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Oprah Winfrey's Commencement Address at Duke

Oprah Winfrey's Commencement Address at Duke

Below is a transcript of Oprah Winfrey's May 10, 2009 commencement address to Duke graduates at Wallace Wade Stadium.

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Oh, yes, I'm going have everyone call me Doctor now. Thank you, President Brodhead. Ladies and gentlemen and graduates, and especially to all the mothers here -- will all the mothers stand so we can say Happy Mother's Day? Happy Mother's Day to you. What a great day to celebrate mothers. You love me still, even though I'm a doctor now?

Well, I wanted to just say, first of all, thank you for the doctorate degree, and I'm so happy to be here, and I'm here because someone I love is graduating today, my godson, William Bumpus, the son of Will Bumpus and my best friend, Gayle. You know, William never wants people to know that he knows me, and his sister, Kirby, never did either. I'm like the crazy aunt they keep in the attic, and they let me out to do commencements, so here I am. I just want to say I knew William before he was born. I saw the sonogram, and he was smiling even then. So those of you who know him know he has such a gorgeous smile.

I know you all have memories of graduates flooding through your minds today as we celebrate this milestone graduation, Class of 2009. One of my fondest memories of William, one time when he was a little boy, he was at my house, and I used to collect these antique museum quality Shaker boxes, and I walked into the room and William has my one of a kind Shaker boxes and he's stacking them up like Bric A Blocs and knocking them down and going, "Vroom." And I yelled, just -- I just started -- I said, "No, William, stop!" I think I stunned the boy, cause he wasn't used to anybody yelling at him, and he stopped, he put the boxes back on the shelf and he found where he found them and he did not say a word to me. He didn't even cry. And a little later on, he goes up to his mom and he says, "Mom, Auntie O is mean. Can we go home?"

Well, William, Auntie O has some news for you. You're getting those scratched-up boxes for your graduation gift. You can knock them down all you want. Seriously, I don't know a better young man in the world than William Bumpus, and thank you, Duke, for making him an even greater young man. And I have to say that he is so kind and so generous of spirit. William, you're the son I wish I'd had, and so I'm thrilled to be here for you. Love you, Willzer.

I've been doing my show now for almost 25 years. Feels like 125, but almost 25 years. And my greatest lessons have come from my work; talking to murderers, doing makeovers, learning about flesh-eating diseases, have all been great growing tools for me, because I look at life every day from the experience of what can I grow from this. Actually, the show is why I never needed therapy. Well, I might have needed therapy, but I never went to therapy, because I have learned so many lessons from our show and the people I've met. And the miracle for me is that almost 25 years later, I get to go to work every day and I am still learning.

I just finished taping a show this week with so many powerful lessons that I wanted to weep, and I want to share some of those lessons with you today. As a matter of fact, there were so many lessons in the show that I taped just last week, that's going to air next week, you'll see it, I did weep. It was about some tough guys in prison for murder, for manslaughter, armed robbery, guys full of anger and violence. And they're involved in this program where dogs, little puppies, are taken from shelters and the eight-week-old puppies are given to the prisoners, eight-week-old puppies that would have otherwise been euthanized. The puppies live right in the prison cells with the prisoners 24 hours a day. And I forgot to ask them -- how they housebreak them, because it's not like you can say, "I need to take the dog out."

But the prisoners train these puppies to then be service dogs to help our soldiers in Iraq who come back with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress, and then send them to the veterans from Iraq. Some of these inmates had never known love or responsibility. They'd never taken care of anybody, nor knew what it felt like to have somebody love you back when you take care of them.

But one of the things they teach the dogs is how to kiss the soldier's face. A lot of the soldiers come back with post-traumatic stress and have terrible experiences, and if the soldier is starting to go to a bad place in his mind, the dogs lick and kiss the soldier's face to bring him back to reality. So this means that the prisoners themselves also had to get the kisses from the puppies they were training. It's clear the kisses were also bringing the prisoners back from a hard, cold place, and to see these criminals, who had never, many of them, experienced love themselves, cry on camera, in front of each other, cry in redemption, their voices quivering as they talk about the chance to do something good, to do something kind and unselfish, by helping the wounded soldiers in Iraq and teaching the dogs, was so moving.

And when the severely injured soldier -- what we did was we went and found one of the soldiers who had received a dog and brought him back to the prison so that he could meet the prisoner who -- who trained the dog. And when they met, I tell you, the audience and I were a puddle of tears. And what I learned from that I want to share with you, graduates. If you can find a way to give back just as these felons are giving from behind bars, you will be a huge success, because for sure one of the things I've learned is that the best way to enhance your own life is to contribute to somebody else's.

Now, last year we did a story on a woman named Monica George, and people often ask, you know, "Who's your favorite guest, who's your favorite guest," and they always expect me to name some movie star. Well, if it's a movie star, it would be Hugh Jackman. He's one of my favorite guests, and you can imagine why.

But my favorite guests are, for the most part, not celebrities and not people who've done famous or infamous things. My most favorite guests are ordinary people who've accomplished extraordinary triumphs in their life, and Monica George is one of those people I will never forget. She and her husband, Tony, were overjoyed at the C-section birth of a healthy baby girl that they named Sophie, and Sophie was their second daughter. This was just last year.

But within hours, and while she was still in the hospital, Monica developed a fever and pain caused by a fast-moving, flesh-eating bacteria. She was dying, so they took some organs to save her, but the bacteria had spread, so the doctors came in and said to her, "We think, as a matter of fact, we know we're going to have to amputate. We're going to have to take both your arms and both your legs." And this woman said, "Get on with it. I want you to do it and do it as fast as you can, because I have to get home to take care of my girls."

So imagine going into the hospital to have a baby, you have the healthy baby and you expect to be coming home with this tiny little pink bundle of joy, with pink little arms and legs, and instead you go home without your arms and legs. The arms that were going to hold this child and legs that were going to walk with her in the park. Monica had 37 operations in two months, but she's now home with her girls, home without a trace of self-pity, home with a smile on her face and a peace in her heart. And when I talked to her, she said, sure, sometimes it hurts that she's not able to paint Sophie's nails and toenails and do the things that mothers and daughters do, but she also said, "What good are you to your children if you're miserable?"

There's so many lessons in this, because at some point, something in life is going to eat you inside. It could be anger, it could be guilt, it could be past hurts or some other strain of soul eating bacteria. But graduates, I want you to know that if you can summon the courage of Monica George in the face of your own life's hardships, and you will have them, and if you can remember what good are you to anyone if you're miserable, I know for sure you'll be a huge success, because you are responsible for your happiness and you are responsible for the energy you bring to everything.

One of my other favorite guests was a woman named Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, who's a brain scientist, who had a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. She wrote a book called "My Stroke of Insight." And so only the right hemisphere was working, and when she was in the hospital as a patient, she said she could sense through her right brain when a nurse would come into the room and meant her well, or when the nurse was thinking about what time she was going to be off that day. She could sense the energy that was brought into the room. And after a while, she put up a sign in the room that said to everyone who came in the room, you are responsible for the energy that you bring. I love that moment, because we are responsible for the energy that we bring to everything we do in life.

One thing that gets a huge response on the show is makeovers. You know, we did a makeover on Coretta Scott King, the late Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, and this was like going to Mount Rushmore and giving George Washington a new 'do, because she hadn't changed her 'do since 1954. But we've done a lot of makeovers. One woman hadn't changed her hair in 37 years. She had this big old hair thing going on. Another young woman worked in a chicken house, and after we got all the feathers off, she was stunning. Another woman had worn her hair in a bun for 25 years and put on makeup to go to bed at night, because she said if she died in her sleep, she wanted to be ready.

People love makeovers, because the physical results are always so astonishing. But I like doing them because of the possibility of transforming more than the way people look. You want to change the way people feel about themselves. One man, a guy we'd just seen walking down the street, with a beard that was almost to the ground, it looked like he was hiding behind all of that beard. And after we got rid of all that hair and he could actually see himself, he said, "I feel alive again." The makeover allowed him to see himself in a way that he'd forgotten was there. You know, we all need makeovers from time to time in our lives, and graduates, I know this, that if you can see the possibility of changing your life, of seeing what you can become and not just what you are, you will be a huge success.

One of my life heroes is Nelson Mandela, and I had the great honor of spending some time with Nelson Mandela, 10 days and 29 meals at his house, and I was so worried about what I was going to talk about or what we would say at the dinner table. And Stedman said to me, "Why don't you try listening?" Thank you, Stedman. That worked.

So I had the benefit of sitting at his table for 29 meals and listened a lot, listened to the stories of how he spent 27 years in a South African prison, and talked to him about how he was able to come out of that with a sense of forgiveness, to bind the wounds of South Africa and saving it from a mean and violent civil war. So I asked him to come on our show, and I was -- although I'd sat at his table and was very comfortable in his presence, I was really nervous having him come on the show, and I rarely, rarely, rarely get nervous. And for me, his warmth just filled our studio with a glow, and one of the things I will always remember him saying is how terrible it was to spend the best years of his life in that prison, but he said if he'd not been in prison, he would have not been able to achieve the most difficult task in his life, and that was to begin the change of himself.

But this is so -- this tells the story of who he really is. He arrives at the studio and everybody's so excited and nervous and it's Nelson Mandela, and Nelson Mandela walks into the green room and says to the producers, "And what is the show about?" "Uh, you. The show's about you, sir." Nelson Mandela was so humbled that being on the show for a whole hour was not something he expected. "How can such a great man be so humble," I thought. Graduates, if you can proceed through life with just a portion of Nelson Mandela's humility, you will be a huge success.

When I was eight years old, I was at church one day -- and a man named John J. Hooker was running for governor at the time, and he had come to our church to campaign. And afterwards, outside as we were leaving the church, his wife, who was then a stranger, her name was Tish Hooker, a beautiful woman with blonde hair, classic cheekbones, flawless skin, saw me standing there. And you have to understand at the time I was a little black girl, but we didn't call ourselves black then. Actually, back then we were colored and Negro, but whatever. I was a little girl who didn't think much of herself, but Tish Hooker walked right up to me, as if she knew I needed to hear what she had to say. And she said it only as a Southern woman can. She said, "You know, you're just as pretty as a speckled pup." Now, I didn't know what a speckled pup was, but she then said, "And you have the most beautiful bee-stung lips."

Well, I knew I had big lips. I didn't know what bee-stung lips were. But she said it with such warmth and such kindness that I remember going home from church and staring at myself in the mirror, because Tish Hooker had said that I was pretty, and she was the first person that ever looked at me and had the courage to speak the words, "You're pretty."

I'd never felt pretty. I knew I was smart, but this stranger, this woman who just came out of nowhere it seemed, was the first person to ever say it to me. And it made me see myself differently from that day forward, Tish Hooker saying, "You have such beautiful bee-stung lips," and I've remembered that my whole life. You never know what kindness you offer today to someone, how that might live with them forever. So, graduates, if you can be generous enough to say kind, affirming words to those who may long to hear them, you will be a huge success.

And finally, let me just tell you a story about my success. I had a charity sale, because I have clothes in every size, eight, 10, 12, 14, elastic. Sometimes it gets crowded in my closet. So I had a charity sale awhile back to get rid of all that stuff, and a woman named Joanie Jacks didn't have much money, because she didn't have a job at the time, and the least expensive thing she could find was a pair of black shoes.

Now, she wore a size seven and I'm a 10½ on a good day, 11 with humidity. So she bought a pair of my shoes and kept them in her bedroom, and she said that when she got depressed, when things weren't going well, she would take out the shoes and she would stand in my shoes. And she said she wanted to stand in the shoes until she'd be able to stand on her own, and she used the shoes as a sense of inspiration to herself. At age 50, she went back to college and got herself a degree, and today she's standing in her own shoes.

That is what makes me feel successful. Of all the wonderful things that have happened, including getting a doctorate, an honorary doctorate from Duke, what really makes me feel successful is being able to use my life in service to someone else's. And I will have to say, it is a wonderful thing to have a beautiful home, or homes, a wonderful thing to have a beautiful home which just escaped the fire in Santa Barbara. And it is really fantastic to have your own jet, and anybody who says it isn't is lying to you. That jet thing is really good.

But you really haven't completed the circle of success unless you can help somebody else move forward. That's the truth. Move to higher ground. That's the real goal. How do you get someone else to move to higher ground.

So I spend my life doing that, thinking about how can I help somebody else move to higher ground. How can I help somebody else get to a stronger and better place, because that is success. That's it. That's why we're all alive, to use ourselves, our lives, for something bigger than ourselves.

So, graduates, in closing, each of us has to stand in our own shoes, and the real question is how will you stand in your own? Will you stand in them with humility and compassion and integrity and courage? Well, I'm here to tell you, every day and every experience of your life will give you a chance to make that choice. It still happens to me, every day, all the time.

Most recently, I was faced with a big decision as to whether or not -- we had done this wonderful show, informative show, on Columbine, with an author of the book who had written this really fascinating, intriguing book on Columbine. And we finished taping the show, and I went upstairs and I said to the producers, who were all excited because he was doing his first interview with us, and they get really excited, "It's exclusive and it's wonderful, it's great." And I said, "Yes, but something about that bothered me. I'm not quite sure what it was, but something didn't feel right." I said, "But I have to -- I have to take a look at it, I have to take some time to look at it, because in the moment, I really can't tell. I just have a feeling that something's off with that show."

So I said, "I want to take a chance to review the tape," and as my life would have it, I didn't get a chance to review the tape. This was on a Thursday. The show was going to air on a Monday. Saturday, I'm sitting in Santa Barbara alone, quiet for a moment, and it occurred to me what's wrong with that show. There's something wrong with the energy that I brought to that show. And I called the producer and I said, "I know what's wrong with the show. I think the show focuses too much attention on the killers and it presents darkness, the energy of darkness, in a way that I really don't want to be responsible for."

And the producer said, "But the promos have gone out. It's already airing all over the country. We've told all the stations that it's airing and they have it in their lineup." And I said, "I am responsible for the energy that goes out over the air, so we're going to have to pull it, regardless of what we've told the stations, and they'll have to understand." So we pulled the show, because I felt that at the end of the day, if one person watching that show saw or heard something that made them feel inspired to go out and bring more darkness into the world, I didn't want that on me.

So it still happens every single day, decisions -- decisions come my way that require me to decide who am I really, what am I really doing this for? Decisions that allow me to make a decision as to whether or not I will do the right thing or will I do the popular thing. So for every experience in life, you get a chance to know whether or not right or whether or not you'll follow the opinions of everyone else.

For me, it's all about following your gut. I am who I am because I trust my gut more than anyone else's opinion, and that is my best advice to you. You know what is right, and when everyone around you is telling you what you should do, what you shouldn't do, and when you -- have to ask anyone other than yourself, it is your instinct, your higher self's way of saying, "Get still until you do know the answer, because your gut will never lead you wrong." Trust your gut to help you stand proudly in your own shoes, as you help others stand in theirs, and I know you will be a huge success. You have my warmest best wishes and my most heartfelt congratulations.

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