Differences don’t divide us. What divides us is our inability to accept that we are different.

This is the commencement address that GJR Editor Jackie Spinner delivered at the graduation ceremony for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts on May 8. Spinner received an honorary doctorate in media arts.

Thank you.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Eid Mubarak all of you who are celebrating next week.

And congratulations to everyone of you who walked, crawled, ran, rode or were carried to this point. Whether you are here or joining us virtually. It’s an amazing achievement even under typical circumstances. 

These are still far from normal times.

I want to challenge you as you depart on the next part of your journey to take a moment to consider the world “normal.”

In my house, I’ve pretty much banned it. I have three small children who were born in Africa. They are now Black in America. My oldest son is autistic. We don’t look like most of our neighbors. It’s not just the fact that we are a transracial family. Or that my kids came to America as immigrants. I am a single mother and most of the families on our block have two parents. 

I’m not the only filmmaker but I am the only journalist. I’m the only one who has been to war and so much of my experience even now is shaped by the time I spent in Iraq and Afghanistan for The Washington Post. 

What is normal for us? 

GJR Editor Jackie Spinner receives an honorary doctorate in media arts on May 8 at SIUC commencement. She is being hooded by Provost Meera Komarraju. Chancellor Austin A. Lane stands behind the podium. (Photo by William H. Freivogel)

It’s probably not the same for you. In fact, if you look to the person to your left and the person to your right, you may see differences or you may not. Your journey to this point is shaped by where you grew up, how much money you had, the color of your skin, your age, your gender. All of those things have made our experiences difference even if we are now roommates or live on the same street. 

I think about the neighborhood where I grew up in central Illinois, the kids on the block there. I babysat for a Jewish family. But most of the families went to church on Sunday. The neighbors who lived next door to us were Black. But most everyone else was white. We had mostly two-parent households but not always. We had teachers and Union workers like my dad. We had accountants. We had neighbors who sold insurance and bought insurance or couldn’t’ afford insurance. A few of my neighbors had disabilities, some more visible than others. We had neighbors with mental health issues and physical health issues. We had neighbors who were born in America and neighbors who were born in other countries. 

You might be asking yourself? Why are you focusing on all of their differences? 

These differences are important because they not only inform who we are but they also inform the work we do. They will inform the relationships you will have at your first jobs after graduation. Your business partnerships. Your network.

Our differences are not what divide us. What divides us is our inability to accept that we are different. What divides us is our refusal to listen to a different viewpoint.

My challenge then is for you to suspend this idea of “normal.” Maybe you ban it from your own vocabulary.

Start with a hypothesis but be willing to abandon it.

Go with a hunch. Be open to the fact that it was wrong.

Tell your story. But tell other people’s stories, too.

This approach has made me an infinitely better professor and journalist and filmmaker, for sure.

I don’t assume all of my students learn or process information the same way I do.

I don’t assume that all of my colleagues have the same struggles. 

I don’t only interview or film people who look like more or grew like me or who think like me. 

College gave you a chance to break out from everything you’ve known, to learn new ideas, to challenge conventions, to have new experiences, to meet people who didn’t grow up the same way you do. It also affirmed the things you like about yourself, the values you have that are important to you.

Keep those.


Be open to change.

Be open to difference. 

Be open to the idea that your normal is not the best, the right way, the only way.

Congratulations, however you got here, wherever you’re going. 

Walk with purpose. 

Be the change the world needs to be a better place for all of us.

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