During a boisterous, heartfelt, and often funny speech, producer, director, and writer Greg Berlanti (C94) addressed the School of Communication’s 2019 graduates during a historic convocation in the Welsh-Ryan Arena at Northwestern University on June 22.
For the first time in recent memory, the Theatre, Radio/Television/Film, Performance Studies, Communication Studies, and Communication Sciences and Disorders students shared a joint convocation rather than being split into two smaller back-to-back ceremonies.
“You may not all realize how special this particular convocation is going to be,” said School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe during her opening remarks. “This is the first ceremony we’ve been able to have as a whole school together for many, many decades. And that is something inspiring to me and the faculty. When I arrived here in 2000… there were barriers all over the school that were frustrating… and now, we’ve fixed it. So for me and the faculty, to see our graduates finally come together as one unified class is a symbol of our commitment to each other and to something we’ve worked to achieve together.”
Berlanti, who was introduced by graduating senior Maya Armstrong, spoke about his time at Northwestern, his successes and failures, and what he hopes the newest class of School of Communication graduates will take away from their time as Wildcats. Berlanti began his television career working on Dawson’s Creek and now produces a record eighteen television shows, including God Friended Me, Riverdale, Supergirl, Black Lighting, You, and many others. He directed the hit 2018 film Love, Simon, which was the first big studio film about a gay teen romance.
“Class of 2019, look at what you did. Look at the moment you’ve created for yourselves and each other,” he told the students. “After years of study and hard work… and your own inner resolve that you may not have even known you had… you have achieved this moment. One of your greatest triumphs, a date that you will remember forever, with one exception, if you’re like me, you definitely won’t remember your convocation speaker.”
Berlanti joked that when he was a senior, he almost didn’t graduate.
“Not because of my GPA. I had good grades. I just had them all in the (Weinberg College) of Arts and Sciences… The good news was the dean then acquainted me with my new major: interdepartmental studies. This is a major that no longer exists and I’m not sure it ever did.”
Berlanti went on to tell the graduating class that he’d like to give them wishes for their lives, the same wishes that he had for his own kids.
“I wish for you to cherish your family today,” he said. “Your parents are your biggest fans and sometimes detractors. But it’s built into the gig because they know the truth about you… and love you more because of it. Life doesn’t give you too many of those people.”
Berlanti talked about his own mom who encouraged him to follow his dreams—even when those dreams were try to become the next Jim Henson by putting on puppet shows in the neighborhood, a gig that he joked put him in “social Siberia” in high school.
“These are the reasons my generation is so glad social media wasn’t around in our day or I’d still be #weirdpuppetguy,” he kidded.
He continued: “Your calling is when you line up what your gift is with what you give back to the world…And if you don’t find the calling the second you graduate or five years or ten years after, or you do find it and it changes, or you find it and you fail at it, don’t give up. Do you know how old you’ll be in 25 years? You’ll be the age I am now…. No matter what, you’ll keep getting older. Ask your parents about it. It’s horrible. So you might as well spend that time looking for and doing things that make life matter.”
Berlanti also wished the students both success and failure, and the good friendships that can see them through both. He talked about a friend of his in Hollywood, with whom he made a pact: anytime one of their projects failed, the other would pay for a nice dinner out. During a particularly rough patch, where Berlanti had several projects fail in short order, his friend called and said, “Please, stop failing. I can’t afford it.”
“Only a great friend can make you laugh that hard when times are darkest,” he said.
The last thing he wished graduates was love. Berlanti, now happily married and the father of two kids, talked about the difficult time in college before he’d come out as gay. He said his professor David Downs gave him sage advice.
“He said sweetly, ‘I think there are two Greg Berlantis. And at one point, there’s only going to be one of you. But you should know that everyone who loves you is rooting for the one of you that will be happier,’” Berlanti said. “It was the last lesson I got at school, but the one I most needed to learn.”
Berlanti told the students that he didn’t wish them loss, but that it would come anyway. “These will be the saddest parts of your story. But they’re only part of it,” he said.
He ended his remarks by reminding students about what’s most meaningful.
“I wish you a family, friends, a calling, and love. And I wish you nurture each of those things with gratitude, compassion, kindness and joy and hope,” he said. “If you guys have those things, you’ll have everything.”
After his remarks, the students and audience gave him a rousing standing ovation.
By Cara Lockwood