Kerry Washington

Student graduation speaker Alexander Zafran greets Kerry Washington with the official ΦBK handshake as
GWU President Steven Knapp looks on. All three are Phi Beta Kappa members.

“You and you alone are the only person who can live the life that can write
the story that you were meant to tell.”

—Kerry Washington 

By Colleen Walsh

Actress Kerry Washington (ΦBK, George Washington University, 1998) has quickly risen to the top of the media pool, but has never allowed her background to become lost in the clamor. Featured in critically acclaimed films like Ray (2004) as Della Rae Robinson and Django Unchained (2012) as Broomhilda von Shaft, Washington transforms the supporting role of the African-American woman into a universal symbol of confidence, strength, and empowerment for all women. Best known for her role on ABC’s smash hit drama Scandal, Washington stars as Olivia Pope, a “fixer” who wipes out various scandals and other disgraces for her host of clients. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair magazine, Washington shares how powerful an effect her character has on all women: “one of the most profound things for me about the show is the number of white women of all ages who come up to me and say, ‘I want to be Olivia Pope.’”  Of the show, Washington has said how greatly she appreciates the writing, which at last shows a world in which women hold the power.

The Bronx-native, an only child of a real estate agent and a professor of education, was raised to be socially conscious despite her early interests in becoming a part of the pop culture wave. Washington recalls in a recent interview how, at the young age of thirteen, her parents brought her to Yankee Stadium to see the newly liberated Nelson Mandela speak. Furthermore, on her eighteenth birthday, her rights as a voting citizen were celebrated rather than her transition into legal adulthood, of which she says: “My parents took me out to dinner, and we talked about who I was going to vote for.” This awareness, however, was not simply ingrained in her as a child, but lived out by Washington in her daily life. Despite attending the extremely prestigious Manhattan Spence School, Washington stayed focused during her teen years and used her acting talents in an educational theater troupe that performed self-written skits about sex education in local schools and community centers. She recalls the significance of the experience: “It taught me the importance of really understanding everything about who you’re playing, because you never knew what question was going to come.” This passion carried through her undergraduate years at George Washington University, where  she  continued acting despite the workload of her anthropology and psychology majors. 

Her social consciousness has yet to pump the brakes. Despite the success of Scandal and movies such as Django Unchained, Washington still served on Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and even delivered a speech supporting his reelection at the most recent Democratic National Convention. Her dedication to progress rings in the opening words: “I’m here not just as an actress but as a woman, an African-American, a granddaughter of Ellis Island immigrants, a person who could not have afforded college without the help of student loans, and as one of millions of volunteers working to re-elect President Obama.” As an outspoken representative for so many minorities, Washington is not only an actress, but also an advocate for real social change. 

It is this message—that significant change begins at an individual level—of which Washington reminded the class of 2013 graduates in her commencement speech at George Washington University this spring. For her, life is the same as the classic story; but in this particular story, you are the hero, and life is your journey. She shares a brief anecdote about an uncomfortable audition and the struggle to perfect a role during her time as an undergraduate at GW. She tells the audience that we all must be “heroes of our own lives.” To close, Washington reminds the class about the importance of individuality and purpose: “You and you alone are the only person who can live the life that can write the story that you were meant to tell.” Kerry Washington is certainly the hero of her own story, and eager to help others along the journey. 

Colleen Walsh is a senior at Manhattan College majoring in secondary education with a concentration in English. Manhattan College is home to the Upsilon of New York chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

To read Alexander Zafran’s story about the handshake he shared with Kerry Washington at GW’s commencement ceremony this spring, click HERE