In the weeks leading up to Commencement Day, NYU Stories asked a range of accomplished NYU alumni—from standouts in various industries to promising recent grads just starting their careers—to share words of wisdom with the Class of 2016. Here’s what they wished someone had told them when they graduated college.

"Try your best to remain open to all opportunities. You never know who you might meet during the weirdest and oddest of jobs along the way and what you may learn. Through all that you do maintain your artistic integrity and protect your intellectual property.

Arrive early. Be consistent. Be someone the team can rely on. Be genuine.

There is no substitute for good ol' fashioned hard work and thus you must replenish yourself daily. Surround yourself with folks who work as hard as you do. Everyone is quick to judge you while you are on your journey—even 'friends.' Stay strong and true to you. Your voice is important and needed."

—Javier Muñoz (TISCH '99), actor and star in Hamilton on Broadway

photo: Javier Munoz on the red carpet at the Tisch gala

“Frank Sinatra echoed a popular view that youth is wasted on the young. It doesn't have to be if we pay attention to the decisions we make. When we're in college, we tend to treat rules, routines, even objects as if they were handed down from the heavens. I wish I had realized sooner that instead, essentially everything in life was the result of a decision. The need for decisions requires that there be uncertainty about something, and uncertainty suggests that things are mutable. This realization opens up all sorts of possibilities for you, if you make your own decisions.

photo: headshot of Ellen Langer

Decisions are made by people who are at the least fallible and, whether you own your decisions or cede them to others, you might win or lose. But the worst case scenario is giving up what feels right and losing. If you make own your decisions, it's always a win. Have the courage to do ‘it’ your own way and you can make any outcome meaningful.

Life only consists of moments. If you make the moment matter by making decisions that are meaningful to you, your life will matter. More important, over time your life will have been fully lived.”

—Ellen Langer (ARTS ’70), social psychologist and the first female professor to gain tenure in the Psychology Department at Harvard University


“If I could go back to graduation and give myself my best advice, I would take Ruthie by the shoulders, look her straight in the eyes, and say, "take care of your self." I spent many years cramming my days full of (important!) things-to-do but wasn't actually investing into my greatest asset: me. Slowing down, exercising, breathing, getting massages and treating myself kindly, as if I were my friend—these are the things I've learned that I desperately need from myself. I've found, especially now that I'm a wife and mother, I need to take care of my Self more than ever. And I think my future self would thank me for it.”

Ruthie Ann Miles (STEINHARDT ’07), 2015 Tony Award winner, Best Featured Actress in a Musical 


photo: headshot of Ruthie Ann Miles

For the Tisch dance department heads: I wish I would've known how into choreography I was going to be. I would've taken way more advantage of all the resources at NYU! Most of all, I wish I knew that everything was going to be AWESOME and EXCITING ahead, and to just relax and enjoy the ride! But then again, it would be less fun and surprising if I knew everything that was going to happen.

photo: Karla garcia sitting on a stoop

The most valuable advice I received was to truly LOVE what you are doing. Whatever that may be, the journey is so much more fun and worth it if approached with passion.”

Karla Garcia (TISCH '07), dancer, member of Hamilton cast

“When I graduated college I wish I had known to just allow me to be honest with myself. Trust who I am and what I can do and let that speak for itself. There was no need to pretend to be something or someone I wasn’t, or to ‘compete’ with anyone else out there. In our culture, we’re constantly thrown these messages of ‘You have to be the best! You have to beat out everyone else!’ You’re about to embark on an insane journey of life without the training wheels of school for the first time in your life. The world is a big and scary place and often times it is lonely. Be your truest, best self. It’s the best lesson you can take away after four years of study. Be you, be honest, and you will find your place in the world.”

Aneesh Sheth (TISCH ’04), actress/witer/director/activist 


photo: headshot fo Aneesh Sheth

“Listen to your critics. It's important to have people in your life who think you're absolutely wonderful, but sometimes, constructive criticism can help even more. (I'm not talking about unwarranted nastiness or bullying or random trolls/haters, but people whose advice you've sought.)

photo: Sarah Shepard sitting at the base of a staircase

For example, when I was a junior, an honors English professor told me that my writing was so horrific, I "should probably get help from The Writing Center ASAP." In a recommendation for grad school, another professor wrote that I "was creative, but not remarkably academic." I was aghast at the time, but you know what? It was kind of true. And I used both pieces of advice—and a lot of other negative critiques—to push myself.

I have one other piece of New York City-related advice: If, after you graduate, you live in a sketchy, freezing building run by a beyond-cheap landlord, for God's sake, do not open the door of your gas-powered stove to make it warmer at night. Just wear layers.”

Sara Shepard (CAS ’99), novelist

“Regarding work—I read a book by Daisaku Ikeda, who's a Buddhist philosopher, and he wrote something that stuck with me. He wrote that, generally speaking, you want three main things from a job. (1) It should involve something you are passionate about. (2) It should pay for the kind of lifestyle you want.

photo: Ike Ufomadu standing in front of a wood-panelled wall

(3) It should do good for society. At any given point, your job may fulfill only one or two of these things, which can be pretty discouraging. But if you decide to do your best with what you've got, ultimately that's the thing that opens a solid path to scoring all three. I think that's a healthy mindset to have.

Ikechukwu Ufomadu (TISCH ’08), comedian

“Here is my ‘Formula for Success in a Career’

graphic: Mo Willem's formula for success in career, where L=luck, t=time, a=ability, w=work, sc=success

photo: headshot of Mo Willems

LUCK over TIME plus ABILITY multiplied by WORK equals success in career.

The more LUCK one has over the shorter period of TIME, the better (although consistent luck over consistent TIME is quite good). With zero LUCK or TIME, success is possible, but harder and more dependent on ABILITY.

One can succeed with no ABILITY, but that requires an extraordinary amount of LUCK (and is very unusual).

The only element that cannot be zero (without rendering the entire equation a zero) is WORK. Since WORK is a multiplier of LUCK, TIME, and ABILITY it is the most important as well as the only essential element of the equation.

WORK is also the only element (with the exception of TIME) that you have the slightest bit of control over.

I hope that helps.

Now get to work.”

Mo Willems (TISCH ’90), children’s author/illustrator/animator

“Learn to expect mistakes. Examine them closely for what they are and what they teach you about yourself. Don’t judge them and beat yourself up. Just look at them because (and I know this sounds like such bullshit) they are opportunities to grow and get closer to what you want.

photo: headshot of Leanne Brown

The only way to get anything you care about is to put yourself out there. And you can only have the strength it takes to put yourself out there if you love yourself and treat yourself with great kindness and understanding. You need to trust that your mistakes will be forgiven.

Because putting yourself out there is terrifying and you WILL mess up sometimes… a lot even. But the more you put yourself out there (in your work, in love, creatively, anywhere!) the more you will accomplish and connect with other people. The only accomplishments I am proud of were borne of a terrifying vulnerability. So embrace it as soon as possible. Love yourself, forgive yourself and you’ll be amazed by yourself.

Oh, and cook yourself a good meal at every possible opportunity, because you deserve it.”

Leanne Brown (STEINHARDT ’14), author of Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day

“Sometimes the best job on paper turns out to be not the right job for you. For a long time I thought a steady job in my field would make me happy. Instead I discovered a tension between my day job and my real professional and creative desires. It’s tough to achieve your goals, only to realize that they weren’t the right goals to begin with.  

photo: headshot of Ezra Glinter

It took me a while to change my assumptions about what kind of work would make the best life for me, personally and professionally. But being willing to change those assumptions is necessary if you want to be happy and productive in the long term.”

Ezra Glinter (GSAS ’11), writer, editor, translator, and biographer

“Ten years after graduating from NYU, I wish I knew then that I did not have to have all the answers. I still don't. If anything I have more questions. And so you too may find yourself asking, ‘Who am I? What am I doing?’ That's fine. Go make some mistakes, learn some lessons, and don't take calling your loved ones for granted. Forget what they told you about the ‘real world’: you were living in it all along.

photo: Tanesha Dixon with her elbow on a pile of books. top book title reads "brown girl dreaming"

Oh, and check your voicemail every once in a while. You'll be surprised.”

—Tanesha Dixon (GALLATIN ’06), graduate student in Student Affairs Administration and assistant community director at Michigan State University

“As cliché as it is, make sure you’re doing something you love. And failures can be just as if not more important than successes, so don’t be afraid of them. They can lead you down paths that achieve greater insights in the long run.”

Jon Freeman (CAS '07), assistant professor of psychology at NYU and director of the Social Cognitive & Neural Sciences Lab


photo: headshot of Jon Freeman

“If you’re as awesome as I imagine you are, someone will likely write about you one day. My advice? Give them a good story to tell. I like to think of life as a developing Wikipedia page. The twists and turns are inevitable, but the triumphant arcs are yours for the taking.”

—Jess Moore Matthews (STEINHARDT '14), Audience Development Analyst at The New York Times

photo: headshot of Jess Moore Matthews

“My best advice to recent graduates is to take chances when you're starting out. Be daring now because, as you gain more experience, the funnel tends to narrow in terms of what you're recognized for doing best. Now is the time to go out on a limb and do something that may not make sense on paper, but may just be the best career move you'll ever make.”

Gertrude (Bakel) Allen (CAS ’92), venture partner


photo: headshot of Gertrude Allen

“I wish someone had told me to not wish the future away and instead to live in the moment. With my NYU diplomas in hand I thought I could do anything and I day-dreamed about my future professional goals. However, what I wish I realized is that with my NYU diplomas in hand, I already had the keys to the world and I could do anything that day. My NYU experience has opened doors and taken me to places that I never imagined. My path to my ultimate career has been circuitous and a lot of fun and I wouldn't change a thing. Congratulations to the Class of 2016 and please don't forget to live in the now!"


photo: headshot of Brian Levine

Brian A. Levine (GSAS ’03, MED ’08), Practice Director, Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine (CCRM), New York, NYU Alumni Association Vice President

“Today is your best day. Enjoy it. Social media now has the ability to capture every snapshot of every life moment and apps are constantly directing us back to the past with photos and status messages of our former selves. I didn't appreciate everything I had ten years ago (the metabolism, the ability to travel the world unencumbered), but rather over-anticipated what was next. Sure, plan and prepare, but enjoy the life you are living while you are living it.

photo: headshot of Heather Cannady

Also, spend as little as you possibly can on rent.”

Heather Cannady (CAS '04), Manager of Legal Recruiting & Firmwide Lateral Efforts, Ropes & Gray LLP, NYU Alumni Association Vice President