Sunday, May 17, was a day for Bucknell University's Class of 2015 to celebrate — an opportunity for students to look back with pride on all they have accomplished in the last four years.
"Graduates, this is your time to be recognized for how hard you have worked to reach this milestone, and to celebrate how much you have grown and matured in a matter of years that probably right now seem to have just raced by," Bucknell President John Bravman told the nearly 900 members of the graduating class assembled on the Academic Quad.
But as the graduating students turned their gaze forward to new careers and new life paths, Commencement speaker Bob Woodruff, a correspondent for ABC News, asked them to pause one last time. He offered a sobering reminder that, no matter how prepared they might be, they cannot always predict what their lives hold in store.
At his own graduation from Colgate University some 32 years earlier, Woodruff had no inkling he would later meet his commencement speaker, Ted Koppel, while working at ABC's Washington Bureau. Woodruff didn't even know he wanted to be a reporter.
He was at that time bound for law school, and it would take Woodruff nearly a decade of unpredicted interruptions — including a stock market collapse in 1987 that upset his career in mergers and acquisitions, and political upheaval in China, where he worked as a teacher and translator — before he found his calling in journalism, and took a six-figure pay cut to pursue it.
After he worked his way to the top of his field, the unexpected again intervened, and this time very nearly took his life.
In January 2006, while covering the Iraq War, Woodruff was seriously injured by a roadside bomb that struck his vehicle in a rural district outside Baghdad. He spent the next five weeks in a medically induced coma, and underwent multiple surgeries. Initially, doctors did not expect him to survive.
Sometimes life really turns on a dime," Woodruff said. "It can change in an instant. I know that some of have you already seen that, experienced that or witnessed life's curveballs, and you have had to choose how to respond."
For Woodruff, that choice did not come without painful reflection on all he had lost. His injury came at the height of his journalism career, just one year after he had succeeded Peter Jennings as co-anchor of ABC's World News Tonight.
"For years I thought a lot about what I had lost — that dream that was completely destroyed in a thousandth of a second. It was painful," Woodruff said. "But at the same time, I tried to focus on the good things that had come out of something so horrific. That's the part I want to tell you about: how you can choose how to respond in life."
The choice he ultimately made was to return to ABC as a correspondent, and to start a foundation that has invested more than $25 million in helping veterans in their return to American life. Woodruff shared with the Class of 2015 words of wisdom that helped him make that choice in his darkest hour.
He quoted the speech Apple founder Steve Jobs gave to Stanford University's graduating class while he was suffering with terminal cancer:
"'Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick, but don't lose faith.'
"My own brick in the head was made out of rocks and launched by a terrorist explosive device," Woodward added. "But I chose not to lose faith. This is your life to live. This is your story. You will choose to look for your own path and signs."
Woodruff delivered his remarks to the nearly 900 members of Bucknell's Class of 2015. The University presented 860 undergraduate and 30 graduate degrees. Among undergraduates, 715 members of the Class of 2015 were awarded degrees in the arts and sciences, while another 145 received degrees in engineering. The graduates represent 34 states and the District of Columbia, as well as 18 nations. | Read more about faculty honored at Commencement.
Following University tradition, graduates began the proceedings by marching through the Christy Mathewson Gates, where they began their University journey four years earlier. Joanna Lynne Malaszczyk '15 then opened the Commencement ceremony by singing the national anthem. Bucknell also presented seven faculty members with awards for their hard work and commitment to the University in the past year and throughout their careers.
While Woodruff cautioned the class to prepare for uncertainty ahead, student speaker Ruby Fako '15 reflected on the challenges the class has already overcome, including a 2011 flood of the Susquehanna River, brutally cold winters and an incident last semester that challenged the University to reaffirm its commitment to diversity.
"It is these countless teachable moments, amazing opportunities and fun surprises that have helped us learn what it means to bleed orange and blue," Fako said. "It is simply about weathering the storms and learning with each other. It is screaming our heads off at games and making it to class come blizzard or hail. It is our resilience, our unabashed confidence and our unwavering desire to succeed."
President Bravman echoed those sentiments in reminding the class that, no matter what lies ahead, Bucknell has provided them a solid foundation for building great things.
"We all know that life is complicated. Life is unpredictable. Life will not always go your way," Bravman said. "Some of those trying circumstances will seem big — bigger than you, bigger than your family, maybe even bigger than your community. Some may even seem truly insurmountable.
"The good news is: It is these daunting times when your Bucknell education has, I believe, even more value to you than it does when things are going well. The work of our graduates who have preceded you are proof that this is so."