OK, so it has only been 42 years since I have been on campus. Seems like yesterday. The last time I was here was graduation day, 1975. As luck always had it in the days before hair straighteners, it was a humid hot day, I was 15, dressed in an ivory peasant dress with a high waist that, according to my mother, made me look fat, and my hair was frizzy. I brought the picture with me and yes, mom, you were right, the dress made me look fat. The Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead were wafting out from dorm room windows at Ford Hall and students who were not graduating were wearing plaid shirts, jeans and clogs. Remarkably enough, I am still wearing plaid shirts, jeans and clogs much of the time. But no more peasant dresses and no kinky hair. Continue reading
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.
Editor’s note: On January 16, Mark Franczyk ’00, a former investment banker turned chef, was the special guest speaker during the Cum Laude induction ceremony at the Phillips Stevens Chapel. The following is his address.
How’s everybody doing? Good.
So just help me out here, lay of the land, seniors, where are you guys sitting? Seniors. Juniors? Kind of mixed. Sophomores. And freshmen up there. There we go. Not much has changed.
Show of hands. Who loves cooking or even just a good meal, good steak, good cake? Okay. And…who loves banking? [Laughter]
Okay. Looks like my work here is done, basically nothing to talk about. It’s a pretty clear response.
So why did it take me 10 years to determine that I should be working as a chef and not as an investment banker?
I like to think of myself as decently intelligent. I mean, after all, 15 years ago I was sitting in these seats, having just been inducted, half listening to the speaker. I actually don’t remember if there was a speaker. I don’t remember at all. I remember that I had a dress shirt on that was extremely uncomfortable and that’s actually the only thing I remember from that day.
But before I dive in let me just say sincerely congratulations to all the inductees today. The hard work that brought you to this point is truly impressive. I can say with complete candor that my time at Williston was probably the most rigorous academically and otherwise that I had throughout my entire academic career, so in some ways, maybe, it’s all downhill from here. The hard part’s over, just relax. Unfortunately, not quite.
When you leave Williston, the historical facts, the mathematical formulas, the verb conjugations will slowly begin to fade. Or very quickly fall out of your memory. But I know Williston students, you’re all highly motivated, you’re high achievers—all of you, not just the ones being inducted today. I know that there are even probably some who have worked even harder through their four years at the school. And the athletes, the artists, everybody’s excelling in their own field, from the seniors up to the freshmen.
Freshmen, can you guys hear me? Yeah? You’re good up there? You know, I was actually realizing that when I was inducted, you guys weren’t even born. [Laughter] That made me throw up in my mouth a little bit. So a little scary.
But it’s because of that high achievement drive that I think that my story is a good cautionary tale. And in fact it’s so important that I’m going to take a little cue here from a chef that I’ve worked with. Do you guys know Jacques Torres, by chance? Have you heard of that name? He’s kind of like a modern Willy Wonka. He’s very prominent, he’s a dozen chocolate shops and everything.
But I did a class with him, and he takes eggs, and basically if he sees someone who’s not paying attention, he throws an egg at them. And nothing quite like the threat of having an egg fly at your face if you’re not paying attention keeps you engaged. So just so you know, I’ve got three. So keep track as we go through here.
So you’ve already heard my high level bio, you’ve got most of the color. It probably sounds a little obnoxious. But I’ll go through it again: Williston 2000, four years as a day student. Like many of you, I was the quintessential over-programmed Williston student: Cum Laude, Arete, The Willistonian, swim team, theater, Teller Chorus, Caterwaulers, yadda yadda yadda.
I was certainly not the best or the brightest in my class. But I was pretty much obsessed with being a high performer. So much so I would obsess about every point on every test. I actually, during the course of some of my tests, calculate okay, I’m pretty sure I’m at a 85 right now, maybe with 10 percent probability, I’m at a 90. That’s the kind of stuff I would do in my head. I would also at the beginning of class, hope that they would assign homework assignments, so I could try and get it done before the end of class. I know that there are probably some of you guys who play the same games. Things don’t really change that much.
I shared most of those characteristics with my other Cum Laude peers, many of whom have gone on to achieve great things, most of whom are still being treated for anxiety disorders as a result.
But I was accepted Columbia, early decision, and this theater kid went to New York thinking that he’d major in English or something in the arts.
But those practical realities set in and I thought, ‘Okay, English majors became English teachers. Art majors became baristas. Basically, theater majors are jealous of baristas.’ So quickly decided maybe I needed a better game plan. So I decided to major in economics. I didn’t hate it. I was decent at it. And it seemed like a good step towards a high powered and lucrative career.
Maybe that was mistake number one.
I made Dean’s List every semester, although I struggle to recall much, if anything, from my actual classes. I had basically perfected, beginning at my time at Williston and continuing through college, “learning for the grade”.
Call that mistake number two.
Like many of my Columbia peers, a lack of creativity paired with a desire to be in the power game had me pursuing a career in investment banking, which by the fall of my senior year, I had locked up a role as an analyst with J.P. Morgan, so I knew where I was going to be going.
Perhaps that was mistake number three.
Here’s where it gets really obnoxious. When I was at J.P. Morgan, within two years with the firm, I had figured out how to play the game there, became an assistant vice president within two years was working with many of the top executives names who are still on the front of the Wall Street Journal, for better or for worse.
I would spend the next eight years working upwards of 100 hours a week in the office, sleeping about four hours a night, usually with my Blackberry on my chest so that it would buzz when the Asian markets would wake up or the European markets, so I could be hyper responsive at all points in time.
I became a ‘client guy’, and I was tasked with convincing companies why and how they should issue debt or equity, working in equity capital markets and worked on the largest follow-on equity deal in U.S. history.
If all of that sounds extremely boring, that’s a good thing. I hope that’s the case.
Because even though I was performing at the top of my game at a top firms in the country, I was absolutely miserable doing it.
I had permanent bags under my eyes… had lost about 20 pounds since my time as a student at Williston. Over those 10 years, I ended up in the ER on three occasions.
My crowning achievement in constantly having this drive was waking up one morning at 4 a.m. having passed out on the floor of the office bathroom, hitting my head. I managed to literally crawl back to my desk, blacking out once more on the trip back and finished my work for the afternoon and left about mid day.
In summary, I’d say I spent my 20s basically in a state of constant panic, very much the way I had functioned at Williston to end up as a Cum Laude inductee. The satisfaction of completing one deal was always met immediately by the anxiety of having to start the next.
So if I’m going to offer one piece of advice, it’s take the time to enjoy your successes, very much like we’re doing here, because without that, it’s completely meaningless.
So who wants to be an investment banker? Okay…
The crazy thing was how long I was blind to the fact of what I really wanted to do and the fact of the matter was most mornings I would come in and the conversation was always a recap of the restaurants I’d been at over the course of the weekend. Bankers are big Excel nerds and I had actually started an Excel spreadsheet where I had been tracking all of the restaurants I had been at. I kept all the receipts with itemized items that I had tried at these different places and had filed them in a filing cabinet. The Food Network logo was actually burned into my plasma TV. That’s a pretty good indication of what was being watched at home.
Surprisingly enough, even as my time as an investment banker, I managed to get married. Although I met my husband at Columbia, if I hadn’t met him before banking it probably never would have happened. He also became a banker. So the two of us would basically spend the week not seeing one another. And Friday was the sacrosanct “date night” to go out to a restaurants.
So restaurants, good food, getting away from it all, that paired being calm and being relaxed. Those things became very much joined in my mind.
After a decade, I finally decided to quit. It actually took me five attempts to get out. Every time I would be paraded in front of different executives who would try to give me a pep talk and convince me about why I should stay. The truth of the mater is most of their arguments did revolve around money, and I actually had one person who literally said to me, ‘But you can fix any problem with money.’ It was at that point that I was like I am done. The conversation is now over.
So exactly 350 days ago, I left my Park Avenue office for the last time.
I had no immediate plans. But the culinary interest was always something that had been burning in the back of my mind. I never openly admitted it to anyone though. I was going to openly explore other options, I started volunteering at a soup kitchen, I did some volunteer income tax preparation for families in Harlem, I started doing more home cooking, started my food blog, basically reconnecting with everything that working 100 hours a week completely did not allow me to do.
A short two weeks after quitting was when things really started to get moving. As a Christmas gift to my parents, and admittedly to myself, I signed up for a recreational cooking class where we worked with an executive chef from one of the top restaurants in the city. I had no illusion about the fact that my skills were very rudimentary, but at the end of the session, the chef, in a comment that I’m pretty sure now was a joke, said, ‘If anyone wants to come work in my restaurant, let me know, you can come on in.’
I decided to jump at the opportunity. I sent him an email that weekend, not fully taking in the fact that it was probably a joke, and by the next week had lined up a day to work in his restaurant. That’s my other piece of advice: Never let an opportunity go by because it’s amazing where things can lead.
I ended up working in the restaurant for a day and it was like being in an episode of Top Chef, it was crazy, chaotic. Halfway though the day, the chef came up to me, handed me a raw scallop and said, “You have 60 minutes to prepare me your best dish. Go.”
I have never been so panicked in my entire life. I ran to the bathroom with my iPhone, hoping to get a signal to look up scallop recipes. Unfortunately, there was no signal and I had to just basically work my way through it. But it was fantastic.
After the 14-hour day, I felt like death. It had kicked my butt. I was on my back for two or three days afterwards, but the fact of the matter was I had absolutely loved it.
Went from 14 hours in an office to 14 hours in a restaurant, doing what I loved. It was amazing. So it was time to refocus that Williston drive. I knew my weaknesses, I knew I needed some formal training, so I enrolled in a two-month cooking intensive. By late summer, I was fully invested in going to culinary school, so on August 15 —oddly enough on Julia Child’s birthday—I started at the French Culinary Institute for 600 hours of traditional French culinary training.
Old habits die hard, so even though I was enrolled in cooking school, and was volunteering, and had my food blog, that wasn’t the Williston way, I still had a few extra hours left over. Emboldened by my skills, I decided to reach out to a number of restaurants to set up trails, Trails are effectively day internships. You go in, the chef can see what you know, what you don’t know, how quick you work, how clean you work. Typically a restaurant’s not going to have any interest in a student just starting off, but the fact of the matter is, if there’s one skill I picked up from banking, it’s being able to talk my way into anything.
So I talked my way into a number of places.
I worked at Dominique Ansel’s bakery. Have you guys heard of the Cronut? He’s the inventor of the Cronut, so I got to spend a day doing that. Ended up interning at the Alta Marea Group for several days, which is where I have ended up today and work every morning. I start the day, at 6:30, elbows-deep in dough where I used to spend it on a trading floor.
One thing I do have to point out is that throughout all of this, I had tremendous support in what I was doing. I have to thank my husband, my parents, my sister, all of my friends, they had all been calling for me to quit for quite a long time. And I know I can’t ask for you guys to have support, but what I can ask is that you are supportive to one another as you may pursue non-traditional paths.
So here I am a year later. I currently make a fraction of what I did before (or rather a fraction of a fraction of what I made before). But I no longer wake up dreading the day. I no longer find myself frozen on the trading floor asking, ‘What the hell happened? How did I get to this point?’
Instead I look around and I’m in the kitchen surrounded by some of the most inspiring chefs and other people and I can say, ‘How the hell did I get to this point? This is awesome.’
So to the 14 inductees, and to everyone else, take a moment to sincerely congratulate yourself on your successes that got you here today. But as you look to the future, remember that you have a tremendous number of opportunities and options open to you. Just because it’s not one of the familiar paths, does not mean that it’s the wrong one.
Don’t need to be a doctor. Don’t need to be a lawyer. Don’t need to be a banker. Just because it’s the non-traditional choice, doesn’t mean that it’s the wrong choice. My pick now would be to take a good look at where everyone else is running and go the opposite direction. Because the fact of the matter is, you’ll probably be much happier in the end, and on the journey you’ll have a lot more leg room.
So congrats to everyone. And with that, best of luck in your future endeavors.