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Commencement Speaker Blair Underwood Shares Advice, Inspiration for AIU Students

Image: Blair Underwood AIU graduation speaker

AIU is proud to welcome humanitarian and actor Blair Underwood as the guest speaker for our 2015 AIU Online commencement ceremony at Navy Pier in Chicago. Ahead of the ceremony, we spoke to Blair about the deeper value of earning a degree, the drive to stay focused on your goals, and how AIU graduates can take the next step forward and translate their education into success.

AIU: You chose to pursue a career in a field that many might say is a longshot, out of reach for most, a challenging goal to achieve. What spurred you to keep pushing toward reaching your goal? What advice would you give to students who sometimes feel they, too, are working toward success against the odds?

Blair Underwood: The simple answer is I needed to. I had no choice; it’s who I am as a creative person, as a storyteller. It’s a passion and an idea that was implanted in my head as a child simply by watching children my age in TV and in movies and thinking, “That looks like fun. I’d like to do that.”

As time went on and I started learning about plays and the work and the craft and the artistry of creating plays – I was initially in the theater first – and creating characters, and I was bitten by the bug. I felt as if I didn’t have a choice and that I had to pursue this, and thank God I had supportive parents who believed in me. It was very important not only because I wanted and needed to do it, but I had the support system.

Sometimes you do have to go against the odds of an industry and the reality of the odds that you’ll be successful in that industry. Sometimes you have to go against the wishes and odds of your personal support system, your parents, family and friends. I had a number of friends in the arts, actors who were older than I was, who – and I don’t think there was any mal-intent, and they didn’t mean to discourage me – but they were speaking their truth and their reality, saying, “ I tried this industry and it’s very difficult.” And I can’t tell you how many times I heard the statistic that only 2 to 3 percent of actors actually make a living as actors. This is a real statistic based on Screen Actors Guild data. I said I hear you, but I have to do it.

AIU: Is earning a college degree, to you, about more than the diploma? What does it mean?

BU: My father is a retired Army colonel of 27 years, very accomplished very respected in his field. My mother is a homemaker and fashion designer and a brilliant woman, but I know from her it was something she wished she had done, earned a college degree. It’s been in her psyche all of these years. It can affect your self-esteem.

Confidence comes with accomplishments, and when you accomplish something like a college degree, it just makes you stand taller. It makes you walk prouder, and sometimes those are the intangible elements you need when you walk into a job interview – or when you have a job and you’re a leader and you have to perform. It’s important just to have confidence, and when you your diploma, it gives you that. It makes a difference internally and outwardly in how people perceive you.

AIU: Earning that degree is just the beginning for our graduates. How would you advise them on how to transform their education into success in their field?

BU: A buddy of mine always uses the phrase, “You’ve got to network for the net worth.” My mother would say, “Check the fruit on the tree.” In other words, seek out mentors. Seek out people in your field who are doing what you aspire to do and who are successful at it. Those are the people you seek out, and you ask questions and you learn from them.

It’s astounding how many people love to share that information, because it makes them feel good. I have an insatiable curiosity, and I find that people are often willing to share and teach their expertise. In a nutshell, that is one of the very important ingredients to success: seeking mentors.

AIU: Given that you're a well-known actor who’s worked in the industry for 30 years, I would venture to say that how others measure your success might be different from how you would measure it. How do you measure your success, and how would you advise our graduates to measure theirs?

BU: That’s a big part of my address to the graduates. I measure success by doing what you enjoy, doing what brings you joy. J-O-Y. What brings you happiness; what do you love to do. It can be as simple as that. For some people there is the financial component, can I support myself, can I make money, and that’s important, but even then if you’re making money and unhappy, is that success? So that’s No. 1: Are you happy in what you’re doing; sincerely happy? And No. 2, are you giving back to others, are you of service to others?

AIU: What are you most looking forward to about participating in AIU’s 2015 Commencement?

BU: I’m intrigued by the whole online nature of AIU. I’ve done a number of commencement addresses, including [my alma mater] Carnegie Mellon, and that was mind blowing, but this is new to me. It’s a different environment, different students. A lot are adults who are coming back to school, not those who came right out of high school and went to college and 4 years later are graduating. It’s a different conversation. It’s so gratifying and so fulfilling, and it absolutely inspires me. I always come away greatly lifted and encouraged and inspired by the graduates.

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