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After receiving her Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degree, Nina Tassler delivered a commencement address.
After receiving her Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degree, Nina Tassler delivered a commencement address.Pat Greenhouse

Of the many thousands of people in attendance at Boston University's 143rd commencement, probably no one was more surprised to be at Nickerson Field Sunday than commencement speaker Nina Tassler. A 1979 graduate with a degree in acting, Tassler said she was shocked when she got the call.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think [BU president Dr. Robert A. Brown] was inviting me to speak at graduation," said Tassler, who got the call while organizing a dinner for university alumni in Los Angeles. "I was confused, and immediately convinced that I could find another choice."

The former chairwoman of CBS Entertainment and current member of the BU board of trustees told the university's 6,600 graduates to embrace fear and use it to their advantage in meeting challenges. During her 20-minute address, Tassler told her story of a woman struggling to survive in a male-dominated industry, and the experience of a small-town Floridian moving to the city for the first time when she started classes at Boston University.

"I can reflect on the emotional roller coaster I felt while sitting in your seats," Tassler said. "I remember feeling grateful for having actually graduated and terrified for having just graduated."

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The Nickerson Field crowd listened attentively, as a ferocious wind blew caps off of students' heads. The two-hour ceremony featured honorary degrees awarded to Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz; Carrie Hessler-Radelet, director of the Peace Corps; and alumnus Travis Roy, who became paralyzed 11 seconds into his first hockey game at Boston University in 1995. Roy received a warm standing ovation, but did not speak.

Tassler, who has played a role in green-lighting TV mainstays such as "ER," "The Big Bang Theory," and "CSI," told students that fear, especially the fear of the unknown that most tend to feel when graduating, can be empowering.

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"Accepting fear head-on is freeing," she said, "specifically the fear of change."

"Throughout my career, the pounding in my heart, the fright has been ever-present, but I never turned back," she said. "Fear can be a highly motivational part of the journey."

Tassler said she moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting dreams, but ended up taking a receptionist job with an agency and working her way up, despite the rampant sexism in show business at the time.

"Sometimes the career you end up with has no logical connection to where you began," she said.

Tassler kept her closing remarks simple and received a standing ovation.

"We don't know where we'll end up, but making moments matter — taking a step back to see something from a different vantage point and investing in your core values — can lead to a world of surprises," she said.

Some students said her description of a struggle to work her way up in a hostile industry sounded authentic.

"Nina was very much relatable," said Olga Lacki, a Chicago native graduating with a degree in neuroscience. "It's comforting that she didn't have anything figured out when she graduated, either."

Connor Astwood, who received a bachelor's degree in chemistry, said he was inspired by Tassler's words.

"She was very relatable to where we are, making it in an industry that wasn't [easy] for her at the time," said Astwood, who is from Bermuda. "It's all about possibilities."

Student speaker Debra Marcus, who received degrees in psychology and music, launched the ceremony by talking about her experience as a transfer student from Brandeis, saying she was only "5/8th of a Terrier" and describing how her experience helped to shape who she was.

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"I felt supported and cared for here, and that has fundamentally changed who I am and how I approach the world."

Marcus cited BU's swanky two-story dining hall and its "intellectual vitality." She recalled a conversation she had with a family friend about whether she likes BU.

"I found myself choked up and I said, 'Yes,' but how do I distill what it means to get a BU education into a half-hour conversation over a latte?" she said.

Stephen Martino (right) and some of his friends lit up a Cuban cigar after earning his bachelor’s in hospitality.
Stephen Martino (right) and some of his friends lit up a Cuban cigar after earning his bachelor’s in hospitality.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Grads rushed from the field at the end of the ceremony.
Grads rushed from the field at the end of the ceremony.Pat Greenhouse

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