2017 Undergraduate Commencement Address: John Diaz, San Francisco Chronicle

John Diaz addresses the crowd at the Undergraduate Commencement on Saturday, May 27.Thank you very much, Beth, for that generous introduction and hello class of 2017. And thank you, Elias, for setting such a high bar here. Wonderful poignant speech. It is such an honor to be with you here on this special day, your day. But I have to admit, when President Donahue extended the invitation, flattered as I was, I was also a little bit overwhelmed.

After all, a commencement speech is a big deal. Just look at this year's lineup of graduate speakers. Mark Zuckerberg, President Trump (now I don't want anyone walking out please), Senator Kamala Harris, Will Ferrell, the Dalai Lama, some of those speakers are receiving honorary degrees.

But I know from the experience of last year's speaker, Mahershala Ali, that Saint Mary's offers something even more special, a surefire ticket to an Oscar. So I knew I had to do my homework. I thought I would start my due diligence by approaching my staff to ask about the memorable words of wisdom they took away from their graduation days.

I began with one of our editorial writers from Stanford. You know, that school they call the Saint Mary's of the Peninsula. I asked him, “Who was your commencement speaker? And what do you remember from the speech?” Well, he did recall that it was a woman astronaut, not Sally Ride, yet he could not remember her name or anything she said. OK.

So I went to our letters editor: Howard University. He did remember that it was raining that spring day in Washington D.C., but he could not remember if they even had a commencement speaker. Finally, I sought out our editorial writer from Harvard who did remember her commencement speaker, the rock star Bono, but not a single word he said.

So the pressure is off.

Since I don't have to worry about my words being etched in stone for the ages, I want to offer a few thoughts that you can bring with you as you venture into “the real world.”

By the way, “the real world” is one of the cliches of commencement speeches and one of my least favorite expressions. After all, what is so real about a society where people in the ultimate positions of power deny and defy science, cut back funding for the arts and humanities, and call those of us in a profession dedicated to holding our government accountable “enemies of the American people”?

I think the “real world” needs a dose of reality.

In other words, we need you.

The values and skills you developed here at Saint Mary's have prepared you to deliver that reality check. Remember, your charge is not to suppress your idealism or critical thinking as you enter that real world but to carry those qualities with you.

The need to appreciate the challenge of climate change and other scientific realities is not lost on those of you graduating here today with a degree in earth studies, biology, or environmental science. Those of you graduating with a degree in history or politics know to be skeptical when a U.S. president tells a graduating class at the Coast Guard Academy, "No president in history has been treated worse or more unfairly." You know alternative facts when you hear them.

The inequities in this society are a compelling issue for those of you who studied sociology, women's and gender studies, or justice, community, and leadership. The danger to the vitality and diversity of our culture posed by cutbacks in support for arts and education is readily apparent to those of you with degrees in art theory and criticism—anybody out there?—dance, music, or theater.

Did I leave anyone out? Philosophy? Business administration? Don't worry, psychology, I'm getting to you. Psychology. (By the way, you are needed in Washington D.C. Please report right away.)

Yes indeed. The real world starts here.

In many ways, we live in a golden age of communication. You just can't miss with this crowd. The information flow is instantaneous and unlimited. I suspect that many of you, perhaps most of you, already have shared photos and accounts of this day with friends and families around the nation and beyond. I also imagine this speech is getting a real-time critique on Twitter, hopefully not with the hashtag #speeditup.

The digital age has certainly had an effect on my industry. Our business model is being challenged as never before. Retailers, employers, and other businesses that once advertised solely with us have ways to reach you directly on your laptops and cell phones.

And reading habits have changed. Our challenge in the newspaper business today is to give readers the news when they want it, where they want it, and how they want it. And because the decline in our advertising base means less revenue, we have to do it with fewer resources.

Still I would not turn back the clock if I could. The public's access to more sources of news, more points of view, can be healthy for our democracy.

The operative words? Can be.

Not all sources are created equal. Some are pure fabrication. The term “fake news” applies to those stories that are cooked up to entice online clicks for either profit or political advantage.

The words “fake news” are also being misused as a political weapon against real news that challenges those in power. In this new world of information, everyone is their own editor. Therein lies the opportunity and the danger.

Too many Americans, right and left, are receiving their news in a filter that merely validates their preconceptions. Sometimes it is very conscious: by the Twitter users you choose to follow or the publications or cable news stations that you subscribe to.

Sometimes it's not intentional. It may just so happen that most of your Facebook friends love or hate Donald Trump, or algorithms are force-feeding you items they assume will fit your ideology. One of my colleagues has called this phenomenon the “iPodization” of American politics. It only contributes to the polarization and partisanship by both sides, Republicans and Democrats, that makes it so hard for our elected leaders to get anything done.

The antidote to this parallel universe is in the values and the skills you gained here at Saint Mary's: seeking truth, pursuing different points of view, identifying and relying on unreliable sources, embracing diversity in all forms.

For me, this day is all the more special because of the association I've enjoyed with Saint Mary's over the past three years. I've had the pleasure of working side by side with business school Dean Zhan Li, President Donahue, and many others here in developing our annual Visionary of the Year Award.

The stories that have resulted from that partnership have been inspiring and instructional for those who want to know how to change the world. Sometimes the problems—and the solutions to those problems—are hidden in plain sight.

I'm thinking of last year's winner, Chase Adam, who was on a bus in Costa Rica when a woman came down the aisle pleading for spare change for her child's medical care. Chase had an epiphany at that moment several years ago: Why not use technology to directly connect donors in the United States with people in poor countries needing surgery or other health care they otherwise could not hope to afford? Today his nonprofit group Watsi is helping people in 23 countries.

I'm thinking of one of this year's nominees, Kimberly Bryant, an electrical engineer who did not want her daughter to have the same experience she did in the workplace: where no one else looked like her. So Kimberly founded Black Girls CODE, equipping young women in Oakland with technical skills. Her vision is now going national.

These and many other of the nominees have identified, confronted—and altered for the better—the reality of the real world. I look forward to the day when one of you from the class of 2017 emerges as a nominee for Visionary of the Year.

I want to conclude with a passage from a fellow journalist, Sofia Jeremias of The Collegian. Sofia, are you here? Is that you, Sofia? OK. I'm about to quote you from your farewell column about your time at Saint Mary's. I quote Sofia.

"When I questioned a concept, I was provided with opportunities to sit down and argue about them. Every time I expressed interest in a new subject, my professors steered me toward new authors, new painters, and new philosophers, always eager to share their vast wealth of knowledge with a curious mind."

This is the reality the real world needs. As you leave this beautiful campus, take that commitment to the pursuit of truth and knowledge with you. Demand it. Embrace it. Expand it, knowing that the real world is not there for you to adapt to, but it's yours to challenge, to enhance, and define.

Thank you so much for allowing me to share this remarkable day with you. And again, congratulations class of 2017.