There are many ways to be invited to give a graduation speech.
You can be president of a country. You can donate a building.
Or you can be a graduate of the school who spent a harrowing week being captured and nearly killed in a far-off, war-torn land.
Tyler Hicks arrived at Boston University’s College of Communication convocation via that last route.
The Staples High School graduate and Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times photographer paused recently from his hectic life. He donned academic robes and delivered a powerful address, advising 511 newly minted communications grads to head into a dangerous world, and try to make a difference.
Like most good commencement speakers, Tyler has already done just that.
“I doubt I’m the first person to ask you why you studied communications,” the 41-year-old veteran of Kosovo, Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq began.
He noted that newspapers are shutting down, and the number of foreign correspondents is 3/4 less than a decade ago.
At the same time, he said, the young graduates have grown up “with more war than at any time in American history.” Most are untouched by it — without a draft, our wars are fought by other people — but the need to “witness and communicate” what’s going on overseas has never been greater.
Today, Tyler said, “a new world is being born, politically and technologically. This is your time to embrace it.”
Tyler described his own career path: working at a small Midwestern paper; quitting a contract job with the Times to pay his own way to Afghanistan; carving his own way of communicating through photographs.
He told the graduates to “find a place where something is going on, and move there.” They’ll be hungry and lonely, he noted — but the rewards of persistence, and belief in themselves, will be worth it.
His family and friends don’t always understand the risks he’s taking, Tyler said. In fact, he’s questioned his own choices.
The risks became clear as he described his recent captivity and near-death in Libya — in his words, “a week-long road trip of violence and intimidation.”
So why continue to do it? Why “do anything counter to what we’re expected to do?”
He does it because he wants readers to react to his photos, then form their own opinions of the world. He feels, Tyler said, “a duty to share.”
And now — after understanding in Libya how quickly life can end — he appreciates it in a way he did not before.
“Your lives will change soon,” Tyler told the BU graduates, who majored in film and television, journalism and mass communications. Each will have thousands of different, unique experiences.
He urged them to put aside their apprehensions about money or security. The key to a successful life, he said, is to be so passionate about something that they accept risks as a by-product of what they do.
The tools the graduates use in this new world are up to them, Tyler concluded. But all of them should “be brave. And take chances.”
Tyler Hicks certainly has taken chances. The result is a successful, challenging, productive life.
And countless images that challenge us, make us think, and help change the world.
(For Boston University’s coverage of the event — and a slideshow of Tyler Hicks’ photos — click here.)