LEWISTON, Maine — Newly named Dr. Robert De Niro had a message for the new graduates of Bates College on Sunday — “Stay in school.”
De Niro, along with journalist Gwen Ifill and molecular biologist Bonnie Bassler, was awarded an honorary doctorate during the 146th commencement at Bates.
On Sunday, 463 students became graduates in front of a crowd of more than 5,000 on a picturesque day.
De Niro, 68, who was given a doctorate of fine arts, elicited laughter from the crowd during his speech.
“With all due respect to Gwen Ifill and Bonnie Bassler, I think this is the most important piece of advice you’ll get today: become a movie star,” said De Niro to a roar of laughter. “Now, you might be tempted by other careers, other interests, other commitments. There might be pressure on you to change the world, but you want to find the strength to resist.
“When I started, I wasn’t a movie star, and it sucked,” he continued. “The moment I became a movie star, things started to get better.”
De Niro said that being awarded a doctorate “cheapens it a little,” but said his mother would’ve been proud.
“My mother would be so proud to see her son, who never graduated high school, standing up here, receiving this honorary doctorate of fine arts. She would’ve been more proud of it if it was [from] Harvard,” he said. The crowd erupted with laughter with a few boos mixed in.
In the midst of jokes from the Academy Award-winning actor, came a few words of wisdom from his life experience.
“Trying to improve society isn’t a cliche, it’s a worthy goal,” said De Niro. “Thinking about and doing the right thing is a cliche, but so what? It’s also the worthiest of goals.
“If you’re an actor, always be true to your character. If you’re not an actor, always have character and always be true to yourself,” he said.
The speech that got the most reaction from the audience wasn’t from a movie star or a television journalist, but a molecular biologist.
The charismatic Bassler, a professor at Princeton University, gave a speech that wowed not only the audience, but De Niro, Ifill and Bates interim President Nancy Cable.
Bassler’s speech, which also brought laughter from the crowd, encouraged the graduates not to worry about failure. She also noted that every one of the graduates could make a difference.
“I do remember thinking, ‘What a bunch of baloney,’” Bassler said as she recalled the speakers at her commencement at University of California Davis in 1984. “That speech was to rally the special people among the graduates. The smart people. The going-somewhere people. The confident people. Not me.
“I had been living for 22 years with a very, very loud internal critic telling me, ‘You don’t measure up.’ I knew other people were either smart, pretty, gifted, talented or remarkable. But I was normal,” she said. “Now look at me. I’m on a stage with Gwen Ifill and Robert De Niro! You want to know what? It’s because I’ve done something.”
Bassler told the crowd to “just say yes” and not be afraid.
“I never thought that the long shadow would be cast by the molecular biologist,” said Ifill, speaking last of the three.
Ifill, a television newscaster and author, kept her speech brief. Her message to the graduates was to “look up.”
“We’re all looking down. We’re all looking down as we walk, as we talk, as we text,” she said. “How many of you are tweeting this right now? Look up! Pay attention up here.
“While I was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, I was late for a meeting at the White House and I was looking down, texting the words ‘I’m on my way,’” said Ifill. “I misjudged the curb and I fell flat on my face in the street. I would’ve been fine if I had only looked up.”
Ifill said it’s easier to look down. It takes effort to look up.
“If you look up, you’ll realize you have a responsibility to build a set of steps for those following behind you to walk up,” she said. “If you look behind, you will see a Bates degree is the beginning of your life’s education, not the end.”
Like Ifill and Bassler, De Niro also emphasized the importance of taking risks.
“Keep an open mind, welcome new experiences and new ideas. Don’t be afraid to try things. Don’t be afraid to fail,” said De Niro. “I always say, if you don’t go, you’ll never know.
“Congratulations to the Class of 2012. And congratulations to myself,” he said.