Remarks to the Class of 2024
by Keynote Speaker Laura Coates
Connecticut College’s 106th Commencement
May 19, 2024

My goodness, what a pleasure and a joy to be with all of you today. I am just so happy for so many reasons. I’m so honored to try to hold a candle to the phenomenal young women that have already been on this stage, from your student speaker on the analytic third, to things I can't even describe about marine biology and life. I'm a lawyer, we don't have to understand, we have to convey, of course, what's going on in public service and everything in between. How proud am I to be on this stage today and in front of you all?

And it's almost shocking to me that I would be here to tell you about life in some way. Who am I to tell the Class of 2024, a class that began in ways that none of us could have anticipated or experienced in any way? To have begun during the pandemic, to have the summer of racial reckoning, for the world to be on fire across the globe. We're going to tell you about what the world is like? No, I'm going to ask you to tell us what the world is, what you want it to be. Because for many of you, this is your very first graduation, and I don't take that lightly. I had the benefit of having my commencements and having, I guess you would call it normalcy, but for you, I'm sure it feels sometimes as though you had missed out on something. But let me be the first to tell you, you have not indeed missed out. You have something that is so enviable to everyone else, which is a blank slate.

I'm reminded of a story that my mother often tells. Indulge me for a moment, because the older I get—although I'm only 25, thank you for the humid conditions, the skin looks moist and supple, I appreciate that. And as a woman from Minnesota, I can tell you that's a wonderful thing to see, thank you. My mother would tell this story when I would try to tell her about how different generations could always improve and do something better. We would look and we would be judgmental and say, “What you all have done, let me tell you, I can make it better. I can improve upon it, I can do it better, I can do all these things.”

And she would tell this story about a conversation between those who challenge the creator. Now, whoever that is for you, I will leave that up to you and your minds and your faith. And they turned to a story about how there was some semblance that the creator had created mankind from clay, and there were those who challenged and said, “I could have improved upon all these things. I could have made mankind, first of all, humankind, including women, I could have made mankind more sensitive. I could have made it more thoughtful. I could have made it in a way that was less judgmental. I could have made the physical appearance different. I could have made the bodies different. I could have made all these things differently.” And the creator said, “Well, I welcome you to do something to reinvent, to recreate. I welcome it and I challenge you to do so. Since you have a world and a mind full of ideas, please do it.”

Pompous and arrogant in a way, which is why she was telling her daughter who was, I guess, displaying those qualities in the moment. She said, “Now here's what happened next. Those who had challenged began to pick up clay and mold it in the way they thought was better, to reinvent and recast and tweak here and there. And at first the creator smiled and then said, “Well, hold on. What are you doing?” The person said, “Well, we're making it better. We're taking what you did and we're improving on it.” And the creator said, “No, no, no. You have to first make your own clay.”

When I look and I see each of you, I don't want you to wait for someone to just simply challenge you to improve upon that which really no longer exists in the same way, in the way that the clay makers before saw it. You have a chance to make your own clay. You have a chance not just to build upon but recreate and reinvent the world as it is now. The blank slate of things, the way that people have described what a democracy is like, the way they have described in the past what life ought to be like, the way they have told you how things were, and maybe nostalgia kicks in and they tried to tell you in glowing terms about how it always was. You have an opportunity in front of each of you right now, before you right now in this very moment, to recreate the clay, to build it upon the things that you value, that you cherish, that you know.

You will find at some point, if you have not already, an extraordinary epiphany and revelation that will serve you well throughout life. And that is the revelation that the people who tell you what to do or think are just older, but they don't know you. They don't know what you believe. They don't necessarily know and they don't need to, they need to convey and relay and inform, and your job, your right, and please let it be your calling to do what is necessary to then return it in the form of an education for the rest of the world. That will be the beauty. In so many ways, the world is almost like a package that's been opened and with all that has happened and changed, you will find it impossible to repackage it. Much to my chagrin, as I try to return so many things to Amazon that they will not take, you try to repackage it and you can't do it and you don't try. The bells have been rung, the sounds have been made, but you have a chance to recreate.

And here I am at Commencement and it's always how it is at the beginning, a feeling of anxiety, a feeling of joy, a feeling of pride, a feeling of, what will I do next? I have been where you have been. I've sat where you have sat. I have felt the joy and the pride and also, a tremendous amount of uncertainty about what should and what could come next. Who would I be? What would I use? What tools would I need and how would I feel? How would I measure success? And what's behind me are these beautiful degrees. That could be one barometer of how people choose to see you. A degree can be defined as a unit of measurement, right? But I challenge each of you to use it in the definitional sense of the extent, the amount, and the level to which you will allow something to happen, the degree to which you would like to see something different, see something maintained, see something obliterated or see something progressively changed. You have that power right now where you are, and your success will not be based on simply a piece of paper or the words that are on it, but what you do to bring it to life.

Are we friends? Can I tell a personal story? Do you mind? When I was graduating from college, do you know that I was wait-listed at every single law school I applied? And I have to tell you, there was a level of at times having had this wonderful trajectory up until that point. The world always seemed to come up in roses for me, and I sat and I waited as my friends and my fellow students would receive success after success in the form of a letter, and the world and the universe was telling me to wait, to wait. Now I couldn't understand it, in the moment. I thought I had done all the things you're supposed to do. I certainly had not gotten the nos, but the wait seemed in my adolescent mind at the time—because again, if I'm 25 now, you do the math—that it seemed unfair. I think I used the word cruel to describe it, just to tell you my myopic view to think that being a wait-listed person meant there was a cruelty in the world.

But I couldn't understand why I was told to wait, until I realized that every delay is in your favor. Every delay is in your favor. When the world was telling me to wait, it was an opportunity to take a moment to see, to derail for a moment, to understand the path and the track that I wanted to be on, to wait and understand what the world was like around me, to wait and understand who I wanted to become and who I already was. To wait and not have a moment when you only described or defined yourself based on the perception of what success is to other people, but to then at that moment decide for yourselves what success looks like for you. How do you feel when you have the accomplishment that is dictated by you? What comes next for you? And it made all the difference in my life because there was a power in having the ability to determine one's own path and trajectory, and every delay became in my favor.

I don't regret for a moment the universe's dictation that I wait. What I regret is any time I tried to succeed at being someone else, but what a joy to have the moments in your life that are here. Maybe some of you can relate already, maybe it'll be before you. I encourage each of you to fail miserably at trying to succeed at being someone else. I encourage you to go out in a blaze of glory anytime you think, I need to be, I need to sound like, I need to represent as, I need to show up as anything inauthentically that is not you. Fail, enjoy that failure and find yourself better.

When I became a prosecutor, I realized the weight and the power that one has to be authentically yourself, to bring who you are to the table, because you will meet people at the other end of judgment. You will have in that moment the ability to understand and empathize or you'll have the ability to choose to believe that you are different and in the camp of, I never would. But what you will see when you wait for a moment and go down the list of the things that you thought you held dear, is that you will find yourself in that revelation. It's not who you are that's going to hold you back, it's who you think you are not. And part of your journey and discovery of today will be realizing who you are and who you are not.

I found myself tested throughout my work, tested, and my moral compass at times spinning, trying to find a true north, challenging what I thought would be, and what you do when the decision to change something is right in front of you. When someone else's life is in your hands or whatever field or world you are in, is in the palm of your hand, what will you do with it? The power is intoxicating. Don't drink from that well. Don't use or seek power for the sake of accolades. Use and seek power for the sake of conveying that power to those who truly need it. Those who are voiceless among you, those who need a champion, those who need someone to see them, because you are reflecting your values and who you are. Journalism is not that different, frankly, from the world of the law in that you are providing information and allowing people to decide what they want to do with it and how they think about it. And you have to wait to determine the priorities of the lists you provide of information.

But I'll tell you one thing to be cautious of in the life that you lead. Be cautious of the theys. Now, I don't mean the pronouns—pronouns are fine, boomers, they're just fine, period, full stop. I'm talking about the theys of the world that are using that as a data point to change what you believe. They'll take your beautiful minds and all that you've experienced and all that you know and all that you feel and they'll say, “Yeah, but they say this and so you must be wrong.” “But I believe in this and think this and I feel this and I know from my education this.” And they say, “Yeah, but they're saying that that's not accurate.” They say in a condescending look-down-the-nose sort of way, what they think. And then if you really unpack it, you find yourself realizing that the theys are the wizards behind the curtain trying to tell you what you already have.

You already know you've got the brain, the heart, the courage to do what you believe in. So be wary of the theys as not a data point, but as a moment when you'll realize how uncomfortable people are when you create the clay, when you have that bold audacity to say, “I can, I will, I should and I will continue.” They will try to tell you why you are wrong. But they can't hold a candle to all that you think, believe, and do, because you are the ones to recreate the clay.

They will tell you to sit at the table, to fight for that seat at the table, and I'll tell you, I've sat at many a table and I've often wondered if I'm on the menu. Sometimes I'm not always invited to the seat at the table because I bring my opinions with me and I don't hold back about what they are. But I often see when people talk about having a seat at the table, one of the things that you have to be wary of is why they want you to leave your walk and your path to sit down. Is it the room you want to be in? Is the table where you need to be? Is there another space you need to occupy, or is that seat an opportunity for you to get up for a moment, open the window so everyone else can hear what's inside what ought to be a transparent space?

When you sit at that table, can you all do me a favor? Because now we're all personal friends, and I'm also a grad now of the College, so thank you. When you sit at that table, can you do me a personal favor and not be a mute at it? There is no reason for you to be at a table if you have every intention of being silent when you are there. There is no reason for you to be at that table if you find yourself trying to conform to who it is you think is supposed to be at that table, what they look like. If you try to impersonate what you think success or somebody who's entitled to be there looks like, you have no longer chosen to be yourself at that table. And I'm telling you, the invisibility of yourself is only to the whole world's detriment. Everything you are right now is enough and ought to be at those tables. Ignore the imposter syndrome that might come, that might be imposed, that you might have a rumbling that you don't deserve or shouldn’t be someplace you should be and you already are, because you have degrees to decide the amount, the level, and extent to which you will welcome people into the space that you're in and the way you're going to teach them how to treat you. That is your power and you have it right now.

I'll leave you with this story that I often think about, in terms of the ability to choose either to sit and be influenced by the energy in a room, or you could choose to influence the energy in the room. There are three types of people that a good friend of mine always described. Three types of people who will emerge in times of pressure and pain and joy and hardship and the equivalent of boiling water, because that's what pressure can feel like sometimes. Who am I telling? You know.

But there are three types of people and one is a carrot. A carrot, when you put it in boiling water, it begins as being very hard, but the pressure softens it in a way that makes it malleable and easy to be mushed and broken. Don't be the carrot—but eat your vegetables. Then there's the egg. You put an egg in boiling water, it begins having a fluidity within itself. It begins being able to be open to change. It can move, it can have possibilities, and you put it in boiling water and its very composition changes. It can no longer be moved. It is as it now will be and it's unrecognizable to its former self. Don't be that egg. Or there's the coffee bean, and when the coffee bean gets into the boiling water, it doesn't lessen who it is. It changes the water. It lets its authentic self come out and energize and rejuvenate and awaken and unapologetically provide the jolt that the entirety of its body now needs. But it remained who the coffee bean was. Don't worry, I won't say woke. It's a thing now apparently, but you should be the coffee bean. You should be the coffee bean that influences the energy around itself. That's who you have to be, and you know who you have to be for us right now.

Here's a vantage point that's about to change for the rest of your life. You will no longer have one person speaking at you, lecturing, telling you what you need to read, what you need to learn, what are the prerequisites and the metrics that they will judge you on because this is the syllabus that they have. Now we're looking at you and I look at each of you with such a fondness and joy and pride that it is bursting out of my very chest. And I ask you, you tell me, clay creators, what should we be reading? Who will be our heroes? How will the world be described? Where is this place that you will build and have built and are building for us? What are the quotes? What are the lectures? What are the moments? What is the syllabus? And for the love of everything, tell us, what is our assignment? Thank you.

A portrait of Laura Coates
Laura Coates

Laura Coates, CNN’s chief legal analyst and anchor of Laura Coates Live, will deliver the keynote address at Connecticut College’s 106th Commencement on Sunday, May 19, 2024.

Coates, who joined CNN in 2016 and whose work has been nominated for an Emmy, plays a central role in the network’s legal programming. She has covered many major news moments, including the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Jan. 6th hearings, the two impeachment hearings of President Trump and high-profile criminal prosecutions.

She is the anchor of the CNN show Laura Coates Live and the host of The Laura Coates Show on SiriusXM’s bipartisan P.O.T.U.S. channel, where she leverages her experience as a prosecutor to showcase the day’s top stories at the intersection of law, politics and popular culture. She also has authored two books, You Have the Right: A Constitutional Guide to Policing the Police and The New York Times bestseller Just Pursuit: A Black Prosecutor’s Fight For Fairness.

A native of Saint Paul, Minn., Coates graduated from Princeton University and the University of Minnesota Law School, where she serves on the Board of Advisors, before beginning her legal career in private practice. She practiced law in Minnesota and New York, handling cases ranging from intellectual property litigation and First Amendment issues to defamation and media law. She then transitioned from private practice to the U.S. Department of Justice as a federal prosecutor. She served as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice during the Bush and Obama administrations, specializing in the enforcement of voting rights throughout the country. She also served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, prosecuting a myriad of violent felony offenses.

At the Commencement ceremony, the College will present Coates with the degree of doctor of humane letters honoris causa, in recognition of her commitment to promoting justice and fighting misinformation around the world.