Pamela Ribon, a writer and alumna of the Department of Theatre and Dance, delivered the commencement speech for the UT College of Fine Arts Class of 2019. Below, she provided a transcript of her funny, heartfelt and inspiring remarks.
It’s a very emotional room, you guys. Okay.
Dean Dempster, distinguished faculty, fellow alumni, parents, loved ones, friends: good afternoon and congratulations to the University of Texas College of Fine Arts graduating class of 2019!
So, when you’re on a roller coaster, and it’s going up, and you’re thinking about what’s it going to be like, and you’re super excited, and the view keeps getting awesomer and if you’re like me, you’re like, “Woo!” like Double Bevo’s arms up -- and you know as soon as it crests and heads downward it changes, it’s just like, “WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING, WHAT IS NEXT WHAT IS GOING ON THIS IS SO FAST!” Well, right now, we are right before that crest, right before it bends, while your arms are still up and your face is all excitement, and what’s happening is I’m the stranger in the seat next to you turning and going, “HEY, WOULD YOU LIKE SOME QUICK LIFE ADVICE?” That’s me—
[the podium begins to roll away] Oh! Oh, boy. I’m very on-brand already, you guys. I’m very flattered to be here. It is a tremendous honor. This thing’s on wheels. Who knows what’ll happen next? Oh, boy.
I have been chosen to be here today as a representative of what your future could be. I’m a fellow graduate who can walk up here and confidently and accurately describe herself as: usually employed. That’s it, man. That’s the bar, that’s the dream. No, I mean, really. That’s the dream. I’m usually employed. Thank you. Thanks! Thank you. I didn’t even have all this, I was a winter graduate. Where are my winter graduates? I don’t remember having a commencement speaker. They just like, ushered us into like, an unused rehearsal room in the opera building and were like, “Uh, you finished. Congrats. Tell your parents. You took too many electives.”
So, I would always fantasize about performing on this stage one day and so it’s crazy that I’m actually here at the Bass Concert Hall after all these years to receive what I’m safely assuming is my honorary doctorate. I mean, at some point. I don’t know when. And you know, I’m not even going to turn around because I hate ruining surprises. You’ll let me know.
Odds are some of you did not think you would get here today. I mean in the long term, big picture. I don’t mean if you’re just the kind of person who’s always late for everything. I mean work on that, but that’s— I’m not here to address that. But I will, briefly. It’s rude, okay, and your friends are always waiting on you and they’re lying to you about start times and you probably have a nickname you don’t know about like, “Super Late Nate” or whatever.
Anyway, it’s amazing that you’re all here. Truly, this is an incredible accomplishment. This was not easy, getting here. And again, not talking to the late people. Because it’s not that hard, physically getting here. You know where it is. You saw this building every day you went to school. Honestly. I don’t even live here and I got here. And the worst of it is, you know everybody will wait for you. It’s a control issue. Work on it.
For some of you, the people who can’t believe you are sitting here today are other people. You know who they are, the other people. The doubters. The underminers. The well-meaning. Some of those well-meaning people are probably also here today, just sitting out there, stunned, still kind of asking themselves, “How did this happen? She was going to be a doctor, she said it for all of fifth grade!!”
No doubt some of your parents and loved ones are right now are quietly hoping that when you walk across this stage in a few minutes to receive your diploma you will be secretly handed a degree in something more practical. [off the audience’s response] Oh… that was… a little too-soon, too-truthy? So sorry.
You know what? You know, maybe they’re right, maybe there is a more practical way to go through life. Right? A carefully thought-out future filled with fall-back plans, reliable lateral jumps, and built-in safety nets. Well, guess what, Dad? I just described the life of a trapeze artist, so joke’s on you.
But truly, some of your parents, your teachers, your classmates, you have shocked them by making here today. Keep doing that. Keep shocking people. Keep following your own path, because it’s the only way that’s yours and yours alone.
The truth is nobody here knows their future. I mean, sure, some of you quitters have already signed up for grad school, (They’ll just roll me off!) but you don’t really know what’s going to happen to you. None of us do. In fact, the only people here who have any concept of their future are the ones who have been quietly texting each other since I started talking about where they’re going to get very very drunk very very soon. That’s right, I see you, Mindy. But most of you are about to walk out of here completely untethered from the academic security of someone always holding you accountable. Someone always somewhat in charge of your schedule. Someone regulating how you manage your time. That’s about to end. It’s supposed to be a good thing, but I found it quite terrifying. There were no more goalposts. No more finals weeks or drop dates or assessments or guaranteed beginnings of a new year. It was just, “Okay. Now go."
After today, it’s going to be hard to pinpoint the moments when everyone is proud of you. Today, everyone is proud of you. You gotta hold onto that, because this feeling is fleeting. Heartbreakingly fleeting. And because of that it’s important to not have one of your life goals be making someone else eventually proud of you. Don’t give yourself any preconceived notions of how that’ll feel or what they’ll say when that finally happens. When I told my mom that I was coming back here, to this school where I received my BFA in acting (and soon that honorary doctorate— is it a cake? Is it already behind me? Don’t tell me.). So the day I told my Mom I was going to do this, that I was going to deliver a commencement speech, it was the same day I’d told her I’d just had a meeting for a project at Ben Affleck’s company. I didn’t meet him, or anything, but I was pretty sure I’d been sitting in his actual office. So was telling my mom all that, and I was like, “But, Mom, listen. I’m gonna go to Austin, I have to write this speech, back where I went to school, it’s such an honor, I can’t even describe it. You know?” And my mom had that same smile, that same faraway look on her face and she goes, “I mean a commencement speech is great, but… you sat in one of Ben Affleck’s chairs? Now that’s something.”
I graduated from here with an acting degree, which is why I am a writer. It’s true, this is the place where halfway through my BFA, at a semester assessment my professors told me: “You know what’s very strong about your work is your writing.” To which I was like, “How dare you. I am an actress! Are you saying I am ugly?” And my directing teacher said, “I’m saying you have many talents. Let them see that. Then they can’t ignore you.” This place taught me that. And I still use it most days. “Don’t let them get away with ignoring you.” This is how I became “a lot.” I mean, I know that. I know I’m a lot. I hope you’re a lot, too. I do. I hope that you are a lot, and I hope you never never lose that. Because it took a lot for you to get here and whatever comes next is going to be a whole lot of a lot more. But the good news is you’re determined. You’re resourceful. You’re annoying. Come on, you know you’re annoying. At least a little annoying. If you don’t know you’re annoying, frankly that’s kind of annoying. The late people know they're annoying. But it’s okay you’re annoying because it means you have something to say, somewhere to be, something to do. You’re annoying because you’ve been asked to sit still too long and the gates are about to bust wide open for you. So stay annoying. Don’t let them get away with ignoring you.
This place is where I learned, and I bet you did too, that the word “No” isn’t a wall, it’s a door. It’s a window. It’s a challenge. A puzzle. Sometimes it's more like one of those American Ninja Warrior obstacle courses. Here is where I learned that not being right for a part means there was a part I needed to create. Here is where I learned that if I want to be onstage, sometimes I have to make that stage. That if I want to do this for the rest of my life, then I can’t quit when it all gets unfair. That if I go to a fallback plan, I will stay fallen back.
My first day of freshman year intro to acting, there were 88 of us in the Lab Theatre audience seats. And the instructor totally did that thing where he said, “Look to your left. Look to your right.” But then he said, “When you graduate? Neither of those people will be here.” And he was right. My final BFA graduating class was 14 students. That’s not just the late fall ones like me. That was the whole class. Where my BFA in acting, here? They’re loud, but they’re small. I see them. It’s tough!
I asked a lot of people what they would say if they got to talk to you today, and they said I should tell you about failure, about when it all falls apart. To prepare you for a terrible setback in your careers. Some first moment when you will doubt yourself when you’re up against the real world. And I’m like, “What are these people talking about? I went to the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, a university larger than most cities. I didn’t graduate with an inflated sense of self-worth nor a delusional concept of how life works.” Nobody gets out of here without being told no, no thank you, you’re not quite right for the part, we went with someone else, that won’t work, I think that’s too ambitious, I literally can’t understand what you’re saying right now, I’m in love with someone else and want to break up, we decided to get a different roommate next year, has anyone ever told you that you’re too dramatic, and miss before you continue, I just need to say I’m not a licensed therapist in the state of Texas and this store closed an hour ago.” I mean, really, who among us hasn’t heard all that and more? It’s not just me, I know that much.
We all know what it feels like to put yourself out there and find out that not everybody gets it. Because of what you’ve been through here, you already know what it’s like to feel insignificant, and you also know the power of reaching a moment so high it’s like you’re the only person truly alive. You didn’t choose this degree, not really. You know, you know that it chose you. “If only my heart got fluttery over a masters degree in economics!” But it doesn’t. Somehow this found you—this found you—and pulled you out and beckoned you here, to this crazy city to this crazy life and asked you to hang on. It called you, it built you, and many times it has no doubt broken you. So, you don’t need anyone up here to tell you what to do when it gets hard.
But they think you don’t know that out there. And I am here from out there to tell you that, if you remember that, this can be a superpower. Being underestimated can be a gift. You can work and learn and create and make mistakes under the radar for a while, and then all of a sudden they’ll notice you like you just got here and they’ll be shocked. Shocked at how incredible you are. And the hardest part is gonna be for you guys to not be like, “I HAVE BEEN THIS INCREDIBLE, WHAT ARE YOU EVEN TALKING ABOUT?” They don’t know how to see you yet, and that’s on them. So use their weakness to your advantage.
And if you’re one of those people who are struggling with whether or not you’re incredible? If you let something like imposter syndrome get into your head? Drop it right now. It’s self-sabotage, and it’s useless. You have to be your biggest champion. You have to own the space you take. You are you. Only you are you. And if they’re asking for you, it’s because they’re asking for you. Stop questioning it.
This is the part where I admit I haven’t won a lot of awards. So, I’ve never seen an honorary doctorate before. Do you think it’s a giant scroll? Or a crown? I’d look pretty good in a crown, if you wanna know the truth.
When I was first starting out here as a freshman, I remember walking across this campus and reading the words etched into the Tower. “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” I just stopped and stared at that and I thought: “That’s a trap. No way, Tower, I’m not falling for that. Truth is a weapon.” And I walked away with all my truth deeply safely hidden inside all my issues.
I was 18 and sick of truth at that point, I was filled with truth, and I definitely didn’t feel like it was making me any kind of free. Truth can be heavy and hard, it can crush you. Truth can be terrifying. But I came to understand from my time here, and what I’ve experienced in all these years since is that it’s not the “knowing” part that’s important. It’s what you do with the truth that makes you free. When it compels you to speak out. To rise up. To help someone. To come together to fix something broken. To mourn. The truth can come out in our words, it can come out in our actions, and for a lot of us in here, the truth makes us free through our stories.
Not always bound in a book. Sometimes a story sings. Sometimes a story dances. Or is made entirely of paint. Sometimes a story is sixteen stories high. Every one of you is already a storyteller and you’re leaving here to tell your tales. Of stories that came before you, that will come entirely from within you. And it’s your stories that will inspire the next generation of people struggling with something to say. You have so much to give, and so it’s funny how focused we can be on receiving instead. Of seeking and needing validation for what we’re doing, and what we’re saying. And HOW we’re saying it.
What do we ask people when the show’s over? We come bounding out going, “What did you think?” Right? And every one of us knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this question, particularly when the thing that we saw wasn’t that good at all. When we have to be like, “You… did it! Look at you! An occasion happened, of stuff that people got together to see.” We just give them facts.
Because "What did you think?” is a question asking for validation, begging for permission to have done what you just did. But it’s too late, you already did it. So that’s why your questions about your work should start at the beginning of the work. And they should be pointed at yourself. Ask yourself, “What do I want to make them think? How do I want to make them feel?”
I know right now everybody is asking you about your future. But for a second we can just stop and check in with today. Because today is incredible. Right now is huge. Four years and probably some change for a lot of you, and here we are at the premiere and finale of your really big show. What did you want to make them think? How did you want to make them feel? Is it working? Is it happening?
Let me tell you something about how all these people are feeling. Pretend they’re not here, it’s just you and me right now. They’re so jealous of you. They might not say it, but they are, they’re jealous. Because after today you start over. You start a new, uncharted, unknowable future. Tomorrow you’re a baby again. Taking baby steps and learning what you like and what you don’t like and who to trust and you get to ask a million questions—what is that, and why and how? You get to say gimme and I want and I need and you sleep at weird hours and fall on your face and get right back up because you are driven by an unstoppable forward momentum to learn and get better and get bigger and stronger. You are the newest, the youngest, the worst, the least informed. Headstrong, brave and bold. You get to try new things, meet new people, see new worlds. But here’s the thing for everybody here, not just the graduates: you can always be this way. You should be this way. Life should be filled with new starts and fresh beginnings because this is the stuff that makes us sing, that makes our bodies sizzle with the thrill of finding the point of it all. You know what you love now, but you don’t know what or whom you’re going to love next, and it can knock you out. Say yes to the scary. Book the flight. Try the class. Shake the hand. Put on the roller skates. Dance at the wedding. Pack the bag. If it’s calling you, it’s because it’s asking you to take action.
But graduates, before you go, before you step out there into your brave new unknown, I really do want to stop and honor the closure. This moment of now is a true ending. In the future there really aren’t many times when you will definitively know an ending. It’s just suddenly over. You’ll be walking around or standing in line for coffee and you’ll be like, “Hey, I think maybe I got fired yesterday.” You’ll be in traffic like, “Oh, wait. I’m in the middle of a divorce that nobody’s talking about.” It’s weird, and probably a by-product of us no longer having graduation ceremonies and report cards. Now we just float along and hindsight tells us when something started wrapping up.
So let’s linger in this moment. You earned this seat. This is yours. Let’s let it last. I mean, think about it. Who’s using this building next? Y’all know who’s moving in next week? It’s Hamilton. And what I’m saying is, these are your seats. Maybe we just stay here. Don’t go. Or maybe we could hide under them. Just… you guys. Let’s just stay here until Hamilton. We’ll watch Hamilton and then we’ll go find your futures!
Okay, no, I really am running out of time, so here are some quick life advice things I’m throwing in at the end because I mean them. They’re important. Credit cards are not money. Also don’t spend future earnings. That check doesn’t really exist until you’ve cashed it. Always know where your money is coming at least six months from now because nobody pays on time. I started with the money stuff because money will become your life’s antagonist if you aren’t watching it. We’re all in debt when we come out of here, I know. It’s hard.
Be good at what you do and be good to others while you’re doing it. When you’re on your way up, take people with you. And once you’re there, reach back to find more. Practice patience every day. Don’t wish for someone else’s success because you don’t know what they had to do to get there.
On your best days, at your highest achievements, if you look around and find yourself all alone, you did it wrong. Please leave your eyebrows alone. They don’t last forever and you will regret what you did to them during their best years. On that note: be nice to your knees. Yes. So multi-generational in here!
Have something to do by 10 a.m. every day so that you get out of your pajamas. Make sure you always have something to look forward to. Your life lasts longer than your career, so remember to give it just as much of your attention. Mess with the timeline. Get weird jobs. Money will find a way— but time is the only thing that truly runs out. Be bold. Be kind. Be you. And most importantly: You have already met people here you will cherish for the rest of your life, whether or not you ever get to see them again.
Look to your left. Look to your right. One day they really won’t be here. So before you move forward focused on yourself, as you must, as you have to, right now, right here, grab that hand. Take that picture. Find that face and whisper through the dark: “I love you.” Be grateful. Because now is here. We waited so long for it. This feeling, this center stage, top of heart breathless anticipation at the crest of your life’s rollercoaster, this is your north star. This is your truth. May it set you free.
Congratulations, and I wish you the best of life. And let me be the first to say: I’m Dr. Pamela Ribon, PhD. Thank you so much for having me here, and hook ’em horns!