I was a 1.8 GPA one semester, and the university very politely suggested that it might be better to take some time off.
I was 20 years old, I was at my lowest point.
And then one day—and I remember the exact day: March 27th, 1975—I was helping my mother in her beauty shop; my mother owned a beauty shop up in Mount Vernon.
There was this older woman who was considered one of the elders in the town, I didn’t know her personally but I was looking in the mirror. And every time I looked to the mirror I could see her behind me and she was staring at me.
Every time I looked at her she kept giving me these strange looks. She finally took the drier off her head and said something to me I’ll never forget:
First of all, she said, somebody give me a piece of paper. Give me a piece of paper. She said “Young boy, I have a spiritual prophecy: you are going to travel the world and speak to millions of people.”
Like a wise-ass, I’m thinking to myself: “Does she got anything in that crystal ball about me getting back to college in the fall?”
But maybe she was on to something. Because later that summer, while working as a counselor at a YMCA camp in Connecticut, we put on a talent show for the campers.
After the show, another counselor came up to me and asked: “Have you ever thought of acting? You should. You’re good at that.”
When I got back to Fordham that fall I changed my major once again —for the last time.
And in the years that followed—just as that woman prophesied, I have traveled the world and I have spoken to millions of people through my movies.
Millions who—up ‘till today—I couldn’t see while I was talking to them.
But I do see you today. And I’m encouraged by what I see. I’m strengthened by what I see. I love what I see.
One more page, then I will shut up.
Let me conclude with one final point.
Many years ago I did this movie called Philadelphia. We actually filmed some scenes right here on campus.
Philadelphia came out in 1993, when most of you were probably still crawling around in diapers. Some of the professors, too.
But it’s a good movie. Rent it on Netflix. I get 23 cents every time you do. Tell your friends, too!
It’s about a man, played by Tom Hanks, who’s fired from his law firm because he has AIDS. He wants to sue the firm, but no one’s willing to represent him until a homophobic, ambulance-chasing lawyer—played by yours truly—takes on the case.
In a way, if you watch the movie, you’ll see everything I’m talking about today.
You’ll see what I mean about taking risks or being willing to fail.
Because taking risks is not just about going for a job. It’s also about knowing what you know and what you don’t know. It’s about being open to people and to ideas.
Over the course of the film, the character I play begins to take small steps, small risks. He very very very slowly begins to overcomes his fears, and I feel ultimately his heart becomes flooded with love.
And I can’t think of a better message as we send you off today.
To not only take risks, but to be open to life.
To accept new views and to be open to new opinions.
To be willing to speak at a commencement at one of the country’s best universities… even though you’re scared stiff.
While it may be frightening, it will also be rewarding.
Because the chances you take… the people you meet… the people you love…the faith that you have—that’s what’s going to define your life.
So members of the class of 2011: This is your mission:
When you leave the friendly confines of Philly: Never be discouraged. Never hold back. Give everything you’ve got.
And when you fall throughout life and maybe even tonight after a few too many glasses of champagne, remember this: fall forward.
Congratulations, I love you, God bless you, I respect you.
Recommended for Further Reading: