Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Writer Urges Grads to Take Risks

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Writer Urges Grads to Take Risks
Commencement keynote speaker, journalist and author Kim Barker.

May 15, 2016

Journalist Kim Barker stood before Susquehanna University's Class of 2016 and offered the kind of advice that could only come from a formerly scaredy-cat war correspondent: "Life is short, and you don't want to get to the middle or end of it by playing it safe."

Barker delivered the keynote address to 490 graduates at Susquehanna's 158th commencement held Sunday, May 15, in the field house of the James W. Garrett Sports Complex.

Barker is best known for The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, her darkly comic memoir that looks back on her years as the South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune between 2004 and 2009. The book was adapted into the film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, in which Barker was portrayed by well-known comedienne Tina Fey.

Barker's appearance at Susquehanna honors the university's theme of adventure for the 2015-16 academic year. Her remarks, while light-hearted, gave graduates—on a day that finds them on the precipice of their adult life—equal parts inspiration and breathing room.

"I want to share my secrets to a happy life, the recipe that has helped propel me from no job at college graduation to the middle of my profession," Barker said. "Loads of failure, tons of risk, an open heart, an updated passport and a dash of prizefighter Mike Tyson."

Barker's other secret? Her willingness to, when given a choice of paths, choose the path that scared her the most.

"Make plans for your life, but realize that those plans might go astray," She said. "Sure, it's a good idea to know what you want above all else. But it's also OK to be open to new opportunities and to the fact that things just don't work out."

In an appropriate nod to Susquehanna's Global Opportunities program, which requires all students to be exposed to a different culture, Barker talked about the impact traveling abroad has on fear.

"Only when you travel to really remote places, when you're so alone, do you learn who you are, how lucky you are, how wonderful other people can be, and how almost everyone, no matter what race or culture or religion, wants the same things out of life: To be safe, to be happy, to be loved, to be useful," she said. "When we travel more, we hate less, because we stop being so afraid."

Before ending her remarks to the graduating class, Barker gave the graduates one final push to take risks on their road toward happiness and fulfillment.

"Do one thing that makes you feel uncomfortable, that challenges you, that risks your heart. I know, you're thinking about it right now," Barker said. "Grab life by the throat and strangle it.  I'll see you at the airport."

Barker received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Susquehanna University President L. Jay Lemons, as did Joseph and Ellen Weis Goldstein, friends of the university.

Also awarded at commencement were three faculty awards.

The John C. Horn Distinguished Service Lectureship was awarded to Valerie Allison, associate professor and chair of the Department of Education, for her continually developing research related to her teaching practice and her efforts to use that research to inform her pedagogy and professional development. Most recently, Allison played a key role in developing the $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant to support the recruitment and education of chemistry, physics and mathematics majors pursuing teaching careers in high-need school districts.

The Susquehanna University Teaching Award was awarded to Associate Professor of Physics and Department Chair Samya Zain for her efforts to innovate the curriculum in her department, ranging from developing 'flipped' and online classes to developing entirely new curricular opportunities. Zain has overseen the implementation of the 3-2 Engineering Program with Columbia University and an interdisciplinary chemical physics major.

The Lawrence A. Lemons Distinguished Academic Advising Award was awarded to Associate Professor of Political Science and Department Chair Michele DeMary. DeMary regularly advises over 40 students, including not only majors and minors, but also students who have not yet declared a major and students pursuing internships.