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Renowned journalist April Ryan urges Simon’s ‘Rockers’ to be ever-curious

While based in the White House, Ryan has covered the last four presidents. She is one of the longest serving members of the White House Press Corps and is the only African-American to have reported daily from the White House for over 20 years.

Great Barrington —When you leave campus after graduating, if there’s one thing you should never stop doing, it’s posing questions — especially to those in high places.

That was the message conveyed by April Ryan, the acclaimed journalist who delivered the keynote address this morning (May 19) at the 49th commencement exercises at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

Ryan braving what she termed ‘liquid sunshine’ and walking into the tent. Photo: Studio Route 7

As a steady and chilly rain fell — Ryan called it “liquid sunshine” — about 170 graduates listened as Ryan told them of her experiences when she was their age and graduated from Morgan State University and later, when she met a lot of important people in high places.

At one point, evidently taking a cue from Simon’s Rock Provost Ian Bickford, who had mentioned earlier that this year was W.E.B Du Bois’ 150th birthday, Ryan said she had been thinking about the legendary scholar, civil rights leader and Great Barrington native:

“I think about W.E.B Du Bois, and a story given to me by the great Harry Belafonte. He’s 90 years old and he’s still got it together. He’s like you; he’s got a lot of questions but he was a man who walked with Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights movement. Those young people had questions: ‘Why do they say all men are created equal but why do I not have my first-class citizenship?’ So the Civil Rights movement worked to form a more perfect union.”

Ryan, who grew up in Baltimore, is a White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks, where she has worked since 1997. Last year she was hired by CNN as a political analyst.

While based in the White House, Ryan has covered the last four presidents. She is one of the longest serving members of the White House Press Corps and is the only African-American to have reported daily from the White House for over 20 years.

See video below of journalist April Ryan delivering the address at the 49th commencement exercises at Bard College at Simon’s Rock:

 

“As a reporter who has covered four presidents for 21 years … three of them called me by name. This one I don’t know what he calls me,” Ryan cracked, referring to President Donald Trump.

Though she did not mention it in her address, Ryan made headlines last year when, at a news conference less than a month into his presidency, Trump responded awkwardly to a question from Ryan by asking her to set up a meeting with him and the Congressional Black Caucus. “Are they friends of yours?” Trump asked. Ryan has also reported receiving death threats after asking White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether Trump had considered resigning.

“When you ask questions in my business, sometimes it evokes change,” Ryan told the graduates.

Seen between the mortar boards, Ryan urges graduates to never stop asking questions. Photo: Route 7 Studio

Ryan invoked an iconic Civil Rights image: that of the four black college students who sat down at a whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960 and refused to leave when asked to.

“Shirley Chisholm said if you don’t have a seat at the table, then bring a folding chair,” Ryan said, quoting the groundbreaking politician who became the first black woman elected to Congress and also the first to run for a major party’s nomination for president.

“What are we at a time like this?” Ryan asked the graduates, some of whom received associates degrees and others who received bachelor of arts degrees. “Who are you, what do you believe in?” And using the slang for Simon’s Rock students, most of whom are attending college early, she roused the graduates: “You’re more than that, you’re a rocker!”

Simon’s Rock Provost Ian Bickford. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Ryan then came down to earth as she conceded she had never been to the Berkshires, which she described as “one of the prettiest areas I’ve ever seen.” She insisted, however, that she is “in Massachusetts quite a bit.”

“I mean, you know it’s a wonderful area when you drive through Norman Rockwell’s hometown and you know he never painted a cell phone tower because you can’t get cell service!” Ryan said to much laughter.

According to her biography, Ryan was the 2017 National Association of Black Journalists’ journalist of the year and a Terker Fellow with the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. She is a member of the National Press Club and one of only three African Americans to serve on the board of the prestigious White House Correspondents Association in its over 100-year history.

B.A. recipient Danielle Pendleton of Kailua, Hawaii, plays a song she wrote for the occasion. Photo: Terry Cowgill

But in many ways, it was the students who were really the stars. Danielle Pendleton of Kailua, Hawaii, a B.A. recipient, started off playing the ukulele and singing an untitled song she wrote last week after finishing her thesis, which she titled “A Heart Knows When It’s Come Home,” a musical about long distance relationships.

“Four years at The Rock / You can call us high school dropouts / we got no time to waste,” were the first lines of the new song.

The two student speakers were both from abroad. Associate of arts graduate Xindi Zhang from Beijing, China, and bachelor of arts recipient Nay Chie Moe Thet of Yangon, Myanmar, spoke eloquently of what it was like to come to America and to Simon’s Rock as persons of color.

Student speaker and associate of arts graduate Xindi Zhang from Beijing, China. Photo: Terry Cowgill

There were also brief addresses by Bickford and Stuart Breslow, chairman of the Simon’s Rock Board of Overseers, and Leon Botstein, president of Bard College.

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