Good afternoon! Congratulations to you, Temple University’s Klein College of Media & Communication Class of 2018. Give yourselves a HUGE round of applause!
Thank you for having me here today to celebrate with you. Thank you to your parents and your families and friends for helping you get here today to celebrate with each other. And thank you to the faculty and the administrators here at the Klein College— and especially to your Dean, David Boardman—for inviting me to stand up here in front of you and share in this special day. It is a tremendous honor.
I want to tell you about a teacher in my life who had a very particular impact on me. When I was in middle school, one of our 7th grade social studies teachers had a bulletin board in the back of his classroom with a big bubble-lettered slogan stapled to it:
How you understand something depends on your point of reference.
That phrase had lines of yarn attached to it, each extending out to different points on the board, connecting it to various articles. As news events arose, he curated collections of stories from publications around the world that he discussed in class.
That was also the year I found out there was an international edition of both Newsweek and TIME magazines, in addition to a U.S. version. When we did research papers back then, long before Google, we used this giant encyclopedia-type book called The Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature. It was a literal index of all the articles written in major newspapers and magazines, organized by subject. We’d look there for relevant stories for our papers … but the thing was, it only catalogued the American version of those publications. If you weren’t in the United States, if you received the international editions, you got a different version of the news.
I was shocked. How was it possible, I thought, that there was different news for Americans than for the rest of the world? News was news.
Now, this is where I should probably tell you that in 1987 I was an American expat kid transplanted from the New York suburbs to Hong Kong when my dad got a job there; and this 7th grade classroom was at Hong Kong International School, an American school run by Lutheran missionaries, in what was then a British colony that was preparing for a return to China in one decade’s time.
Yeah. I know. That’s a lot of information packed into one sentence. But just consider how all of those variables provided me with a very different experience of being a 12- year-old than I would have had if I’d gone on to attend my public neighborhood middle school in Westchester, New York.
Talk about a way to prove my teacher’s point.
In Westchester, I blended in with all the other privileged suburban kids, with a dad who caught the train to the city every morning for work, and a mom who drove a station wagon around town like all the other moms. My only point of difference there was that my mom was Filipino, having immigrated here in college, but whose letter-perfect American accent made her a seamless part (at least from my child’s view) of the fabric of our town.
In Hong Kong, on the other hand, I was the loud girl from New York! And I was the tall girl—the only girl who topped 5 feet and 100 pounds by the middle of 5th grade, and who was nearly 6 feet tall by the end of 9th. I was still the half-Filipino girl, but while in New York that just meant I got a little browner than everyone else come summertime, now I lived in a place where the nearly 300,000 Filipinos who resided in Hong Kong were there as domestic servants. When kids asked each other, in that special nasty way that some kids have, whether they had a housekeeper at home, they asked: Do you have a Filipino?
I had the same characteristics, but completely different experiences.
My teacher was right.
How you see the world—and how the world sees you—depends on your point of reference.
Mr. Rohrs’ class debated whether the United States was the world’s police officer, the world’s peacekeeper, or the world’s bully. Although the facts included in each “news” story were the same, the viewpoint, the emotion attached, and the swell of opinion were wildly different, depending on if you read stories produced here in the States, over there in Hong Kong, by Anglo writers in Europe or Australia, by pundits from small nations without military strength, or writers from poor nations seeking aid … you get the idea.
How communities view and experience the same series of events or circumstances will be very different. Because the people are different.
And not only does one’s view of the world change depending on your point of reference, but the narrative itself changes according to who gets to tell the story.
My learning continued:
That same year, I went with my best friend to basketball tryouts—just to keep her company, with no intention of trying out myself. And the coach points to me, where I’m watching from the back of the gym, and says: “I want her. The tall one.” (Did I mention I was closing in fast on 6 feet as a middle schooler … in Hong Kong?)
My experience of the world the next couple of years was completely defined by my position of towering over all my friends, in life and on the court. And then in high school, I started coming back here in the summertime, to the U.S., for basketball camp.
I was used to playing as a dominant center, owning the key and blocking shots like I was Bill Russell. My coach called me Bill Russell. I had no idea who Bill Russell was, by the way, because we didn’t have American sports media or sports history in Hong Kong, and the internet wasn’t a thing yet. (And for all of you who don’t know who Bill Russell was—he was like the Joel Embiid of his time, only he’d NEVER lose in the playoffs. But I digress …)
So one summer, I walk into the gym at Doug Bruno’s basketball camp, just outside Chicago. My grandmother, who was dropping me off, says, “Oh no, she can’t stay here, they’re going to kill her.”
I was the smallest in the gym by half a foot and at least 20 pounds (it was a camp for post players). After several years of lumbering slowly around the court, and low expectations around my non-existent ball handling, I was suddenly the little girl! And I spent that next week being coached on how to turn my new diminutive stature to my advantage—
If you’re the smallest, the coaches said, be the fastest.
Don’t ever let one of these big girls beat you down the court, they’re too big to be fast, they said.
Funny: “Too big to be fast” had been me, just a week earlier.
Work your ball handling skills, they said—which they assumed I had because, see, now I was the small girl, and that’s what the small ones do.
Take point, they said. Sharpen your view of the floor, so you can lead and call plays.
Returning to Hong Kong after summers spent at camps like that turned me into a superstar! Because of that experience, I was now the big girl who was also fast. The post player who had handle. When my point of reference changed, my opportunities to contribute changed too.
My purpose in sharing these stories with you today, on the day you get ready to accept your diplomas and head out into the world, isn’t just to take you down a strange, through-the-looking-glass tour of my adolescence.
It’s to share with you what happens when we flip our expectations.
What can happen for you, as people and as future storytellers across all these parts of the communications industry, when you allow new information and new perspectives into your field of vision.
And also, what happens when we allow ourselves to see differences—being the first, being the only, being the outlier—not as points of friction to file down, but as vital indicators of strength. As opportunities to bring new and vibrant voices and perspectives to the conversation. When we do that, we widen the range of narratives in the world, because we’ve broadened the possibilities for who gets to tell the story.
I’m often asked about what it’s like being the first woman to edit a major U.S. sports magazine. I mean … it’s great! I have the greatest job—I love it! But I’ve only ever been me, and I’ve only ever been a woman, so at first I wasn’t sure how to answer that question.
So then I think about the questions I used to get when I became editor-in-chief of espnW a couple of years earlier. People would ask: What does it mean to have a “woman’s perspective” on sports? Why does it matter to have an entity like espnW in the world? Sports are sports. Right?
Just like in 7th grade, when I used to say: How could there be different versions of the news in this country than in every other place in the world? News is news. Right?
Or: How could I be a different ball player at the end of the season in Hong Kong, than I was in Chicago, at the end of that same summer’s camp? Basketball is basketball. And a player is a player. Right?
We bring assumptions to everything we see and do. Big girls aren’t fast. Post players don’t handle the ball. Until they are, and until they do.
Women don’t run sports magazines at the Worldwide Leader. Except now they do.
As my point of reference has changed, so have my strengths, and what I could best contribute.
In Hong Kong, I had that birds’ eye-view of the court and saw the holes in the defense so I could hit my teammates with passes for easy buckets. In Chicago, I saw a sea of elbows and shoulders—and a whole lot of opportunities to steal the ball from lazy hands and make a break for it on my now-speedy legs. I was the same. What made me unique had changed. The ability to see opportunity in all those elbows was the difference between hitting a brick wall of bodies or breaking through and turning defense into offense.
In more recent years, sure, I’ve experienced being the only woman in the room talking sports—though I’m happy to say that happens far less frequently now, and almost never at ESPN—but I’ve also worked at a fashion title where we were all women … and one man. There, his became the differentiated voice.
So today, when I’m asked what it means to be the first woman in my role, or to often be the only woman in the room, I say wholeheartedly that I know my unique perspective matters.
I may notice different things in a conversation, amplify different voices in a pitch meeting, or key off of different ideas for a story. Sometimes that’s because I’m a woman among men. Other times, though, it’s not about being female … sometimes I’m the only one who spent time in the business world before becoming a journalist (I initially went into management consulting before becoming a reporter). Other times I’m the only storyteller in a room full of corporate executives. Sometimes I’m the only one at work who didn’t hone my skills in sports media—I actually started as a tech reporter and a gadget columnist.
There are endless instances where my viewpoint is different from everyone else’s in the room. Maybe I’m the first, or the only—across whatever dimension you choose to measure—but whatever the case, I know for certain that my perspective, from my unique point of reference, matters.
And the same will be true for you.
As you go out into the world to report stories, create advertising, develop social campaigns, produce videos and films … remember that not only does your voice and your perspective matter, but what makes you distinctive and uniquely able to contribute may not even be what you think it will be.
And it will be up to you to figure out, in each circumstance you find yourself in, how your point of reference allows you to take the birds’ eye-view and identify that long pass no one else sees, or to spot the opening in that sea of elbows. It will be up to you to figure out how to force that turnover and create an offensive strength from what you will surely sometimes feel is your very defensive position.
When you realize that you are the only person under 25 in the room.
The only person from Philly.
The only one with a college education.
When you start to appreciate that you are the first in your family to get that education.
Or when you, too, experience being the first or the only woman in the room.
Or being the only man at the table.
When that happens—and it will happen—here is what I wish for you:
When you are the only, remember that your difference is not something to file down or soften away or make invisible for the comfort of others in the room.
Take pride in and be confident about the value of your unique perspective.
You have a different point of reference. And that makes you valuable.
You will see opportunities, find solutions, notice details, and offer ideas that no one else would or could.
And when you are the first? When that door cracks open and you make your move through that sliver of daylight … Don’t stop there. Don’t just shimmy through and leave the door cracked, or even let it shut behind you. Make sure you do everything in your power to reach back and open it WIDE. Wider than it was when you came through. Bust it open so wide that even more, different people can follow after you.
Today is May 10th, and you are graduating!
I know that sounds like an ending, the capstone on your incredible time here at Temple. But, in fact, I would say that today, May 10th, is just the beginning—the first page of the incredible story of your adult lives that you each have yet to write.
Think it about it. It just depends on your point of reference.