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Yette delivers Opening Convocation address

On writing letters and advocating for higher education

Joyce Payne Yette ’80 Opening Convocation Address
September 4, 2018, 11 a.m., Leonard Auditorium

First, giving honor to God. President Samhat, fellow trustees, faculty, staff, parents, and students, especially the Class of 2022, thank you for allowing me to join you on this very important occasion. I am truly honored to be here today. When President Samhat called to ask me to be today’s speaker, I asked myself, “What can I share with an audience of some of the best and brightest young people in the country?” I continued to ask myself that question as recently as a few weeks ago when I had lunch in Washington with two of Wofford’s best and brightest – Fredy Madrid, who is your Student Body President, and Shannon McGrath, who is a member of Wofford’s dance team and worked as an intern at my firm this summer. I asked Fredy and Shannon what I should talk about. They both said, “Tell them what you told your own children.” So if you don’t like what I have to say, blame them – Fredy is sitting right there and Shannon is sitting a couple of rows behind him – both in full view of your “Rotten Tomatoes.” For the uninitiated, that’s a website that rates films, but for today, we’ll apply the term to this speech.

Anyway, here goes. Most of what I have told my two daughters over the years are lessons learned from my own life’s journey. The main thing I’ve told them is – “If I can do it. You can do it.”

My journey began about 30 miles from here in the 1950s, during a time when there were no cell phones, no Internet, no Facebook or Instagram, no Bitcoin or Venmo, and no Uber or AirBnB.

I was the first person in my family to go to college. Why did I choose Wofford when practically everyone else in my high school who was college-bound was going to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill? Why did I choose to be a Terrier instead of a Tarheel? It was because one day a letter arrived at my house.

The letter was from Michael Preston, who was then the Dean of Students at Wofford. Dean Preston had grown up in Tryon, North Carolina, where my family lived at the time. And somehow he had heard about a student who had been scoring well on state and national standardized tests and who was one of only two or three black students in the history of Tryon High School who was college-bound. Dean Preston’s letter and his subsequent visit with my family were pretty convincing. And for those of you in the room who knew him, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

I entered Wofford in 1976. I was one of the first 25 residential co-ed students. When I left home to drive the 30 miles to campus, many of my family members gathered to see me off. My grandparents – whose wisdom far exceeded the limited formal education that had been available to them - reminded me that I would be representing my entire family, and that whatever I did – in the classroom or elsewhere – would reflect upon each and every one of them.

It was an academically challenging and mind-altering 4 years! I owe a tremendous debt to Professors Dunson, Hudgins, Miller, Racine, Seegars, Seitz and Stephenson. They challenged me, encouraged me and supported me. And they especially spent time with me answering my endless questions. I can’t imagine getting a better education…anywhere. But I tell people that if I had any part of my life to live over again, it would be college – first, I would have more fun, and second, I would have more fun. My singular focus during my time at Wofford was to study Government and Economics – with some English and History and Psychology mixed in - because I had heard that Government and Economics were the best majors for law school. I had wanted to be a lawyer since elementary school because I saw lawyers in my community helping people. And as I looked around my community, I saw lots of ways that I thought I could help.

The sense that I wanted to do something to help people stirred in me early. One of my most vivid memories is of a day during the summer when I was 8 years old. At that time, racial segregation in housing was still very much a fact of life in the South. My family lived across the road from a migrant workers’ camp. There were two rows of concrete buildings with no doors, no indoor plumbing and no electricity. Each Spring and Summer, truckloads of families would arrive to work on the farms in the area. During the day, the workers’ children were left largely unattended while their parents went to work in the fields or the orchards. This particular summer, while my friends and I played outside, I noticed a girl about my age, watching us. She watched us every day. One of the activities I organized for playtime was story time on my front stoop. My sister likes to say that I was bossy, even as a little girl. One day it occurred to me that I’d never seen any of the children at the camp with books, or toys for that matter. I convinced my friends that we should invite the girl over to play with us. I even had the presence of mind to write a letter to her mother to ask permission. Somehow it slipped my mind that it would also be a good idea to ask my own mother. I wrote the letter, waited for the trucks to return that afternoon, figured out which woman was the girl’s mother and then marched myself across the road to hand her the letter. It never occurred to me that she herself didn’t know how to read. She said, “I don’t know what this is.”

Here’s the scene – the woman and her daughter were looking at me; people had gathered around them, in part, because no one from the other side of the road ever came over to the camp; my friends were watching from across the road; and because my back was turned, I didn’t see my mother’s car coming down the road. So, I did the only thing I could do – I took the letter back and read it out loud. The woman asked her daughter if she wanted to play with us, and her daughter said, “yes.”

The next words I heard, however, were from my mother shouting for me to get myself back home! I quickly went back across the road and before she could spank me, I “stated my case” - with a jury of my peers looking on. The court had mercy on me. My mother walked me back across the road, where the crowd was still gathered, waiting to see a spanking, which I admit, I deserved. My mother introduced herself, assured my new friend’s mother that there would be adult supervision during her daughter’s visit, and then she walked us both back to my front stoop. After an hour of reading from Charlotte’s Web, we walked my new friend back across the road with an armload of picture books. I’ve often wondered what happened to her – what happened to “Lucy.” And I’ve also wondered – why not her? Why me?

What happened to me was that I went to Wofford and then on to Harvard Law School. Shortly after receiving my acceptance letter, I went to visit my grandmother and told her the good news. I also told her that I had been accepted to Duke, where I would get a substantial scholarship. She asked me where each school was. When I told her that Harvard was in Massachusetts, she recognized it as President John F. Kennedy’s home state. She wanted me to show her Massachusetts on a map. We found one in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Remember, there was no Internet in those days. My grandmother thought my choice was simple – Duke was in North Carolina. I had lived my whole life in the Carolinas. I had never even visited Massachusetts. So for all of Harvard’s fine reputation and storied past, I went there because my grandmother – my very wise, grandmother - thought I should experience another part of the world.
At Harvard, I learned a lot about the law, but even more about relationships. My Civil Procedure professor was Clyde Ferguson - a brilliant scholar and a wonderful man, so I would visit him in his office from time to time. (The habit that I had developed at Wofford of visiting professors to ask questions was hard to break.) On one visit I told him about how frustrated I was by my early efforts to find a job for the summer after my first year. He told me to look for the kind of job that would give me something interesting and memorable to talk about during my more important second year interviews. I ended up getting a job at the Central Intelligence Agency in the Office of General Counsel. And Professor Ferguson was right. To a person, every second year interviewer’s first question was “So what was it like to work at the CIA?”

I decided to accept Covington & Burling’s summer offer, not because Covington is one of the best firms in Washington, but because of another letter I had written. While I was working at the CIA, I decided that I wanted to work in Washington again the next summer. CIA Headquarters is in Langley, Virginia, a Washington suburb. I wanted to see what it was like to work in a “K Street law firm” in the heart of downtown Washington. So I went through a directory of Washington law firms – remember, there was no Internet - looking for partners who had South Carolina connections. I wrote letters to 12 partners at 12 big Washington law firms. One of them was Wesley Williams, Jr., who was at Covington. Wes invited me to meet with him in his office even though the firm was in the process of moving. In the middle of stacks of boxes and piles of papers and books, Wes served me tea and gave me career advice. He told me that as I went through the second year interview process, I should ask people what they and their firms were doing to help the city and its residents. I worked at Covington that summer and received a permanent job offer. But I didn’t go back to the firm right after law school.

Instead, I clerked for Judge David Nelson, a judge on the Federal District Court in Boston. My relationship with Judge Nelson developed because – take a guess – I wrote him a letter. As a third year law student, I felt certain that I didn’t want to be a litigator – a trial lawyer - but I thought any good lawyer should know what happens inside a courtroom. Professor Ferguson suggested that I reach out to Judge Nelson and ask to meet with him in his chambers to talk about a career in corporate law versus litigation. To my surprise, Judge Nelson didn’t respond to my letter. I heard that he was going to be judging a moot court competition on campus, so I went. After the program was over, I introduced myself. He remembered my letter and told me that he hadn’t responded because he thought it was just a cute ploy to get myself hired as one of his law clerks. I told him I’d never even considered being a clerk. His response was, “Apply.” The application was like submitting a Supreme Court brief. Judge Nelson called to tell me I was hired, and I remember him saying, “We can spend the next year talking about corporate law versus litigation as a career, but also about how you can use your talent to help people.”

I chose corporate law at Covington and eventually specialized in Real Estate and Commercial Development. It was a practice area that allowed me to work on projects in places as far away as Central America and the Caribbean, but I also worked on projects in the District of Columbia. The two most meaningful were pro bono projects for low-income residents in Northwest Washington. From 1996 - 2000, when I worked on these two projects, the seeds of gentrification were already germinating. The fertilizer was Metro.

I left Covington to work at the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, or as it’s commonly called – Metro. Metro was transforming the communities in which its bus and rail stations were located, so it seemed like a good next step in my career. Metro’s board had established a public-private partnership between the transit agency and developers throughout the region to promote “smart growth;” in other words, to develop communities where people could live, work and play without getting in their cars.

Little did I know that the pro bono work I had done at Covington was foreshadowing the work I would later do at Metro. I worked on transit projects that were just a stone’s throw away from the housing projects that I had worked on a few years earlier. Largely because of these transit projects, my old friends in the surrounding areas now have retail, commercial and entertainment venues, jobs and other opportunities they never imagined. All they had cared about when we were working together was being able to live in safe, sanitary, affordable homes.

I mentioned “relationships” earlier. And by this, I don’t mean what social media promotes as “networking.” I mean, getting to know people and people getting to know you in a way that when they think of you, they think about the quality of your character and the quality of your knowledge and skills and work ethic. One day, 13 and a half years ago, I was at work in my office at Metro. My phone rang. It was Alfred Moses. Alfred was a partner at Covington. He has a very impressive resume – President of the American Jewish Committee, counsel to President Carter and President Clinton’s Ambassador to Romania and later his Special Envoy to Cyprus. Today, Alfred is Chairman of UN Watch. He is also one of my best friends.

Alfred was calling me that day on behalf of Gene Ludwig, himself a former Covington partner and President Clinton’s Comptroller of the Currency – the supervisor of national banks. Shortly after 9/11, Gene had founded a consulting firm – Promontory Financial Group. Alfred was the co-founder. Promontory’s primary mission was (and remains) providing strategic advice and regulatory compliance services to the financial services industry. Alfred and Gene wanted me to help build Promontory’s infrastructure.

When I arrived at Promontory, the firm had 4 offices in 2 countries, and 50 employees. I’ve been there 13 and a half years and the firm has grown to 19 offices in 15 countries. And we’ve grown from 50 employees to over 700. In 2016, IBM bought the company after searching around the world for the leading experts in financial services strategy, regulation and compliance.

I’m proud of what we’ve done as a company. I’m proud that when I pick up the newspaper and read about developments in the financial world, even though we aren’t mentioned, I know that Promontory is involved behind the scenes and is trying to help our clients do the right thing for their customers and make financial products and services safe and accessible to everyone.

But I’m especially proud of my efforts to open the firm’s doors to young people like Shannon McGrath, and before her, Rachel Woodlee, Wofford’s most recent Rhodes Scholar. Both Shannon and Rachel benefitted from the experience of working on cutting-edge issues and projects led by former global leaders in government and industry.
I didn’t know Rachel or Shannon all that well when I introduced them to Promontory. But I knew Wofford. My own reputation was on the line so I had to be sure that they had the capacity and the drive to excel. Wofford’s rigor and tradition of excellence gave me that assurance. Their fellow interns from Princeton and Columbia and Yale had never heard of Wofford. But thanks to Rachel and Shannon, they know Wofford now and so does Promontory!
So what do I want you to take away from hearing about my journey? About four years ago, I asked a friend of my daughter’s if he was excited about starting his career and his new life as an adult. He had just graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. His answer surprised me. He said, “Ms. Yette, I was fine in engineering school because I had a syllabus. I knew what to study and I knew that if I went to class and did my work, I would do well. Right now, I just wish I had a syllabus.” So, you know me, I wrote letters to a few friends and experts that I knew and we put together a half-day workshop – a virtual syllabus. We ran sessions on time management, financial management, healthy living (physical and spiritual), personal safety and what to expect at work in Corporate America.
By walking you through my journey, I intended to give you – the Class of 2022 - a virtual syllabus. Let me summarize:

1. If you remember nothing else, remember that if I can do it, you can do it.
2. Rely on your family. No matter how glad you are to be away from home – I know that applies only to some of you - your family is an extremely important resource – for advice and support. Don’t forget that you represent each and every one of them.
3. Look around. Put down your devices from time to time. People are watching you, people who are silently cheering you on, perhaps because you remind them of their own children or of themselves. Talk to them. Learn from them. Other people are watching you because they could use your help, your inspiration. Talk to them. Teach them. Everybody can be a role model.
4. Be honest with yourself and recognize your weaknesses. Find ways to make up for them. Meet with your professors and ask endless questions. Engage in healthy debate. Then you’ll be in a better position to focus on and build upon your strengths.
5. Don’t live on a hamster wheel. Have fun…and have some more fun! Take classes that allow you to step away from the lab or the theatre. Do things to broaden your substantive knowledge and your overall life experience. Study abroad. See the world. Do memorable things.
6. Don’t let the door slam behind you, hold it open for someone else. The experiences and advantages that you gain from your place at Wofford should be available to all students – no matter who they are or what they look like, provided they are willing and able to do the work, and provided they understand and accept that the standard is “excellence.”
7. Stop “networking” and start building real relationships. I didn’t become Promontory’s Chief Legal Officer because I met someone at a conference, or a cocktail party or some other networking event. The people who asked me to join them at the firm had confidence in my abilities and comfort in my values. They trusted me.
8. You already know this one - write letters. Now that we have the Internet, please do me a favor and look up a 2011 New York Times article written by Catherine Field. The title is “The Fading Art of Letter Writing.” Field focuses on and favors handwritten letters – calling them “[writing] that carries emotions rather than emoticons.” She describes “[l]etter-writing [as] among our most ancient of arts,” citing letters written by Abraham Lincoln, Jane Austen and Mark Twain. The takeaway for me, however, is the importance of clear, effective communication. I encourage you to use letters and your writing generally, and with apologies to Catherine Field, I don’t care if it’s handwritten or electronic, to stay in touch with your families, to establish and build relationships, and to advocate for people and causes. But most importantly, to tell the story of your Wofford experience to a world that is waiting to hear more about this place that you have chosen and how it is preparing you, in the words of our alma mater, to “Conquer and Prevail.”

Congratulations Class of 2022! And Welcome to the Wofford Family! Thank you.