This Saturday, actress and singer Tatyana Ali, best known for her role as Ashley Banks on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” will deliver commencement address at AIU's graduation ceremony in Chicago.
AIU selected Ali for her commitment to education and providing young people with leadership opportunities. We asked Tatyana eight questions about her experiences with higher education and the impact her own degree has had on her life and career.
The first time we spoke, you said that education is the most important tool in creating the life that you want for yourself. Why do you believe that?
I believe that for a couple reasons. I think understanding that has a lot to do with my upbringing and where I come from. My parents are immigrants, and they came here because of education, because they wanted an education for themselves and for their future children. And I think a lot of immigrants have that experience. I’ve met many who have said the same thing. That’s a big part of the American dream: the ability to learn anything that you feel the passion or the drive to learn, because it really is the great equalizer.
President Obama talks about that all the time. It’s the one thing that no matter where you come from, it’s the thing that puts you on par with people who’ve been in this country for generations, who come from a completely different socioeconomic place. You can come out of college and suddenly compete at a totally different level than anyone in previous generations in your family.
You received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 2002, which you earned after you had already experienced considerable career success. What did the degree do for you? Has it impacted your career?
It’s impacted it greatly. I control my own destiny, which is something that is sometimes very difficult in the entertainment field, especially for actors. You spend a lot of time looking for employment and auditioning and waiting to be brought into the circle or waiting to get hired. I got out of school and it took a year or two to really find my legs and find my power, but I produce content now. I create jobs for myself and I have also created jobs for other people.
That’s something that is absolutely grounded in what I learned in school, even though I studied political science. It also affects all the choices I make as an entertainer and as somebody in the media. I know what stories mean, I know that stories matter in a way that I didn’t really understand when I was younger, before I went to college.
You’ve said that after earning your degree, you experienced a difference when you went into meetings with producers or directors or others related to your career. Can you talk about that difference?
It happens even still, so I know it’s not a matter of age. The conversation changes when I tell them about my college background and I tell them where I went to school and what I studied. It goes often times from people talking to me to people talking with me and coming up with solutions to the problems they’re having. All of a sudden I become a partner rather than an employee. It’s not just about them respecting my opinion; it’s knowing that I’m not really sitting on the other side of the table, I’m at the table.
What is your advice to our students on how they can get their seat at the table?
They’ve had an incredible start with getting their degree, and not just the degree but all of the incredible knowledge they’ve learned in trying to get their degree. That’s everything from the communication and education they’ve had in dealing with their peers, the education they’ve gotten from navigating the educational system they’re in, and from the classes that they took. I think the next step is you still feel like you’re on the other side of the table when you go in for your first job interviews. There’s a period of digestion that ends up happening after you graduate where you really start to feel the shoes that you’re in. You got the shoes, you’re looking at them, they look amazing – that’s how you feel at graduation - and now it’s time to break them in and they’ll start feeling more and more comfortable in them the more they go out into world.
One of the themes of your recently released EP “Hello” is about rebirth, leaving the past behind, keeping an eye on the future, and that’s a theme a lot of our students can relate to. Why is it so important not to live in the past?
The past can inform us, it certainly can shape us, but it doesn’t decide who we are. It doesn’t determine who we are. A lot of the time we allow our past to define us too much. We allow what other people think of us - which is always based on our past history - to define us. The only person that really can define you is yourself, and that is ever changing. That’s always new.
When you look at people throughout history - businesspeople, philanthropists, humanitarians, scientists - that we really look up to and revere, they’re the people that are able to constantly reinvent themselves, the people that are able to adapt and renew, and that’s so necessary for where our economy is right now, it’s a really necessary quality to get a job and to stay employed in our job market, but in a spiritual sense it’s really important, too. You can literally be whatever you want to be, whatever you set your mind to at any point in your life, and I think what a lot of the graduates will find as they go on with their life is that this is just one phase, and maybe it’s the second or third, but there are so many more chapters, and for every chapter they will have to sit down and take stock of where they’ve been, what they’ve done and make some decisions about where they want to be.
Our students have incredibly full lives – many are balancing earning their degree with working full-time, raising families and other responsibilities. With your own full plate I’m sure you can relate. How do you de-stress? What do you do when you need to refresh but can’t really get away?
Personally, I think the people in your life are so important to life really being good and life really meaning something. When I distress, I either do one of two things. I turn my phone off and tell everyone I’m on vacation at home. Sometimes it lasts a day or two. But usually when I want to distress, I spend time with people I really love and I know really love me. Because the world is a place that makes you question a lot of things, can be frustrating, can be a struggle, but when you’re with your people, your family or your friends, you don’t have to do any of that. It’s the best way to recharge.
You’ve never been a commencement speaker before. What’s exciting to you about this opportunity to address AIU’s class of 2014?
I’m excited to meet them all. You go into any kind of speech and you plan something, but it’s not until you get there and really meet the people and see their faces that you actually have a scope of what it is you’re really doing. I have been to a lot of commencement speeches, and it’s such an important time not just for you but all of the people in your life, because going to school for a lot of us - I know it was for me - a lot of people sacrifice for you to get there, whether it’s helping you raise the money to go to school or supporting you through all the tension and stress while you’re in school. So it’s a great time not just for you but also for your family. People are so proud. I just feel really lucky to be a part of that day for so many families and groups of friends. There’s nothing like it. I remember my graduation day very well. It actually poured rain, which hadn’t happened at Harvard for like 75 years, so they were completely unprepared. But that made it even more special. Not even the pouring rain could dampen the way I felt and the way everybody there and their families felt. It’s such an accomplishment and achievement, and I really want to be able be part of that.
AIU students and graduates are looking to take that next step forward, to get ahead in life. What advice do you have for them on how to accomplish that?
The best way to get ahead in life is to look inward as much as you look outward. We all have an inner compass that tells us what direction to go to, an intuition that guides us. You hear people in business talk about it all the time. In any book on CEOs that I’ve read, the person writing the book talks about a feeling in your gut, this feeling inside that they follow.
As you go out into the world, I think you really have to develop that voice, sharpen it, so you can really hear it, and if you have that, then you’ll know exactly where to go and exactly what choices to make. And you’ll never go wrong, because no one’s path looks exactly the same. That’s one thing I’ve found. It might get you to the same place as someone else, but there are a million different ways to do it. So follow your inner voice. And the more you follow it and the more you listen, the louder it gets.