New York Times international senior video correspondent Adam B. Ellick took on a different assignment this weekend. The result was a rousing and at times genuinely funny Commencement address delivered to the graduating class of his Alma Mater.
At the oustet, Ellick recalled that when it was his turn to graduate in 1999, the Commencement speaker was “the great civil rights activist” Maya Angelou. He paused at the podium and raised his eyebrows, provoking a crescendo of laughter among the audience of 1,332 graduates and invited guests. “It’s a huge honor to be back here today,” Ellick continued, “but I’ve got to say, you’ve really lowered the bar around here.”
Ellick said he was a “lost kid” on that graduation day, unsure about what he should do next. At the time, he wanted to both marry his college girlfriend and travel the world. “She told me to pick one or the other, and let’s just say… I’m still not married.”
Recalling his first big scoop for student newspaper The Ithacan, a report about college athletes with violent-incident arrests being allowed to continue playing, Ellick noted, “this was before people could hate you on Twitter. So they just hated you in person.” That meant among other things that as a 21-year-old student, he could not get into any local bars where the bouncers were school athletes.
A few years into his professional life, when Ellick started pitching himself as a freelance newsman, he adopted the corporate moniker Ellick News Link and bandied about a royal “we.” The approach worked. “I was soon the rare journalist in the world who could say he was threatened by Ithaca College athletes… and the Taliban.”
Mixed in with the jokes were a series of vivid guiding principles. Per an excellent summary by the Ithaca College senior associate director of media relations David Maley, Ellick’s advice included the idea of showing compassion, “even for people you dislike:”
“There is real journalistic and personal benefit to listening to people who you abhor. I obviously don’t condone the Taliban, their violence and their reckless murder, but I do regret not including more about their views in my film…You may be thinking, ‘Who cares what the Taliban think? They shoot schoolgirls. They’re evil.’ But opposing views don’t just go away over time. We can’t just zap entire ideologies from Earth, even though we try with drones.”
Ellick, who garnered wide attention for his reporting of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, was listened to by a group bearing a most appropriate medallion saying. Each year, Ithaca College mints a different one for graduation day, and this year, the medallion bore the African proverb, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to for far, go together.’
One final footnote. Ellick’s college mentor, Dr. Jill Swenson, who relocated last spring to Appleton, Wis., drove to Ithaca to be in the audience for Sunday’s Commencement. She was surely proud of her former student, who revealed that her stern view of deadlines as a professor still crops up in his mind whenever he has one at The New York Times.