Aspiring dancer-turned-film executive Pamela Abdy ’95 was upfront with Emerson’s Class of 2023 about life after college. The lives and careers they end up with may look very different from what they envision today.
“But every experience, every detour, every difficulty you face on your journey will teach you something new about yourself and bring you one step closer to your true purpose,” Abdy told the 1,056 graduates seated in front of her at Boston University’s Agganis Arena on Sunday, May 14.
Abdy, co-chair and CEO of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, which encompasses Warner Bros. Pictures, New Line Cinema, DC-based films, and Warner Animation Group, received an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree just before delivering this year’s commencement address. (“If you had told me back in 1995, when I was sitting here listening to Henry Winkler, ‘Someday that will be you, Pam,’ I promise you I would not believe that!”)
Also receiving honorary degrees were award-winning journalist Meghan Irons ’90; Dulcia Meijers, Executive Director of Kasteel Well, Emerson’s European center; and Jeffrey Greenhawt ’68, Emerson Trustee and Vice President of Sunshine Wireless Company.
Abdy knows all about the twists and turns life can take. In high school, her dream was to become a professional dancer; if it weren’t for her mother pushing her to apply, she said, she wouldn’t have even gone to college.
When she toured Emerson and learned she’d be able to perform as a first-year student, she was sold, so she left New Jersey for Boston and started taking dance classes. Then, in her sophomore year, she broke her foot.
“It was a scary and it was a really overwhelming time for me, and I didn’t know what my future held,” she said. “I remember feeling really depressed and confused.”
As her foot healed, she began exploring other interests, including a long-held and deep love for movies. She never considered film as a career, Abdy told the graduates, because she thought that was the province of “glamorous” movie stars and “genius directors” like Steven Spielberg. Then she took a film class with Dave Roderick and learned about things like composition and design.
“It was choreography – storytelling using music and lights and movement. It all felt intuitive, like dance, but with a new exciting set of instruments.”
She did an internship with Jersey Films during a semester in Los Angeles, and launched a 30-year career overseeing development, production, and post-production for some of the biggest studios in Hollywood. She’s a member of the Producer’s Guild of America, serves as a Governor of the Executive Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and mentors other women in the business through the Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment Mentorship Program. She’s even found a way to keep dance in her life, serving on the board of the Los Angeles Dance Project.
Dreams are important, but don’t let them corner you, she said.
“Dreams are there to keep us striving, to keep pushing ourselves to our limits, but they don’t have to stay trapped in amber,” Abdy said. “Dreams are dynamic, they can change. As long as you pursue them with intention, passion, and without fear, you will find your way.”
Abdy left the graduates with some time-tested pieces of advice, among them: Be confident; be curious; get back up when you fall; make time for fun and laughter, friends and family; mentor others, listen to others, and return every phone call.
“Most of all, find your voice,” she said. “What do you want to say to the world? What mark do you want to leave on this world? How do you want to be remembered?”
Abdy told the graduates if there’s one thing they take away from her speech it’s this:
“You will never have as much future ahead of you as you do at this moment, so I urge you to step into it bravely and don’t ever doubt your own ability to do great things.”
Read: Class of 2023 Snapshot: School of Arts and Marlboro Institute
Read: Class of 2023 Snapshot: School of Communication
Honorary Degree Recipients
Irons, who spent more than 20 years at the Boston Globe in a number of roles, including social justice reporter and investigative journalist, thanked her family, many of whom were in attendance on Sunday, for their support over the years.
And she thanked her “Emerson family.”
“My Emerson experience has been my bedrock, the source of my journalistic strength. It’s the foundation upon which I’ve built my career,” Irons said.
Dulcia Meijers spoke about the need for society to value all types of labor equitably.
The art historian talked about the masons and laborers who built the Basilica of Saint-Denis, a Gothic church outside Paris, who complained that those who designed the church were better paid than those who actually built it. Intellectual labor was more highly regarded than manual labor.
“Dear graduates, you are the future, you are the society of tomorrow. But I believe we should make the gap between the liberal and the mechanical arts smaller, or else a degree of equity will never be reached,” Meijers said. “I trust your Emerson education may help you realize this.”
Former Trustee Chair Jeff Greenhawt thanked fellow trustees Al Jaffe and Vin DiBona, whom he met nearly 60 years ago on his first day as an Emerson student, as well as former President Jackie Liebergott, who encouraged him to take a more active role with his alma mater. He also thanked his family, including his wife, Emerson Board of Advisors member Jan Jacobs Greenhawt ’69.
“Besides being my great love, she has been my rock through my chairmanship,” Greenhawt said. “Being on the boards of Emerson for over 17 years, this is a wonderful honor and this day will be very special to me forever.”
‘One More Test’
Journalism major Wesley Days ’23 was the student speaker. In a speech that inspired several standing ovations, he told his classmates that they had one final test to complete.
“It’s not to be taken in Paramount, or Walker, Tufte, or even Ansin. It starts here and continues a lifetime. The only question is, ‘How can my creative footprint heal the world?’”
The Class of 2023 has everything they need to pass this test, Days went on.
“Your hard work, your skills, and absolute ability have prepared you for this moment and beyond… It is up to us to use those abilities for the greater good of the world,” he said.
His fellow graduates have endured “pandemic, politics, a hell of a lot of pressure,” in their four years at Emerson.
“But don’t forget something our future costume designers already know: Every stitch and every fabric that is sewn within you matters and completes the full tapestry and art that is each and every one of you,” he said. “Your identity, your art, and your soul truly matter.”
Interim President Bill Gilligan, in his final commencement address, noted that he too was “graduating,” after four decades at Emerson, as a professor, an administrator, and interim president.
“Much can happen in 40 years,” Gilligan said.
“But what has remained the same is that indomitable Emerson spirit – that mix of creativity, tenacity, independence, and commitment to social justice,” he said. “Members of the Class of 2023, I have long been inspired by your individual and collective focus and passion, and by your commitment and desire to make this world a better, kinder, more equitable place,” he said.
“Having seen all that you are capable of, what you have accomplished to date, and having been born and raised right here in Boston … I can authoritatively and authentically refer to you as ‘wicked smaht.”
2023 Teaching Awards
The Helaine and Stanley Miller Award for Outstanding Teaching: Amer Latif, Associate Professor, Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies
The Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching: Michael Bent ’85, senior affiliated faculty member, Writing, Literature and Publishing and Center for Comedic Arts
Alumni Award for Teaching: Brenna McCormick, MA ’07, Senior Executive-in-Residence, Marketing Communication; Director, Business of Creative Enterprises; Graduate Program Director, Strategic Marketing Communication
Conferring of Emeritus Status
Elizabeth Baeten, Former Associate Professor, Marlboro Institute; William Donoghue, Professor, Writing, Literature and Publishing; Donald Fry, Former Associate Professor, Visual and Media Arts; Mark Leccese, Associate Professor, Journalism
Dean’s Award: Evonne Johnson ‘23
President’s Citation: Pranit Chand ‘23