The Commencement Speech Roxana Saberi Could Not Deliver

On May 11, Roxana Saberi will be spending her 100th day in prison in Iran. She was supposed to be the commencement speaker at her undergraduate alma mater, Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. I was asked to stand in for her. I delivered the below speech on May 3. — Margo Melnicove

Dear Roxana,

I’m looking out at the bright, beaming faces of the class of 2009. They’re surrounded by their proud families and friends, and Concordia’s faculty and staff.

How we wish that our prayers and love reach you in your cell in Tehran, and that they give you hope and strength.

How we wish you were here.

I’ve been thinking about how we met.

It was 2001. I had selected you to participate in National Public Radio’s Diversity Initiative. I was so impressed by your application. In fact, it was an editor’s dream-come-true. There was not a single typo, misspelled word or grammatical error.

Now Roxana, I’m trying to channel you so I can figure out what you’d say to the graduates if you were here. And I think I’ve already hit upon your first piece of advice: Don’t count on Spell Checker to catch all errors. Proofread whatever you write very, very carefully.

But, Roxana, it wasn’t just the style of your application that got me. I was also impressed by the substance. At the time, you were working as a cub reporter at KVLY-TV in Fargo, and enjoying your first real job in broadcast journalism. But you were itching to see the world and cover international news. You were also eager to learn the public radio way of storytelling, because you wanted to dig deeper into the issues of the day.

The Diversity Initiative kicked off with a week-long seminar at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. It started on September 10, 2001. We all know what happened on September 11th. You were pressed into duty by your station back home, and spent much of the rest of the week filing breaking news stories. You did live shots from the Pentagon and the halls of Congress. You interviewed senators and generals and ordinary, grief-stricken Americans. I remember you were nervous, and afraid you weren’t up to the task. But you forged ahead and did it anyway, and very well, I might add.

I can hear you now, giving the graduates this advice: Don’t be afraid to try something you’ve never done before. You can do it. You have what it takes!

As part of the Diversity Initiative, I had the pleasure of serving as your mentor for several months after the seminar ended. Remember those long talks we had about what you wanted to do with the rest of your life? I hope you don’t mind if I share this with everyone … it’s from something you wrote back then, which I happened to save. I had asked you to spell out your goals as a broadcast journalist, and you wrote:

“Think less about my image, and more about the value of my story. Read more, especially with different perspectives. Discuss issues with a variety of people. Try to empathize. Tell myself to be less self-involved!”

No wonder you were determined to become a foreign correspondent. What you have been all about … since well before I met you … is this drive to deepen your knowledge of other people, other countries, other cultures. Not just for your own benefit. No, you want to share this knowledge with a broad audience. Because your ultimate goal is to enable cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect among all kinds of people.

Now, I have a confession. I never told you this, but before we met, I felt a little intimidated. I mean, I had never known a beauty queen before, and my head was full of stereotypes about such people. I expected you to be stuck up, full of yourself, terribly vain, and a bit of a bimbo.

Boy, was I wrong. Not only are you smart, I mean really smart, but you are unpretentious, modest about your considerable gifts and accomplishments, and so grounded.

Advice from Roxana Saberi’s work as a journalist:

  • Don’t count on Spell Checker to catch all errors.
  • Don’t be afraid to try something you’ve never done before.
  • Do not take our free speech, free press and other First Amendment freedoms for granted.
  • There you were, a former Miss North Dakota, a top-ten finalist in the Miss America pageant, and I believe well on your way to becoming a network news star. Fame and fortune were within your reach.

    But neither was important to you. You craved something more meaningful. You had your sights set on broad horizons. You were also looking deep within. You wanted to understand and experience your heritage, the Japanese part from your mom and the Iranian part from your dad. Eventually Iran won out, because of its prominence in the news. You started to learn Farsi, and applied for an Iranian passport, though you had no idea how you’d support yourself if you went there.

    I introduced you to Simon Marks, the head of Feature Story News. That same day, he offered you a job. In February 2003, at the ripe old age of 25, you arrived in the Iranian capital and quickly established a one-woman news bureau there. This is not easy to do. The logistics alone are a nightmare. And doing this in a country where women don’t usually do such things…

    But there you were, fully accredited by the Iranian government, and equipped with a small video camera and laptop computer. You started sending a stream of broadcast news reports that were supplied to networks in the U.S., Europe, Asia and Africa.

    Talk about being brave and resourceful! Talk about following your dream!

    The thing is, Roxana, I know if you were here, you’d tell the graduates that yes, it was scary and difficult and very lonely at times, but with determination and hard, hard work, they can overcome obstacles and do great things, just as you have done.

    We’re colleagues now, Roxana, and friends thanks to you and your genuine interest in people. Even when I was your mentor, you were as interested in me as I was in you.

    A few years ago when your press card was revoked, I asked if you would be coming home. You said no, you loved Iran, and you wanted to finish your book and your studies at the university. “I’m going to stay,” you said. “I still have so much to learn.”

    I could go on and on about what I’ve learned from you, Roxana, and how you continue to inspire me. But like any good journalist — and I know you’ll appreciate this — I interviewed several people to get their take on you.

    Let’s begin right here, at Concordia. I’m sure you remember Kristi Rendahl, like you a piano scholar and a member of the class of 1997.

    Kristi reminded me that when you were a student at Concordia, you played soccer, reported on the campus radio station, and excelled academically. I’ll say. You had a GPA of 3.97, majored in communication studies and French, completed your degree in three years, and graduated summa cum laude and with Credo Honors.

    Kristi says that you embody what a liberal arts education is all about, and you embody the mission of the college.

    (OK, let’s have it…”The purpose of Concordia College is to influence the affairs of the world by sending into society thoughtful and informed men and women dedicated to the Christian life.”)

    Roxana, did you hear that? I’d been told that a surprisingly high number of students know the mission by heart, and they really do.

    Here’s something else. Your piano professor, Jay Hershberger (Jay, where are you?) sums up what he has learned from you in one word: tenacity.

    He says if he gave you something really challenging, you would see it through to the end.

    Rachmaninoff’s G-Minor Prelude is a case in point. Word on the street is that when you got to the really tough spots, you tended to stiffen up. But you worked and worked and sweated through it until you mastered the piece. And by all accounts, you played it beautifully when you competed for Miss North Dakota and then for Miss America.

    (Speaking of over-achievers and Miss North Dakotas, communications professor Stephanie Ahlfeldt was Miss North Dakota the year before Roxana. In fact, she put the crown on Roxana’s head in 1997. Stephanie, where are you?)

    Now Roxana, Stephanie, your friend and Miss North Dakota predecessor, says you’ll probably laugh at this one. But when she thinks of you, she thinks of poise and grace, even though it took her hours to teach you how to walk right in high heels.

    Oh, and you won’t believe this. Now people are wearing “Free Roxana” T-shirts and ribbons. I pray these will quickly fall out of fashion because, hopefully, you will be released from prison soon.

    I also interviewed Jack Doppelt, a professor at Northwestern’s Medill Graduate School of Journalism where you got your first of two master’s degrees. He says that by example, you teach the importance of giving back. Like how you jump at the chance to share your experiences with journalism students and others who are just starting out. Jack says now it’s time to give back to you.

    He urges everyone to go to freeroxana.net. I bet you don’t know this, Roxana, but at freeroxana-dot-net, anyone can sign up to fast for a day, so you can quit your fast and regain your strength. The Free Roxana Hunger Strike begins today, World Press Freedom Day, and will continue for 12 days.

    This brings me to lessons that professor Catherine McMullen has been teaching to her journalism students here at Concordia. (Catherine, where are you?)

    Catherine taught you well, Roxana, when you took her news reporting class back in ’96. And now you’re teaching her current students an invaluable lesson: Do not take our free speech, free press and other First Amendment freedoms for granted.

    Catherine helped organize yesterday’s vigil on the bridge between Fargo and Moorhead. About 200 of your supporters were there, Roxana, plus the governor, your congressman, and Fargo’s mayor who fought the river, all saying, “Let Roxana and her parents come home to Fargo.”

    One of Catherine’s students, Marissa Paulson, has posted photos of the vigil on her Facebook page. (I think Marissa helped marshal in the faculty today, which someone said is a bit like herding cats. Marissa, where are you?) Marissa was among many journalism students who staffed a Free Roxana information booth in the atrium of the Student Center the other day. And members of the Student Government Association have been busy tying yellow ribbons around trees and lamp-posts all over campus. I heard that your parents’ neighbors started the yellow ribbon tribute, and now they’re cropping up everywhere.

    How about if everyone who has done something to support Roxana gives a wave, so she can see you.
    Roxana, there’s one more person who wants to thank you for the lessons you’ve taught him, your big brother, Jasper.

    (Don’t panic, he didn’t say anything bad about you — well, he did mention that you’re stubborn, but I don’t think he meant it in a bad way.)

    Jasper says he’s grateful for your ability to listen well, and to be able to speak soul to soul. (I love that.) He also says you had faith in him when he lost faith in himself, that when he was weak you were strong and kind. Here’s how he put it: “Sister, you helped me to believe in myself.”

    I think I’m over my time limit, Roxana, so I better wrap this up. But before I go, I want to do a quick review, because there will be a quiz at the end. (Just kidding.)

    Here you go, lessons learned from a Concordia grad by the name of Roxana Saberi:

    • Live fully. Make the most of your gifts and talents.
    • Pursue excellence. Practice may never make you perfect, but if you work hard at something, you can come close.
    • Listen to others with an open mind, heart and soul.
    • Honor your teachers and seek out their friendship.
    • Be true to yourself.
    • Be generous.
    • Keep learning.
    • Have courage.
    • Do it all with poise and grace, but don’t take yourself too seriously. You can be confident, yet humble. You can learn to walk in high heels, though you’re still a klutz.

    Roxana, I know you join me in wishing the class of 2009 good luck, good health and a great future.

    Margo Melnicove is a freelance journalist based in Boston and a lecturer in the journalism program at Brandeis University.

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