Advice from Alumni to #NYU2017

Seventeen prominent NYU alumni offer words of wisdom to this year's graduating class.
photo: NYU grads walking out of Yankee Stadium

You're graduating. Congratulations! And then what?! It's totally normal to feel mixed emotions on Commencement Day, a milestone that marks both the culmination of years of study and the start of something totally (and maybe a little frighteningly) new. While it's true that the first years of post-collegiate life (whether you're taking a first full-time job, starting graduate school, or moving across the world) are exciting ones, filled with opportunity, they can also present some tough decisions. We asked some accomplished NYU alumni who've been there and built successful careers of all kinds to offer their advice to this year's graduating class. The unifying thread in their answers? Keep an open mind. Here's more from these star grads on what they wished they'd known back when they were the ones tossing those caps in the air.

Ann Shoket, Author of The Big Life and former Editor-in-Chief at Seventeen (CAS '94)

Ann Shoket

Forget 'having it all,' whatever that means. You want twists and turns and adventure."

You are a revolution. You are changing what it means to be powerful and successful—for everyone. Forever. Forget “having it all,” whatever that means. You want twists and turns and adventure. You want to move up, move around, move ahead. Still, I know it’s hard to feel like you’re leading a revolution when you’re just one person who is desperate to make your mark on the world. You might not see it. But I do. Free yourself from all the things other people say you should do and focus on crafting the life you want—on your own terms. Your big life is closer than ever—go get it.


Nayeem Hussain, Co-Founder and CEO of Keen Home (STERN MBA '14)

  1. Build empathy. Master the art of observing, understanding, and ultimately caring about and valuing others' feelings, and you become a workplace superstar, a leader in your community, and a dream life-partner.
  2. Be the change you want to see in the world. It's easy to get overwhelmed by today's hyper-frantic news cycle. Find the 1-2 issues you really care about. Get your facts straight (very important) and then get involved. Lobby your local politicians, join local working groups/meetups, volunteer your time, donate, be a mentor, inspire others.
  3. Networking is important. The old adage of "...it's who you know" still holds water. Put yourself out there and be genuine when you meet new people—don't just approach networking as a transactional exercise. 

Jo Lampert, Brooklyn-based Performer, Producer, and DJ, and Joan in the Public Theater’s Joan of Arc: Into the Fire (TSOA '07) 

No matter your passion, your career might not look exactly as you envisioned, and following the dots, hopping the crazy lily-pads, will keep you awake and alive."
Jo Lampert

There’s that saying, “I’m a jack of all trades, but a master at none.”

While I understand that thought, I also beg to differ that being a “jack of all trades” doesn’t have to take on a negative connotation—one of distraction and lack of focus. Same with the term “piecemeal”—this also doesn’t have to be a negative thing.

As you choose the projects you work on, and work to craft the art-families you become a part of, some of the best advice I can give is follow the dots (and create them, too)—even if the pattern looks crooked to an outsider or seems to have a quality of (piecemeal) multiplicity. Ultimately, I feel like I have been able to sustain passion and vigor within this oftentimes erratic, inconsistent artistic life BECAUSE of the fact that I have been part of projects on all sides of the spectrum—following this winding path of variety and trying my hand at many different roles (sometimes performer, sometimes creator, designer, producer, company manager, DJ… you catch my drift!) on all sides of this crazy, wide-open playing field. It’s kept me busy, engaged, inspired, and sometimes underpaid (ha!) but (almost) always infused with a sense that I am both learning and DOING, all at once—a feeling of being SATIATED moment to moment.

There is no limit or bound to the experiences and projects you can find and be a part of within this industry and this community. It certainly doesn’t mean you HAVE to be all things or a renaissance (wo)man—a more direct line of focus is also NOT a negative—but no matter your passion, your career might not look exactly as you envisioned, and following the dots, hopping the crazy lily-pads, will keep you awake and alive. And when you look back, I guarantee it won’t all seem accidental, coincidental, “all over the place"—rather, it can and will look like a full resume and journey of artistic discovery that you can be very proud of.

You CAN keep the boulder rolling… and if it stops at a flat landing, I think you can make your own next hill to keep it moving.

Be proud of the work you do and the art you’ve come from. You deserve it. 


Dr. Martin Hellman, Cryptologist, Member of US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, & Medicine, and Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University (ENGINEERING '66) 

Martin Hellman

If we assume the nobler hypothesis, the worst that happens is we go down fighting."

Many people have difficulty finding hope that humanity can resolve the grand challenges we face, such as climate change and nuclear weapons. Advice given to me by the late Stanford Prof. Harry Rathbun paints a much more hopeful picture.

When we discussed how to resolve the threat posed by nuclear weapons back in the 1980s, he often asked what harm there was in assuming what he called “the nobler hypothesis.” Either humanity is capable of the great changes needed to ensure our survival in the nuclear age—that’s the nobler hypothesis—or we are not.

Harry pointed out that if we assume the less noble hypothesis, we have no chance of success, even if we really did have the capacity to change. But if we assume the nobler hypothesis, the worst that happens is we go down fighting, rather than meekly putting our heads on the nuclear chopping block.

“Why not assume the nobler hypothesis?” he concluded. It made sense to me then, and it still does today.

Adapted with permission from A New Map for Relationships: Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet. 


Ron Rapatalo, Talent Shepherd, Career Consigliere, and Men’s Personal Stylist, (CAS '97) 

Vulnerability is your greatest strength. Don't be afraid to share what you're struggling with, what you don't like, or what bothers you." 
Ron Rapatalo

Some advice nuggets:

ABC: Always be cultivating. Don't wait until you are looking for a job to build and cultivate new and current relationships. Take folks out to lunch or coffee. Ask how their family is doing. Talk about what you aspire to do, what you're struggling with, and what advice/resources someone has for you.

Vulnerability is your greatest strength. Don't be afraid to share what you're struggling with, what you don't like, or what bothers you. You can't get better if you think you're good at everything and if you don't know what you're not good at. Meditation and asking for feedback are two of the best ways to access and leverage your vulnerability.

It's a marathon, not a sprint. Save money every year. Don't be in a rush for everything to happen on a specified timeline. Take your time to fall in love. Take care of your body and your mind.  


Emily May, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Hollaback!, (GAL '03)

Emily May

The best advice I ever received took me a long time to really, deeply hear—to lead with love.

Doesn't that sound soft? Too schmooshy? I am a feminist activist! I am fighting for a world without oppression! I want to lead folks to the revolution, not to a cuddle puddle!

But here's the thing: Resistance and love do not stand in opposition—they stand together. If I want to build a better world alongside you, I need to listen deeply to you. To hold you in your full dignity, even when we do not agree with each other. I can't just shame you into submission; it won't work. I have to extend an open hand towards you, and you towards me. We have to remain curious about one another.

My friend Micky ScottBey Jones wrote, "we will not be perfect, this space will not be perfect. It will not always be what we wish it to be, but it will be our brave space together and we will work on it side by side."

I'm still peeling back the layers of what this means for my life and my leadership. I probably will be until the day I die. 


Michael Gargiulo, Anchor, “Today in New York” on WNBC (WSUC '81)

Michael Gargiulo

Teach English overseas, run a pop up store for the holidays, audition for a commercial, take a graduate course." 

I finished my last class at NYU in January of 1981, a month before my 21st birthday. I had rushed through college but I really didn't have a plan for the day after NYU, and I wish I knew that was actually OK.

Often, we're surrounded by people who know exactly what they want to do at an early age. If that's not you, the months after graduation can be tough, because for the first time in your life there's no automatic next step. Growing up, I was interested in a lot of things: politics, show business, international affairs. I just didn't know how to make a career out of those interests.

My advice: If you are unsure of a career, pursue experiences. Teach English overseas, run a pop up store for the holidays, audition for a commercial, take a graduate course. It will help you discover what you like, or don't like, what you're good at, and what you thought you'd be good at.

In the three years after I graduated NYU, I did summer stock theatre and was an extra in TV, movies, and commercials. I worked for a management consulting company on Wall Street and for a Luxembourg-based steel company. It was tough because I felt like I was flailing around, but I was actually learning about myself. Finally, I got a job hosting a local magazine show at a TV station in Huntington, West Virginia. It was the start of a career that has taken me to 18 different countries including Iraq and Afghanistan and most of the United States.

So, congratulations, and look forward to the future because I know you'll find your way! 


Dayniah Manderson, Public School Educator, Miss Wheelchair New York 2017, Activist/Spokesperson, (STEINHARDT '03, MA '10)

Immediately stop thinking that 'your own kind' are the only ones who you can expose your passions to." 
Dayniah Manderson

What "Dayniah Now" would have told "Dayniah Then":

Everything you want is right at your fingertips, but you have to put yourself out there and network with those who share the same passions. Immediately stop thinking that "your own kind" are the only ones who you can expose your passions to, be it related to love, hobbies, or professional aspirations. Be prepared to work hard, but believe that it pays off. Time is money; waste time and lose money—the choice is yours. And remember, nothing trumps love. Some people know more and they love you, so listen more and avoid learning the hard way.
 


Rick Nahmias, Founder and Executive Director of Food Forward, (TSOA '89) 

Rick Nahmias

  1. Be intentional—in every part of your life, including the parties!
  2. Practice intense gratitude.
  3. Find your tribe and embrace them.
  4. The sooner you can accept NYC is not the center of the universe the happier your life will be. 

Robert Bonilla, Principal, P.S. 217 (STEINHARDT MA '12)
 

Robert Bonilla

"I have found the art of listening is something that is often overlooked." 

After graduation, take some to soak it all in and reflect on what you just accomplished. Utilize the wonderful support system you have at NYU—you never know who may call on you to collaborate on a specific project or has connections to the perfect job!

Whatever career path you take, remember to always listen first. I have found the art of listening is something that is often overlooked. Value what others have to say and take something away from every conversation. Best of luck!


Gianna Toboni, Correspondent and Producer, VICE on HBO, (CAS '10)
 

"Be the first to arrive, the last to leave, and absorb everything that's happening around you." 
Gianna Toboni

While you're in college and just after you graduate, expect to work long thankless hours and go beyond what you're asked to do. Be the first to arrive, the last to leave, and absorb everything that's happening around you. In your off time, create the type of content you want to be hired to produce, whether that's short documentaries on refugees in your neighborhood or blog posts about Solange's new album. Employers will want to hire you if you can prove you're great at the job.  


Allie Waxman, Coordinator, Digital & Social Media Content at HBO, (TSOA '16)
 

Allie Waxman

Take each day as it comes, and lean on your friends and family when you need support."

When you first graduate, it’s okay not to have all the answers. Actually, it’s probably best if you start out accepting that you don’t. Focus on learning everything you can; just like in college, you may meet a mentor or take on a project that challenges you and changes your path. Always be willing to lend a hand, venture out of your comfort zone, and stay positive. Things aren’t always easy, but if you work hard and celebrate the small wins as much as the big ones, you’ll be much better off.

It takes time to get into a groove. There are days when I feel like I’ve got it together, and days when I definitely don’t. Take each day as it comes, and lean on your friends and family when you need support. Also, don’t underestimate the power of self care. Take part in activities that make you happy outside of work, keep an open mind, and things will fall into place.
 


Frances Kweller, Attorney, Founder of Kweller Prep Advanced Educational Services (Steinhardt '04)

photo:frances kweller

Your friendships from college can help you turn your dreams into reality."

The friends I made while a student at NYU were a support system unlike any other. My advice to graduates is to cherish your college relationships—you're among the brightest and the best. 

It was a dear friend from NYU who helped me launch my company and another who encouraged me to become a Department of Education Vendor. A third helped me certify as a woman-owned business and government contractor. 

NYU will empower you to do pursue what you love as an adult, but it's your friendships from college that can help you turn your dreams into a reality. 


Alyssa Cowit, Author of I Did My Homework in My Head (and Other Wacky Things Kids Say), Elementary School Teacher, (STEINHARDT '15) 

Alyssa Cowit

Three things I've learned that I wish I knew sooner:

  1. Karma is real. This is proven to me every day. Be good to others; be thoughtful and intentional.
  2. Don’t ever think that your degree dictates one path and one path only. When you become an expert or even passionate about something, your knowledge can be used in a number of ways. Your career can look much different than you pictured.
  3. The only way to reach your goals is putting yourself out there. No one will advocate for you more than you. No one will ask the questions you want answered. No one will promote you more than yourself. Pave the way for your goals. If you have a great idea, reach out to people, make connections, utilize NYU staff, LinkedIn, social circles. Everyone is focused on themselves; it’s okay to be selfish and persistent.

Congrats to NYU class of 2017, and welcome to the work force. Only 50 more years!