Shawnika Hull (Ph.D. '10) Delivers 2024 Communication Major Graduation Speech

Rutgers Associate Professor Shawnika Hull spoke about finding your purpose and following it into the future.

On May 19, after an introduction by Destiny Dennis (C'24), Rutgers Associate Professor Shawnika Hull (Ph.D. '10) delivered the 2024 commencement address for Annenberg's Communication Major Graduation Celebration, held at the Benjamin Franklin Ballroom, Sheraton University City. The full text is as follows:



Thanks to Dean Banet-Weiser and the Annenberg School for this invitation. Thanks to the loved ones who have supported these folks as they have traveled through this journey. Thank you for being there and thank you for being here. To the graduates: Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak with you at such a punctuation mark in your lives. 

Oh, the pressure. I felt a strong to need to try and say something profound to you today; to help you focus your energy as you move into your next chapter. The trouble is, I think that most of what I want to say to you, you already know. 

You already know about resilience. You entered this chapter of your lives circa 2020 - during the height of a global crisis. You persevered through a pandemic and all of its ramifications. It. Was. Painful. You were also resilient through the trial and error of re-entry into 3-dimensional life. That was also …quite painful. You went through some really tough stuff. Yet, here you are, thriving. Proud. As you should be. 

You already know that you should be proud. You made an inspired choice in selecting a Communication major and you followed through, even when it was hard. You chose to prepare for your life’s work by studying Communication with thought leaders, world renowned experts. You are now trained in one of the most important things there is - communication. In studying at the Annenberg School, you have cultivated a skillset, a perspective, and the ability to take a critical stance in your understanding of communication processes. 

You have an understanding of the ways the world is shaped and reflected through communication….by the stories we tell, how we tell those stories, what and who is in the story. Who is left out. What does that say about us? ….What does that say about how we live and thrive? And because of this training, you are uniquely prepared to really move the needle on things that are crucial to the future …of our democracy, our culture, public health, science, history, and humanity. You could not have studied a more important topic. You already know this.

Communication is a web that stitches us together. It's in everything. Everything happens through it. So, you are trained to wield an immensely powerful tool. And it is a tool. You can choose to do with it what you will. But, today I want to I urge you to focus this power you wield – use it toward something important and good. What I’m suggesting is that you find your purpose and move with a sense of urgency, because the state of the world demands it.

I say this like there’s a direct path ahead of you. But, I acknowledge that life is a very windy road. Today, my purpose is health equity. I seek to improve equity in public health through communication science.

But, once upon a time, I was mechanic in the U.S. Army Reserve. Back then, my goal was to learn a trade that I could carry with me wherever I go, so I always had work. At that time, I was assembling 15.2-liter, 6-cylinder, inline, water-cooled engines. I was using my GI Bill to take courses at the University of Arizona, as I had recently transferred from Pima Community College. My persuasion professor, Dr. Robin Nabi, pulled me aside after class one day. She suggested that I consider graduate school – Annenberg, in particular.

Dr. Nabi earned her Ph.D. at the Annenberg School. She invited me to work with her on her research and encouraged me to meet with her advisor, Dr. Joseph Cappella, when he visited during his sabbatical. The rest… is on my resume. 

As divergent as these two periods of my life are, I picked up some principles back then that have served me well in each subsequent chapter of my life. I want to share a couple of them with you today.

I did my basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, MO, the only place I’ve been that gets all four seasons in the same day. At Ft. Leonard Wood, there’s no lollygagging. No taking it slow. When you move, you don’t strollllllllll. You move with a purpose. Moving at a leisurely pace is an invitation for 3 or 4 or 7 Drill Sergeants to materialize out of thin air….very close to your face, hand out stretched, exclaiming things…“Oh, you got all day? Oh! You got time on your hands?!” A lot of unnecessary distraction can be avoided by moving with a purpose.

I invite you to be intentional in harnessing what you have cultivated as you open the next chapter. Apply the knowledge, skills and perspective you have gained to affect change. Find your purpose and move with it. Move with a purpose.

Once, during my stay at Ft. Lost in the Woods, Ft. Leonard Wood, I was moving with a purpose…the purpose of not being late to formation. Tardiness carried a steep price in the form of push-ups, flutter kicks, jumping jacks and so on. So, in an effort to shave a couple of seconds, I dipped across the grass on the front lawn of the building. What I was about to learn is that walking across the grass is one of the worst things one can do as a well-meaning Private who just wants to be on time. Do not cut across the grass. The boundary is firm. 

I cut across the grass. Three or four or seven Drill Sergeants materialized, hands outstretched, yelling “PRIVATE!!!!!!?!?” Push-ups, flutter kicks, and jumping jacks ensued.

The grass is precious, treasured, and therefore – cared for. It is not to be stepped on. So, it has a boundary. You can walk, run, skip, hop, cartwheel, around the boundaries, but do not walk across that boundary.

Know what is precious to you, so that you can know where your boundaries are. In order to do that, you must know yourself, understand your values and priorities. The habits you develop now will stay with you as you move through the next phases of your career... Of your life. Cultivate habits that will honor these boundaries and sustain you as you make change in the world. Prioritize healthy ways of moving about, being in and co-creating the world. I encourage you to cultivate your awareness of the values and priorities that guide you. To this day, I do not walk across the grass. 

You have spent the last several years of your precious life cultivating one of the most important skill sets one can have. Communication is in everything. Everything happens through it. That makes communication powerful. You know how to interpret, analyze, understand, shape and reconfigure communication phenomena. That makes you powerful. You get to decide how you will use this power. 

You can change the world. You have the skills to do it and the credentials to prove it. 

Move swiftly and with a purpose, and do so with full awareness of the boundaries that constrain and shape your actions. 

You are the hope for the future. You already know this. 

You are ready for this. So go do it.

Congratulations, Class of 2024!