A 1996 VCU graduate, actor Boris Kodjoe returned to his alma mater on May 12 to deliver a commencement address the class of 2018:
"Good morning. Thank you so much. I am extremely honored and excited to be standing here before you all today. I'd like to thank President Rao and the VCU faculty, and congratulate my fellow honorees. But most importantly, I would like to say: Congratulations, VCU class of 2018! Well done.
Speaking to you here today is a moment I will cherish forever. But when I first got the call to come here today I thought they had made a mistake. I thought, 'Don't they know that I just graduated from there? Did they forget that we just won our last Conference Tournament Championship with the tennis team? I just packed my two suitcases, left my apartment at 1620 Monument Ave, and moved to New York. But then I realized that I had blinked and 22 years had passed! I do appreciate your collective gasps of bewilderment as you frantically try to do the math in your heads. And yes, it is shocking. But I am 34 years old. Thank you.
But we are celebrating you today. And while you are most deserving of all the accolades today, we should also salute a few other people in attendance. They are the people who tried not to cry when they dropped you off here four years ago. The people who allowed you to only use their credit card number for school supplies and food, but then you "accidentally" put a bunch of Amazon charges on their card. The people who worked three jobs so you would get a biology degree and later go to medical school, then you decided to change your major to Interpretive Arts without telling them! You know who they are. They need no introduction, but they do need your acknowledgement. If you would please look in the direction of those people and repeat after me: "I am beyond happy and grateful that I have you in my life/ that you have supported and always believed in me/ I am sorry that I spent all your money/ I promise that I will use my degree/ I promise that I will not become an Instagram model/ and I promise to only move back in with you until my start-up gets funded/ I love you and I appreciate you."
Now give them a hand of appreciation.
I remember this moment very vividly. Wearing my cap and gown, my family watching from the stands. Standing amongst my fellow graduates 22 years ago made me think back to that boy who grew up in Germany. That boy who was raised by a single white German mother who took classes during the day and worked night shifts in the hospital to support her children. That boy who was teased by other kids every single day because he was different. Just the mere thought of one day walking on the campus of this very University, graduating with a degree in Business, or eventually making a career as an actor, a producer and an entrepreneur, would have been completely ridiculous and absolutely unrealistic.
My parents had divorced when I was 5 years old, and I subconsciously chose Tennis as a means of dealing with my disappointment and anger. It is known that children of divorced parents either internalize or externalize that post-traumatic stress. Well, I 'externalized' a lot of yellow fuzzy balls against the side of our neighbors house, one after the other, harder and harder, all day every day, come rain or shine. The hitting of the Tennis balls helped me release some of the frustration that I had built up inside, gave me a feeling of normalcy, a sense of security that I was yearning for. The rhythmic sound of the ball hitting the cement drowned out
some of the chatter that was circulating in my head. All I needed was to hit one more ball, just one more, and the thoughts would finally subside. So I kept at it in hopes of some kind of relief. I learned about resilience at that wall, I learned about patience, discipline and to never give up. And I also learned that it takes about three full days to paint one side of your neighbor's house, which is what my mother made me do all by myself, because our neighbor had complained about the thousands of ball marks printed across his wall.
But most importantly, Tennis gave me confidence. And I'm not speaking of confidence as in 'I'm the greatest and I can do anything'. I didn't acquire that version until decades later. No, back then the confidence I felt was a very basic level of comfort that gave me the ability to just barely consider the possibility, that a tall skinny Afro-German boy, who could hit a tennis ball better than most grown men, but who was told daily by other children in school and on the playground that he looked weird, had ugly hair, and must never be touched because "Deine schwarze Haut ist ansteckend" his blackness could be contagious, that a boy like me, would eventually, hopefully, find his place in this world, without feeling the need to apologize for being there. That meant literally reminding myself every day of my right to be who I wanted to be. Armed with that somewhat reluctant confidence, I excelled as a Tennis player, climbed up the international rankings, and played all the major junior tournaments in Europe. Life was good, and despite puberty and a very cool high top fade I survived my teenage years with a certain degree of dignity.
But at 17 years old my aspirations of being a professional Tennis player were brought to an abrupt halt when I was diagnosed with a rare spinal deficiency. I was one of the top juniors in the world and a doctor had the audacity to tell me that, even if I dedicated myself to a strict regimen of medical treatments and nutritional changes, reaching my goals would be an impossibility. I was devastated. I had worked so hard and sacrificed so much. There were days I would leave for school at 6 in the morning, ride a train for 90 minutes after school to get to practice, train for three hours, then do homework on the train ride back and get to bed at midnight. On weekends I would work at the local courts, make sandwiches for people, string their racquets, and clean the locker rooms. I didn't drink, didn't go to parties. This was my plan. My destiny. I thought I was a failure, and that I had disappointed everyone who believed in me. Truth is, more than being frustrated, I was afraid of the future. My plan had been destroyed and I was scared to make a new one. That's when my phone rang.
The call came from Paul Kostin, head coach of the VCU Tennis team, asking me to consider coming to Richmond to study on an athletic scholarship. Now, coming to America on my own, to a strange culture, to people I didn't know, was quite a scary proposition for a teenager from Germany. All I knew about America were the two Michaels, Jackson and Jordan. I didn't speak English very well and Richmond, Virginia was a long way from home. I was afraid that I'd go all the way over there just to find out that it was too hard. Certainly I'd fail again. I should just stay at home where I was comfortable, where I had my friends and family, and live my life.
But I did it. I accepted the scholarship. The amazing welcome I received from Coach Kostin and VCU upon my arrival here in Richmond cannot be over-stated. Paul Kostin is a man who is committed to developing successful human beings rather than just great athletes, and he helped me manage my time on the court to avoid further injury to my back, as well as made sure I excelled in the class room. It's because of him that I ended up with a 4-year college degree and formed life-long relationships with people who I'm blessed to call my second family. Thank you Coach.
After I had graduated from VCU with a BA in marketing I visited New York. That's when my story turned into a bit from a Zoolander sequel. I was discovered by an agent form the Ford modeling agency, spent the next few years traveling the world getting paid for the same reason I had been bullied ten years earlier, because I looked different. And I kept failing, over and over
again. I was too big to fit the clothes, too dark to do catalogues, too light to do the edgy editorial campaigns. I couldn't do commercials because I looked like a basketball player but sounded like Arnold. I even lost a job once because the client found out I was from Germany. I was effectively being discriminated against for being German after spending most of my life being discriminated against for not being German enough. But I kept at it, just like back at my neighbor's wall, harder and harder, come rain or shine, all day every day.
Then, in 2000, I was 28 years old, I was asked to audition for a television show that was shooting in Toronto, Canada. I had been in acting class because I had heard that I could get rid of my German accent by learning breathing techniques they taught in acting school. I was very self-conscious about the way I spoke, and I was sure I'd embarrass myself in front of all these people because they expected me to sound like Denzel, not like a German soldier. But I did it, and I was blessed to get the role on a program called 'Soul Food' - the Series. On the show I met the amazingly talented and beautiful actress/goddess Nicole Ari Parker, who eventually became my wife and blessed me with two amazing children, Sophie and Nico. Thank you, Babe.
These stories have one important element in common. A turning point. A moment that might have seemed ordinary at the time, but gained in significance after it had passed because of a single choice I made. Because that choice produced a chain of events that lead me all the way to speaking to you here today. Arguably, I did make the right choice back then. But what would have happened if I had made a different one? If I had made the choice to stay in Germany, I wouldn't have come to VCU, I wouldn't have gotten a degree, I wouldn't have gone to New York after graduation only to be discovered by Rita from the Ford agency, I wouldn't have been in fashion shows and designer campaigns all over the world, I wouldn't have gone to acting class to get rid of my sexy German accent. I wouldn't have auditioned for Soul Food or gotten the part. I wouldn't have met my amazingly beautiful actress/goddess - wife Nicole, and we wouldn't have gotten married and created these incredible two kids that are sitting right over there. In other words, Sophie and Nicolas wouldn't exist right now if it weren't for VCU.
Now, some of you might want to argue about the notion of destiny being void of consequence, meaning Sophie and Nico, through some kind of greater ethereal truth of the universe, would still be here today even if I had chosen to stay in Germany. To you say: You are missing the point entirely.
The point of the story is that the element of 'turning point' in my life triggered the before mentioned chain of events because I faced my fear of failure and stepped out on faith.
Fear of failure is that constant presence in our lives. That little cloud that follows us around and rains on us when we least need it, usually right before a test, an important job interview, or on a date with a person that's way out of our league. It's that habit that is formed during early childhood development, initiated by our parents' intuitive drive to keep us safe. 'Be careful, watch out, no, no, no, no, no' And so we develop the fear of falling off our bike, the fear of not making the team, the fear of being different, too big, too small, too dark, too light, too German, not enough German, the fear of embarrassment, humiliation, of not measuring up and eventually coming up short even if we try, which is the most common deterrent from success. I had to deal with those fears back then and I still do today.
Yes, I know the fear of failure is real.
You are living in a time of great technological advances. Most of you will probably at some point use technology that hasn't been invented yet to find a solution to a problem that we have yet to discover. When I was here at VCU in the 90s, I didn't use a lap top and I only went to the computer lab to type essays, save them on a floppy disc, and print them out. When my
teammate logged into his personal computer to book my flight, and printed out my boarding pass right there in his room, I was convinced he worked for the Pentagon. You, my dear millenials, are forced to deal with cyber attacks and daily viral clutter, you are assaulted with impressions and notifications day in and day out, you're being DM'd, pinged, tweeted, tagged, texted, and you can't get away. In your real life, you are stuck with student debt for the next two decades. You are told you're too entitled to have ambition, too spoiled to appreciate, too lazy to work hard, too desensitized to know passion. Then you are told to follow your passion because money will come. Meanwhile all over your Instagram feed are 22-year olds who didn't go to VCU but are making millions traveling to exotic places and tagging their outfits for a living. #YOLO
The fear of failure is real!
But that's where faith comes in. And it doesn't matter wether you believe in Jesus Christ, Allah, Buddha, Shiva, HaShem, Krishna, or any other source of strength and love. What matters is that you use that very source to find the courage to turn failure from a fear into a friend. Winston Churchill said: "Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts". Dear class of 2018, I implore you, you must give yourself permission to fail in order to experience the privilege of success. There's no success without failure because there's no triumph without adversity, no diploma without a lesson learned. Have faith that when you fall and get up again, you will win. Say: I WILL WIN!
And have faith that whenever you fall, we all will be there to help you get up, and help you win. Turn to your neighbor and say: I WILL HELP YOU WIN.
Because like your neighbors, your friends, your family, your village, we the people are there to uplift and empower one another. That's humanity, another important aspect responsible for the turning points in my story. A coach, who saw more than an athlete and decided to empower me so I could entertain the many possibilities of my journey ahead. An agent, who selflessly guided me along so I could take advantage of opportunities, fall down, get up again, learn from my mistakes, and make the right decisions for my future. A beautiful woman who took me by the hand and showed me love and happiness that I had never experienced before. Two children who made me the father I am and gave me my true purpose in life.
Humanity is support of a stranger, not the judgment of his customs or his speech. Humanity is refuge of a displaced, not the passing of laws disallowing him safety and peace. Humanity is kindness when not required, not the ridiculing of the less fortunate. Humanity is empathy without expectation, not ignorance and cruelty. Humanity is tolerance, generosity, compassion. Humanity is love for all of us.
In a world where there's so much emphasis placed on data, scalability, algorithms, shares, ROI's and cpm's, we tend to forget to connect, to look at each other, to shake hands, to hug, to compliment, to praise, to create together, to celebrate each other. That's the importance of humanity. Because it's all too much. The country is divided, the president is confused, the DOW is up and down, Black lives matter, Me too, DACA, Syria, TimesUp, guns for teachers in school! Kanye! I can't breathe! Hands up, don't shoot! Wait a minute! Stop!
Where is humanity?
I say, it's right here amongst you, ladies and gentlemen. You have been blessed with an education that has ensured your academic development and your social awareness, an education that has given you knowledge and ignited your curiosity of the world and all of its people beyond these grounds, an education that has nurtured your confidence, fortified your integrity and expanded your socially conscious mind. I truly admire you, because you have met the divisiveness that has been festering amongst us and built bridges using language of empathy. You were outspoken in Charlottesville, enraged and engaged in Parkland, you marched and protested in DC, you are determined in the redefining of our core values and vicious in the resurrecting of our moral compass. You understand that just because it's legal doesn't mean it's right. But mostly, you proudly defend the unity, equality, and the freedom of the entire human race in all of its diversity because that's what makes us good. Dearest class of 2018, I am filled with hope and tremendous pride as I look into the future with you, our leaders, showing us the way.
God bless you all