Honors Day Convocation Address, by Charles Ramírez Berg

April 13, 2002

Thank you, President Faulkner, and thank you so much for inviting me—it’s an honor to be here.

In preparing these remarks, I thought about you students and your achievements, about myself when I was your age, and, of course, since I’m a movie guy, I thought about the movies, especially the recent "The Lord of the Rings" which I saw not too long ago. So what you’re about to hear is what happened when I stirred those three things together.

Charles Ramirez Berg delivers the Honors Day address
Charles Ramírez Berg delivers the Honors Day address. On the left is University of Texas at Austin President Larry R. Faulkner and on the right is Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, the Ellen Clayton Garwood Centennial Professor In Creative Writing.
Photo: Marsha Miller

I hope you won’t think I’m diminishing your accomplishments any when I say that your quest is only beginning. You’re like Frodo in "The Lord of the Rings." If you’ve seen the film, you know it’s a long, three-hour epic, but it’s only "Part I: The Fellowship of the Ring"—and there are two more parts still to come. Like Frodo at the end of "The Fellowship of the Ring," I think, many of you are just beginning to understand the nature of the quest you are on.

And it’s a difficult one. After all, what you’re looking for is to:

  • get a satisfying, good-paying job
  • achieve your full creative potential
  • become a smashing success
  • and contribute to the betterment of society.

That’s all you have to do!

A tall order, for sure, and the question is: How do you get from here to there? How do you succeed in your quest?

And in general the answer is simple. It’s the same for all heroes on all quests: You will achieve these goals by being courageous and honest.

Or, more precisely, by having the courage to be honest, and having the courage to act honestly.

What I’m talking about is the courage to ask and answer the BIG questions, the ones we all ask, sooner or later:

What Do I Do with My Life?

Where, in the grand scheme of things, do I fit in?

How do I fit in?

Asking and answering these questions—that’s where the courage comes in.

Let me illustrate this with a story about someone who was a lot like you.

He was a senior in pre-med and had been admitted to the University of Texas Medical School at Galveston. And yet . . . he was miserable.

As some of you have probably guessed already, that pre-med was me. What was wrong?

I wasn’t being honest with myself. I was doing pre-med for a lot of reasons, many of them good ones, but I wasn’t listening to my heart.

So what happened? I graduated in May, and in August I packed up my blue Volkswagen beetle and began the trip from El Paso, where I’m from, all the way across the state to Galveston.

And when I got to San Antonio—550 miles down, 250 more to go—I called home to tell my parents that I’d gotten to San Antonio OK. (This was obviously before the age of cell phones.) And my mother told me something very interesting. “Your father’s at the San Antonio airport,” she said. He had flown in to talk to me and I needed to go pick him up.

Now my father is a good, kind, hard-working man. He worked as a petroleum engineer in Midland and had lived through the Depression and World War II, and I was sure he wouldn’t understand what I was going through.

But he did! Not only that, but he gave me some great advice, a variation of what I later heard in "The Fellowship of the Ring." It’s what the Wizard Gandalf tells Frodo.

What “you have to decide,” Gandalf says, is “what to do with the time that is given to you.”

A combination of things on that long trek across Texas—the distance, the desert, the solitude, the heat, and my father’s wisdom—gave me the courage to begin to be honest with myself.

I began listening to my heart, and what it told me was that medicine is a wonderful profession—it just wasn’t for me. I needed to do something else with the time that was given to me. Something I loved, and what I loved—as crazy as it sounded to everybody but me—was movies.

So I called the medical school, asked them to give my place to the next person on the wait list, made a U-Turn and went back to El Paso.

That was the beginning of my quest. Many obstacles lay ahead, but luckily I succeeded. I now have my dream job, work that is fun, work—and I hesitate to say this in front of the people who sign my paychecks—but work that I would do for free: I teach movies at the University of Texas!

Joseph Campbell was right—the power of myth is that the great quest stories are really just parables about the journey within. The greatest quest is the interior one: the journey to your heart.

Succeed in that quest, and you will have all the things that I mentioned at the start.

From honestly and courageously following your heart comes enthusiasm—passion for your work. You’ll have energy and joy and excitement—and that’s the most important thing employers look for in an employee. So that takes care of getting a good job and raises and promotions and all that.

From enthusiasm comes creativity—because you love your work, you’re always thinking about it, problem solving, coming up with new ideas. Creativity will come naturally, and creativity is profoundly satisfying.

From creativity comes fulfillment, two kinds of fulfillment:

  • personal fulfillment—thinking something nobody else has thought of before is exhilarating; and
  • social fulfillment—as a society, we all benefit from your creativity.

You are the lucky ones. Very few people in the world get to go on this quest; very few have the opportunity to do what they truly want to do.

Because of your talent and hard work you have successfully completed Part I of your quest. The Tower will be orange tonight to honor your success.

Enjoy this day; have your picture taken in front of the Tower tonight.

But have the courage to continue the quest, the courage to discover “what to do with the time that is given to you.”

The answer lies in your heart.

I Wish You All Good Luck.

Thank you very much.

Charles Ramírez Berg is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor and associate professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film, College of Communication, at The University of Texas at Austin, where he has taught since 1983. Author of the forthcoming "Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, and Resistance" (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), he has also written many articles on Latinos in U.S. films and on Mexican cinema. Read his full bio.