Read Cyma Zarghami’s Commencement Address to University of Vermont Class of 2012

by Mark Jafar, Viacom

Cyma Zarghami addresses the UVM Class of 2012 (Photo credit: Sally McCay)

Cyma Zarghami traveled to Burlington, VT this weekend to connect with an audience slightly older than her typical K6-11 demo.

The Nickelodeon President delivered the commencement address to the Class of 2012 at The University of Vermont, her alma mater, and received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Interim President John Bramley.

Unable to confer the Green Mountain State grads with a coat of green slime, Dr. Zarghami gave her speech a distinctly Nick feel by bringing along two of the network’s biggest stars, SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick Star.  Or, at least their terrestrial alter egos.

See below for the full text of Cyma’s speech, and a little further below for video of a performance by Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke – the voices of SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick Starfish.


May 20, 2012

Thank you so much for having me here today. President John Bramley was nice enough to invite me, and I hope not to let him down.

I need to say thanks to Andrew Flewelling, who worked hard to get me back to Burlington. Thanks to the board of Trustees and congratulations to my fellow Honorary Degree recipients.

And a very big congratulations to you the graduating class of 2012.

I am honored and thrilled to be here.

Like you, I brought lots of family and friends with me today. My parents are here, and my parents in law.  My husband George and our three sons, Liam, Ethan and Wyatt.  Today is Ethan’s 10th birthday and I almost had him convinced this was his party.

And I am also lucky enough to have some colleagues and wonderful friends here as well.

The assignment was to tell my story, and hopefully give you something useful and relatable that you could take with you as you venture out into this next phase of your lives.

Honestly – a hard assignment. You guys need jobs, not advice. But I gave it my best shot.

I am here today because I was a student here in the early 80s, and because I have the privilege of running Nickelodeon, which I hope you spent a lot of time with growing up.  I was probably about four or five years into my entry level job on the day you were born.

I say I was a student here and not a graduate, because unlike you, I did not quite make it over the finish line.

I had a great four years here at UVM. But when I first came here I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I started in the School of Education; then became an English major.

But I sure loved Burlington. I loved the lake. I loved the people. I worked as a waitress in many fine establishments like The Last Chance Saloon, Leunigs and the Ice House. If waitressing were worth credits I might have had two degrees by the time I left…..I was a really good waitress. And I learned a lot doing it.

As it turned out, at the end of my four years at UVM, I found myself still three credits shy of my degree. So I stayed for that summer living in Winooski and took another class to earn those credits and graduate.

I completed and passed the class but it turned out to be the “wrong” credits, and after all that I still didn’t have my degree. But I left anyway – thinking when I apply for that entry level job no one is going to ask to see my diploma …

I was always honest about my story. So when I came back to UVM in the year 2000 to speak at the School of Education I was generously given my final three credits and my diploma. So I am a very proud member of the class of 2000.

You are the graduates of 2012. Today you should just be very proud of yourselves. And thankful for all the support that got you here.

Along the way there are two things that you have probably heard over and over. Work hard and have fun. If you are making a checklist for life, that is a really good start.

You are here today — so I know you worked hard. And because I used to live in Burlington I know you know how to have fun.

So in thinking about today I thought I would focus on the obvious and share with you my own checklist for life … here it is:

  1. Sometimes you just get lucky.  Never underestimate when the stars align. (It doesn’t happen that often.)
  2. You need to trust yourself and follow your gut (It’s probably kept you from doing something really stupid already).
  3. Heart is what makes us passionate and makes good work much better.
  4. Always keep it real. (As members of the YouTube and Facebook generation, you can’t really help yourselves anyway).

I am where I am because I have been incredibly lucky. I have always trusted my gut when making decisions – especially for Nickelodeon. I truly believe that heart is at the center of all great ideas.

Heart is people with passion who want to tell their stories. And authenticity is what keeps it real every day. And that is what keeps our audience coming back. Even little kids know it when they see it.

After I left Burlington my sister’s best friend called and offered me a job. They were hiring at this new company and needed someone who could type. The company was called Nickelodeon – and I qualified for the job – sort of.

But like a lot of entry level jobs, my first day was awful. My job was to manually input commercial codes into a computer.  What does that even mean?

On my first day the person showing me what to told me to watch over her shoulder. I had to sit on a window sill and watch her type codes for hours. I don’t know when it happened, but I definitely fell asleep. To this day I am not sure she ever noticed. If she did it just makes her a lovely human being.

From that day forward let’s just say I really tried hard to put my heart in it. It wasn’t until a little time had passed that I realized that I had found a place to work that was populated with excellent people, making a great product. A product that was authentic and innovative and creative.

As it turns out, learning to serve kids at Nickelodeon really turned the lights on for me. Luck got me there, my gut told me to stay and I have been able to pour my heart into making it better for 26 years. (That is about 5 years longer than you’ve been  alive).

You are without doubt entering a tough job market and you will have a hard time finding that perfect job or career right away. Sometimes it takes a while. Given what we know about the job market and what your generation is up against… if I could give you all jobs in Bikini Bottom I would!

But, you are a generation well positioned for what’s ahead. Authenticity is your trademark!

You are a generation with a lot of heart, along with many, many other great attributes.

I know this because in my job today we spend a lot of time studying our audience and for quite a while that audience was you.

Actually, I have been studying you since before you were born. You are called the Millenials. And here’s a few things we’ve learned about you.

You are a happy generation. You are tech-savvy, self-respecting and hard working. You value happiness more than wealth. And you are devoted to your families.

You are team oriented and won’t settle.

You tend to be a little more conventional than the generation before you, and believe your goals are within reach.

You are high achieving.

And you are under a lot of pressure.  You’ve had more homework and more testing than any other generation.

You will always be known as the kids of 9-11.

But despite that, the most important thing that has happened in shaping your lives so far is the advent of the internet.  You are connected to the world and to each other in ways we work hard to understand.

And we study what is going on around you.

When you were very young kids we first identified the incredible influence you were having on your parents and their decisions and choices. The whole country, it seemed was looking at the world through the lens of our kids.

That’s when Rugrats came to Nickelodeon, and for the first time you saw an animated show that told family stories literally from a kids’ point of view — from the carpet up.

It was as authentic as the couple who created it, and it introduced us to some great characters. It was when we first met the original Queen of Mean — Angelica Pickles. And I remember like it was yesterday that day when baby Dil was born.

When you were 10 years old the divorce rate had rapidly increased, and more and more kids were being raised in non-traditional families.

So when we saw the pilot for Hey Arnold, that centered around an urban kid living in a boarding house (with his grandparents) and a very diverse set of friends, we knew it would work. It was truly authentic storytelling at that time – and it had so much heart. And who could resist a kid with a head shaped like a football?

You grew up during the biggest growth of diversity in our country’s history. We always tried hard to serve and represent all kids, so we introduced you to people like Kenan and Kel and Amanda Bynes.

Then the 2000 census confirmed the incredible change happening in the country. So we introduced a young Latina named Dora. She is one of the most beloved characters for preschoolers on and off television, and she’s bilingual.

Kenan Thompson went on to become a regular on Saturday Night Live now and it has been a thrill to watch him grow up. And people like Nick Cannon are among the first wave of Millenials at Nick that are now making great work for the last wave of Millenials.

You are a socially conscious and responsible generation. You told us as kids that you cared about the environment, the war in Iraq and feeding the homeless.

We created an initiative for you called THE BIG HELP to allow you to access ways to have an impact on the world around you — even as kids.

And in every election year since 1988 we ask kids to pick the president and let them vote. Kids always predicted the winner, except in 2004. That’s when you voted for John Kerry.

The last attribute I want to talk about today is your best one — your confidence and optimism.

And that takes me to SpongeBob SquarePants. It launched when you were about 10. Bubble Buddy is probably clearly etched in your memory.

When we first saw the pilot for this show we honestly just scratched our heads.

It came to us in the late 90s. There was nothing like it – anywhere!  It came from a guy who was a major in Marine Biology, Steve Hillenberg, who had taken a job on an animated show for us called Rocko’s Modern Life.

He had clearly created a set of incredible characters. A sponge and his sidekick, Patrick Starfish; a tree squirrel from Texas; and an angry squid who aspired to be a musician. All with heart, and all well-defined.

You can imagine the discussion we had to decide to green light this show.  Were there enough stories to tell? Will people respond to the characters? Is it too stupid to put on TV?

It began as a simple buddy comedy, so intelligent in its stupidity and so unlike anything we had ever seen before.

After just three years it emerged as an icon of your generation. He represented pure optimism and kindness.

SpongeBob was oblivious to the bad things in the world just hoping he could be the best fry cook ever.   Every day for SpongeBob was and is the BEST DAY EVER.

And I hope today is YOUR best day ever.

It should be! Because even though your heads are not shaped like a football, you’ve grown up in a world full of diversity, and have fully embraced it.

You might not be able to talk to animals the way Eliza Thornberry did, but you care deeply about the environment.

And you may not achieve the accolades SpongeBob did as the best fry cook in Bikini Bottom, but you have drive and optimism to change the world for the better.

And when you look back in 20 years or so, regardless of which direction you have taken, I bet you will remember things about your UVM experience that will tell you a lot about the person you became.

You are leaving with a degree from this incredible institution. With a little luck, passion and intuition, your drive and optimism – and maybe a little patience – you will get wherever you want to go.

I wish you happiness and success. I really wanted to celebrate by sliming all of you, but the grown-ups said no.

But I do have a surprise for you. Because you are the first generation of the SpongeBob audience, I am thrilled to introduce you to two guys who have defined these characters for over 10 years. Please give a warm UVM welcome to Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke — the voices of Spongebob Squarepants and Patrick Starfish who are here to sing you a little song.

Are you ready guys?

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