Remarks to the Class of 2023
by Keynote Speaker Sally Susman ’84
Connecticut College’s 105th Commencement
May 21, 2023
Build A Better World
Thank you, Debo, for that generous introduction and for your
leadership and care for this College.
I’m grateful to you, the Board of Trustees,
and the faculty and staff for inviting me.
And Meggie…wow… such an inspirational message to your fellow graduates.
I will treasure this honorary degree in humane letters.
Yes, because it is for my work in humanitarian causes.
But maybe, even more so, because no-one in the class of 1984 –
least of all me—would have ever imagined me on this platform today.
That’s a story for another time.
This moment belongs to you.
So, Now, Let’s Give It Up for the Class of 2023!
It’s an enormous honor to give your commencement address.
In preparation for today, I looked for soaring rhetoric,
but I kept finding a heap of problems…
from climate chaos to global unrest,
to racial and financial inequity, just to name a few.
Not to mention the global pandemic,
a nasty and uninvited guest during your college years.
During the pandemic, along with my own fears for my loved ones,
I had a crystallization of thoughts that had been swirling around in my head since my first job and for the nearly four decades that have followed.
Over those years, I studied leadership at the right hand of some exceptional chief executives, senators, cabinet secretaries, and presidents of civic institutions.
All of these leaders were smart, highly educated, skilled at their jobs—but the few who were able to rise above, and breakthrough had a deep appreciation for the power of connection.
Their ability to open minds and move hearts made all the difference.
Most recently, I learned that when the world seems at an impasse,
we cannot make incremental changes. We must use all the tools in our
toolbox…and some we didn’t even know we had…to break through the
noise and clutter to create long-lasting, positive change.
Today I’ll offer you five insights, in the hopes that these principles help you in your stewardship of our future.
Because, together, we must build a better world.
First, have the courage for candor.
In the early 1980s, shortly after my graduation from this college, I had an urgent need for clarity.
On a hot, sweltering day, I flew home—from Washington, D.C., to
St. Louis, Missouri—to tell my parents I’m gay.
I was extremely nervous. I knew it would be bad…
the only question was how bad.
Please remember this was 40 years ago—that’s a long time in the trajectory of the gay civil rights advances – and as I’m sure you know, many of those old prejudices are returning.
Back then, we were in the grip of the AIDS epidemic and most people lived in the closet. With my revelation, my mother was upset; my dad cried. It was the toughest conversation of my life. My relationship with my folks was strained for several years.
Still, it cut an essential pathway for the open, loving dynamic I now enjoy with my truly wonderful parents.
The point is—I’ve learned that short-term pain can pay long-term dividends in peace and pride and authenticity.
So, let’s build a better world where we take every opportunity for brave candor.
Don’t let an apology die in your throat for fear that the hurt is too deep.
Don’t let a love letter languish in your draft file despairing over possible rejection.
Don’t hesitate to extend an outreached hand to an estranged family member because the divide feels too wide.
Close that gap. Act with an open heart.
Be courageous and let candor be your lifeblood.
Second, perfect your pitch.
I’m not talking about the infamous elevator pitch where you try to make your case in a 30-second ride.
And I am not referring to an aggressive cold call by a publicist, or telemarketer. I’m talking about something far deeper.
Pitch, in the leadership context, is rich and nuanced, almost lyrical.
It’s the tenor, word choice, and attitude that we bring to every human encounter. It’s striking the right chords that allow us to reach and relate to one another more profoundly.
Achieving pitch is not simple, even though the best make it look easy.
Think of former First Lady Michelle Obama when she said,
“When they go low, we go high.”
Seven words that resonated around the world.
So, let’s build a better world where each of us locates our unique voice, tone and pitch.
Where our words land as intended.
Where our audience—be it one person or hundreds on Temple Green—feel our message was crafted specifically for them.
And remember, perfect pitch always ends on a high note.
Third, delight with humor.
Sadly, I can’t tell a joke to save my life.
And these days, humor can feel daunting. We are increasingly worried about “cancel culture” and how our words can be taken out of context or turned against us.
Still, I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world without humor and joy.
Humor, used correctly, can ease isolation, and build bridges of recognition and common understanding. Humor brings people together, breaks the ice, diffuses tension, boosts morale, and forges bonds.
Several years ago, to take away the stigma from professional missteps, we held an open-mic night where everyone was encouraged to share their biggest, most embarrassing slip-ups.
I led the way with a story about how I blew it with my first boss -- a United States Senator -- by gossiping and breaking a confidence. My error became publicly known, I was ashamed and never trusted the same way in that office again.
But I owned my mistake, apologized, and most importantly, never repeated it.
After telling my story at open-mic night, brave colleagues shared their gaffes and before long we were all laughing and learning together. We felt comfortable opening up in ways that we never imagined because humor and self-deprecation were the keys to unlock deeper ways of connecting with one another.
So…let’s build a better world
Where levity is the antidote to awkwardness.
Where humor creates a playfulness or lightheartedness
that highlights our humanity but never disparages it.
Where joy lights the way to a better future.
Fourth, seek harmony.
In a recent Trust Barometer poll conducted by the Edelman consulting firm, people were asked if they would help someone in dire need if they believed that person—the one in need—disagreed with them.
30% said yes. That means an astonishing 70% said no!
Think about that…
One citizen would not help another simply because they didn’t see the world eye to eye.
So, here’s my ask of you: Instead of trying to win every argument or score every point in a debate, let’s seek harmony.
According to Adam Grant, one of the world’s most influential management thinkers, “Harmony is the pleasing arrangement of different tones, voices or instruments, not the combination of identical sounds.”
Harmony is not total agreement. It’s not speaking from the same script. It’s complimentary. It’s civil.
So, let’s build a better world where we find ways to disagree, agreeably. To listen for understanding, not to ready our rebuttal.
To be able to debate and discuss around the dinner table without dissolving into a fight. To engage respectfully and hold ourselves open to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we are not always right.
Let’s be kind and merciful to one another. Because face it, we all make mistakes.
And please remember the words of social justice activist
Bryan Stevenson who said,
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Finally, Let’s reflect and honor.
As graduates, you are looking to the future.
But may I suggest that you first check the rear-view mirror?
You will surely find some important people and hard-earned lessons there.
Over the past four years, your experience was unlike that of any other class in our 113-year history.
You arrived as first years in the Fall of 2019 expecting to enjoy four years on this magnificent campus.
I imagine you anticipated huddling in study groups, laughing together in the common rooms, and learning in seminars with our amazing faculty.
Well…you moved into the dorms, began to taste the joys of college life, and were just hitting your stride… then, suddenly,
The world shut down.
A once-a-century pandemic wrought dramatic changes upon your campus, your education, and your life.
Masks were probably not among your original fashion choices… and social distancing was certainly not at the top of your collegiate activities list. Quarantines, testing, and vaccines became part of your drill.
Then, in your senior year, you were confronted with the complex quest for equity.
Faced with those questions of diversity and inclusion, many of you took a stand. And I’m sure all of you thought deeply about what equity means. We are still in the wake of that discussion.
This week, a friend of mine, a mother of one of today’s graduates, wrote me and said of this class, “I’m really impressed with the progressive nature of this college, especially the tenacity the students exhibited this year when they felt Connecticut College could be even better.”
I’m impressed too. You have already begun to build a better world.
Where progress is a shared goal,
Where mistakes are rarely repeated… and
Where lessons of all kinds are honored.
So, in conclusion, everyone graduating today – each of you—
has an epic opportunity to keep making change.
Connecticut College’s mission is to educate students to put the liberal arts into action as citizens in a global society.
I can think of nothing the world needs more.
Indeed, society needs your help.
I believe, based in large measure, on what you’ve learned here at Connecticut College, you will meet the moment.
You will make true the adage that rough seas make for a strong captain.
And, here’s my hope for you. Keep building a better world.
Let candor be your lifeblood,
perfect your pitch,
delight us with your sense of humor,
And always, reflect and honor.
Please accept my admiration for your tenacity, my respect for your resiliency, and my heartfelt congratulations on your graduation.
This college, its professors and administrators, your family and friends believe in you; have invested in you and are so very proud of you.
Now run with it.
Sally Susman is executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer and the author of a new book, Breaking Through: Communicating to Open Minds, Move Hearts, and Change the World. In 2022, she was named by Forbes as one of the World’s Most Influential Chief Marketing Officers.
At Pfizer, Susman leads reputation management and directs the company’s communications, public affairs and philanthropic activities around the world. As vice chair of the Pfizer Foundation and one of the longest-serving members of the executive leadership team, she has shaped policy around patient advocacy and advanced the company’s efforts to improve global public health. Beyond Pfizer, she has served on numerous corporate and non-profit boards—including the Board of Trustees at Connecticut College—and is currently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and co-chair of The International Rescue Committee, one of the largest humanitarian aid organizations in the world.
Born and reared in St. Louis, Missouri, Susman graduated from Connecticut College with a B.A. in government and studied at the London School of Economics. During the Clinton Administration, she served on Capitol Hill, first as a legislative assistant for the Senate Commerce Committee and then as deputy assistant secretary for Legislative Affairs. Before joining Pfizer in 2007, she held senior roles in communications and government relations at Estée Lauder and American Express.
Susman returns to her alma mater often to speak to students about government, corporate ethics, and gender in business and politics. Her visits are part of our Career Informed Learning (CIL) initiative in Connections, designed to help students communicate, present, and deliver robust solutions to complex problems by bringing real-life challenges into the classroom.
During the Commencement ceremony, the College will confer on Susman an honorary degree—a doctor of humane letters honoris causa—an award that reflects her lifelong commitment to fostering campus environments where students thrive, reach their potential, and contribute to others’ flourishing.