And in the category of brutal truths, let me offer this: despite what the beer commercials tell us, you actually can't have it all - at least not all at the same time.

In my experience, very, very few of us excel at many things. And I mean truly excel.

Instead, the really successful people I know are those who establish clear priorities in their lives, who understand that they can excel at only a handful of things in any one lifetime and who choose to focus on the very few things that they can do very well at this particular moment.

The hard truth is that people who try to be good in everything often wind up being memorable in nothing.

So, my advice is to make a big X in one box. Find what you're good at - really good at - then play to that strength.

In truth, I think this is where diversity is leading us, a diversity based not on race or religion or ethnicity or gender. We're moving toward a diversity of thought and experience - toward a society that is diverse in its abilities, as well as in its people.

As journalists, you're in a unique position to help foster and lead this new type of diversity, to celebrate our individual and unique positions, and to make them your own as you focus your own career on what it is that you do best.

The second thing I suggest you do to prepare for making a difference is to pursue whatever it is you do with unbridled enthusiasm and passion.

By graduating from one of the finest journalism schools in the world, you've already shown that you have great abilities. It's a huge achievement, something you should be proud of.

But let me offer another brutal truth: Ability alone is not enough.

In my experience - in business and in life - there are lots of really smart people out there. And what distinguishes those who really make a difference is enthusiasm and passion.

It's what you do with your knowledge that really matters. It's the passion and energy you bring to any endeavor that usually determines how far you will go.

So, get in the game and play hard!

You'll probably make mistakes but that's okay!

You'll also learn, you'll have fun, and in the end you'll make a bigger contribution. You'll gain that elusive thing that every employer wants and many parents fear, that thing called "experience."

Mom and Dad, these young men and women are ready to fly! Mizzou has prepared them well, and it's time for them to roll up their sleeves and get to work at what they do best and with all the enthusiasm and passion they can muster.

The last thing I want to suggest as preparation for making a difference is to know how to adapt.

Notice I didn't say "compromise." I said "adapt."

Brutal truth number three: The prize does not always go to the strongest or the swiftest or the smartest. It often goes to the one who best adapts to our constantly changing world.

Woody Allen said that 80 percent of success is just showing up.

Well, you can't show up if the world has passed you by.

Missouri's own Mark Twain said that river boat pilots were the smartest people he knew.

To be a pilot on the Mississippi River, Twain said, you had to learn more than any one person could ever hope to know and then you had to learn it all over again the next day.

That was because the river's currents and eddies changed so quickly. What you knew yesterday might not be the case tomorrow. You had to adapt to the river or the river would swallow you.

The currents each of you will face in your lives include new technologies, new discoveries, new ideas. And they will change throughout your life and your career.

I have to say that as I look out at this year's graduates, I am encouraged that so many smart and capable young people are excited about journalism and strategic communication today.

Remember that The Journalist's Creed does not quibble about the medium. It is concerned with content, with clarity, with fairness, with independence, with motivations.

Walter Williams wrote: "I believe that the journalism which succeeds the best - and best deserves success is a journalism of humanity, of and for today's world."

Well, "today's world" is changing quickly. But quality journalism is constant, whether you read it on paper or online.

Adapt to match the needs of the world around us and you will navigate the river of our times as adroitly as the river boat captains of 150 years ago.

I'll close with a quote from Peggy Noonan, from her column on the death of Tim Russert.

She wrote that "in a way, the world is a great liar. It shows you it worships and admires money, but at the end of the day it doesn't. It says it adores fame and celebrity, but it doesn't, not really."

"The world admires, and wants to hold on to, and not lose, goodness. It admires virtue. At the end it gives its greatest tributes to generosity, honesty, courage, mercy, talents well used, talents that, brought into the world, make it better."

Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this very special day.

I congratulate you all and I wish everyone good health, much happiness and great success in the years ahead.

Now go out and make our world better!

Thank you.

Missouri Journalism Alumni  
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