Editor’s note: Kate Nocera ’01 presented the following keynote address during the Williston Northampton School Cum Laude Induction Ceremony on January 15, 2016.
Thank you all for having me here today and thank you for that introduction, Mr. Hill although I do have to make a slight clarification…
My actual favorite memory from Williston was being at graduation and hearing them calling the names of the cum laude inductees, and hearing my name among them.
It’s my favorite memory because it almost never happened.
And I have Mr. Pilgrim’s permission to tell you this story but after I graduated he looked at the ribbon around my neck and said “I really can’t believe that you got that, actually I just can’t believe you graduated.”
So, thanks for the vote of confidence, Mr. Pilgrim.
Honestly though, I couldn’t believe it either. I spent a lot of my life here: from seventh to 12th grade. And in ninth and 10th grade I ran into a lot of what my teachers and parents preferred to just call “issues.”
I spent a lot of time in the Dean of Student’s office because I wasn’t that smart about being bad. I would skip class or practice to hang out in downtown Northampton… directly downstairs from my dad’s office.
I’d come home and he’d ask how swimming practice was and I’d say it was great and he would give me that look—yeah, you know the one— and he’d say, “Kate, I just saw you downtown. You were right there. Where I work.”
It’s probably not surprising that at that point my grades were… not great. But there were a lot of people here at Williston who had more faith in me than I had in myself and they pushed me to do better.
They helped me realize I had loftier ambitions than being a kid who skipped school to hang out downtown.
So I got my act together and I pushed to get into honors classes and I slowly worked my way towards Cum Laude.
I still remember how proud I felt on graduation day. What I don’t remember what the Commencement speaker said. Or what any speaker at any assembly ever said (except for Mr. Teller’s annual Button talk).
That’s because no speaker is going to give you the one piece of advice that will change your life. That advice doesn’t exist. But I’ll try and give you some tips I’ve learned along the way in the 15 years since I graduated.
Gross, that just made me feel so very old.
What I learned then— and what I am still learning now—is that you build your life one day at a time. You make a lot of choices and you learn from them. Other people in your life help you in expected—and unexpected—ways.
And every day you get to decide what you want to be when you grow up. I’m still figuring it out.
And there will be times, many times, along the way when you feel like a lost soul. When you look up all your high school friends on Instagram and see their lives through a Valencia filter, you’ll think they have their lives so together, that they are on a straight path to success. They’re not. No one is. It doesn’t exist.
Everyone has their ups and downs. But you may see some really good selfies in between.
After Williston, I went to Hamilton College, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York. But after two years I decided that wasn’t the right place for me, so I left and went home to figure out what I really wanted to do. It wasn’t fun to be off the four years of go-to-college-graduate-move-to-the-city-get-a-job path. It felt terrible, actually. But I came back to Northampton, took some time off to think about how I wanted to spend the rest of my college career, and decided I’d be more focused up the road at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
I commuted from my apartment downtown and took the classes I was truly interested in. I was focused. UMass was the first place I ever took a journalism class and where, for the first time, I thought maybe journalism was what I was meant to do. When I graduated, I moved to New York to try and make something happen in the journalism world.
And I made a lot of things happen. Just not journalism. Turns out it’s is a hard business to break into with no experience. So I worked as an assistant to a realtor—who was not a very good broker despite fancying herself one. And I’m fairly certain she was developing a building with a group of folks who may or may not have been affiliated with the mob.
Then I worked at a boutique divorce law firm where I was the front desk receptionist and watched a lot of really rich people fight over a lot of money. I worked at Trader Joes. I’ve been a barista many times over. And a coffee shop manager, thank you very much. And even though I am one of the messiest people I know, I thought I could be a housecleaner. But I was so horrible at it I only lasted for two cleanings.
My resumé was starting to look like BuzzFeed list of “27 Jobs You’d Never Expect A Williston Graduate to Have.” And reporter at BuzzFeed—or anywhere else—was not on that list yet. I realized that I was going to need some more experience and more education if I wanted to break into reporting.
In classic Kate Nocera fashion, I found out that the deadline to apply journalism graduate school was two weeks away. So I signed up for the GRE that day, sent in my application and, by some miracle, I got in. I got a lot out of journalism school, though, including some of my best friends in the universe. I met people in their 30s and 40s, starting second careers. People who, like me, were still in the process of figuring it all out.
Being a journalist put me in all sorts of situations with all sorts of people that I never would’ve been in otherwise. I loved asking questions and getting answers. You get to ask all the questions you want. And you get to ask them to people like Nancy Pelosi, Rand Paul, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden. You also have to ask questions of people less famous who are struggling, hurt, and need their stories told.
When I graduated from J-School—that’s what you get to call journalism school after you graduate—I worked for the New York Daily News as a general assignment reporter. A typical day in the life of a general assignment reporter is: ‘Hey a bad thing happened, go to the neighborhood where the bad thing happened and write about it.’ And while I saw a lot of violence and tragedy, I saw a lot of good in people, too.
One of the first stories I was sent to cover was a young man who was shot and killed in the Bronx. It seemed random and senseless. And it was my job to go interview his mom. I had to knock on her door that morning and say “Hello, I’m with the newspaper would you like to tell me about your son?” She not only let me in, she made me coffee and told me his life story. I was inserting myself into the worst moment of this woman’s life, and she was letting me in. She cried on my shoulder. She told me about her son. His recent graduation. His new job. She was letting me tell her child’s story and it was an incredible privilege. It was one of those moments were I realized just how lucky I was to be doing what I was doing.
I have also had people slam the door in my face—and worse—when they didn’t feel like chatting. But everyday was a new adventure, with new questions to ask. I was starting to get some of that experience I needed to really break into the field, so I moved from New York to DC and started working at Politico covering healthcare policy.
And in 2013 I moved to BuzzFeed News, which at that point was still pretty new to the political reporting realm. But it was scrappy and fun, and one of the best things I’ve ever done. When I was reporting for BuzzFeed I spent my days, and sometimes my nights, in the halls of our nation’s capitol asking the tough questions of the people who write our laws. (also trying to explain what “BuzzFeed” was to octogenarian members of congress was a daily part of the job). It’s hard to describe how cool it was to talk to them and just walk into that building every day.
I interviewed Bernie Sanders, and let me tell you, no one has ever hated being interviewed as much as that man. Someone in his office clearly told him that doing an interview with BuzzFeed would be cool and hip. He wasn’t into it.
I was part of the team that did a huge amount of work covering Congress’s inability to pass a new war authorization … (we’re still fighting in Iraq and Syria under the one passed over a decade ago in the wake of September 11). We won the National Press Foundation Dirksen Award for Distinguished Coverage of Congress—one of the nation’s top reporting prizes—making BuzzFeed the first ever online-only publication to win. So that was cool.
I traveled the country covering Marco Rubio in 2014 when he was supposedly campaigning for other candidates and clearly practicing running for president.
And I got to smoke a cigarette with John Boehner when he was Speaker of the House.
P.S. HERE’S MY FIRST PIECE OF ADVICE: DON’T SMOKE. I recently quit smoking. Do not smoke. It is so bad. It made John Boehner’s teeth horrible. It made his office so disgusting he wasn’t allowed to have paintings from the Smithsonian in there. Just don’t.
I was away a lot, living the reporter life of being on the road, staying out too late and eating Subway sandwiches five times a week because that’s the only option when you’re reporting from middle-of-nowhere Iowa. And then I got really tired. It stopped being as fun as it once was. I really loved what I did in journalism. I knew I’d done incredible, important things, but I had gotten to a point in my life where I was ready to make a change. I had found a career I was good at, but that didn’t mean it was good for me.
It was time to ask that question again: what else do I want to be when I grow up? And I feel good about my choice to do something else. Sometimes I am a little sad I’m not out there with my former colleagues, covering the election. But then I realize spending every day explaining why Donald Trump is still in the lead probably isn’t the life I want to have.
I know it’s okay that I don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life because that doesn’t exist anymore. Most people I know spend two or three years at a job. A lot of the people I most look up to in the world have had several careers. I’ve had a million jobs, and one whole career already. So I feel like I’m on the right track.
So, a here’s another little piece of advice that I hope you’ll find useful now, even if you forget it was me who said it in like 10 years: In every job you have, find someone you respect and look up to and ask them a lot of questions. Ask them for advice. They will give it to you. The good thing about having so many different jobs is that I now have an excellent collection of mentors.
But seriously, if there’s anything that’s going to help you get through life and make better decisions it’s asking as many questions as possible. So do it. Because some day the Vice President might look at you in the halls of the Senate and say “Do you have a question?” And you should have one ready for him. (I didn’t. It was horrible.)
I’ll tell you the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten—this one I happen to remember very well. When I was about to go on my first assignment at the Daily News in New York, I asked my supervisor, “You have any advice?” And he said, “don’t eff it up.” I went out, I did my best, I got a story published. It wasn’t great, but I learned from it. It was a start.
So the good news is you won’t eff it up. Even things that feel like mistakes at the time will teach you something. And they will help you make a better decision the next time.
I left journalism to be a PR consultant. The most important lesson I learned there is that PR consulting is not for me. It wasn’t a mistake: I did great, I just didn’t love it.
Now I work on the business side of another online media company. I took the job because I love journalism so much that I want to make sure it continues to exist. It’s new, it’s exciting, and it’s a different way to challenge myself. I get to figure out how to make the revenue work in an industry that desperately needs it, in a way that respects the integrity of reporting.
If you don’t get what I’m talking about, you’ll just have to trust me, it’s super cool. So take risks. Make big choices. You won’t eff it up. Life is going to surprise you.
Sometimes a very bad habit leads to a conversation with the Speaker of the House.
Sometimes the upstart company wins the national award.
And sometimes the kid who no one thought would even graduate makes Cum Laude.
Thank you, and congratulations to all of this year’s Cum Laude inductees.