Robin Roberts tells Emerson grads to take small steps

Robin Roberts, co-anchor of ABC's Good Morning America, was hooded by Michaele Whelan before giving the commencement address at Emerson College.
Robin Roberts, co-anchor of ABC's Good Morning America, was hooded by Michaele Whelan before giving the commencement address at Emerson College.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Work hard, dream big, but don't forget the seemingly small steps that can make all the difference. That's the advice broadcaster Robin Roberts drove home to Emerson's class of 2015 at the school's 135th commencement Monday.

"You've put yourselves in a position for great things to happen to you," the "Good Morning America" coanchor said. "Remember what you did to get here to this moment."

The two-time cancer survivor and award-winning journalist provided no shortage of inspiration to graduates, as Emerson conferred more than 900 undergraduate degrees at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. More than 300 graduate degrees were awarded in a separate afternoon ceremony.


Roberts began on a light, humble note, saying the best graduation gift she could give was a short commencement address, before adding that she wouldn't be using a teleprompter or any written notes. "I'm just going to try to speak from the heart," she said.

The anchor, who is also known for her work on ESPN and the Academy Awards red carpet, told of how she dreamed of being a sports journalist. But while she was at Southeastern Louisiana University, the only outlet that would give her a chance was a country music station.

Although she had a sports show in the mornings, she was required to DJ on the weekends — and now she's a huge fan of country music.

"You have to dream big, but you have to take small steps to get where you want to be," she said. "You have to make the necessary sacrifices."

No stranger to adversity, Roberts stressed that graduates will face unforeseen challenges in their lives and they need to attack them head on.

"I'm very optimistic. Optimism is like a muscle that gets stronger with use," she said. "We're all just a little bit stronger than we think we are."


Emerson awarded honorary degrees to Roberts; Anne Hawley, outgoing director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; former US poet laureate Natasha Trethewey; and physician Cheri Blauwet, who also is a Paralympic medalist and Boston Marathon champion.

While Roberts received a warm ovation, student speaker Zachary Ehrlich, who followed her, brought the house down.

Ehrlich, a leader on campus, turned hilarious phrases, calling graduation gowns "muumuus of academic triumph," and thanking the sign language interpreter, "whose graceful movements are like cherry blossoms in the breeze."

Ehrlich also advocated for more "care-too-muchers" in this world, and defended the sleeping patterns of most college students.

"People like us who stay up until 2 a.m. are behind works like the Mona Lisa, the Magna Carta, and Left Shark" — the entertaining costumed dancer at this year's Super Bowl halftime show.

Emerson president Lee Pelton reminded guests and graduates that it was Emerson students who designed the now iconic yellow and blue "Boston Strong" T-shirts. He asked graduates to consider a question: "How will I live my life with meaning and purpose?"

"The call to greatness is alive in every generation, including your own," he said. "Your greatness will not be found in how you work, but how you live your life."

For the graduating class, which included students from around the world, the ceremony meant the end of one of life's chapters, and the beginning of another.

"This is so awesome, I've waited four years for this," said Kelly Pylinski, a New Hartford, N.Y., native who majored in marketing communications. Pylinski said he plans to work in New York for the time being, then eventually head to Los Angeles.


"I'm stepping into a new chapter of my life not knowing what to expect," said Bekah Skopil, a Eugene, Ore., native who also majored in marketing. "It's so exciting and surreal."

Jon Mael can be reached at jmael2014@gmail.com.