Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — As Bill Cosby took to the stage Tuesday, waving his baseball cap at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s graduating class, a few students quickly slipped into fashion critic mode.
“Look what he’s wearing! Birkenstocks and sweatpants!” they exclaimed amid a thunder of applause.
Though the pants were not the fleece material, as described, Cosby wasn’t at Radio City Music Hall to make a fashion statement. As a keynote speaker, he was there to joke, invoke and even toke a little.
When FIT president Joyce Brown flubbed her introduction of Cosby, he gestured as if smoking a joint, much to the crowd’s delight, though she didn’t see. If that wasn’t sophomoric enough, Cosby then chided the graduates with his signature playfulness, as well.
During his speech, he praised the summa cum laudes, magna cum laudes and the “thank you Lordies.”
“What’s nice about this is they don’t have a clear idea,” Cosby said in an interview prior to his address. “They don’t set up the big picture. More parents are confused about the futures of their kids [from here] than they would be at a graduation from Franklin & Marshall, Morehouse or NYU. These kids will be judged by so many people in and out. Independence will be needed, which means they may need help for some time.”
Cosby urged the 2,700 graduates to look at “the big picture” and overcome the challenges of working in a creative field, describing their educational and career path as “sort of a strange splash of water from the fountain of life for your family.
“This is about looking out and seeing how excited the parents and kids are. When I look out and see their faces, it really says how America has changed. Fifty years ago, would you see a man or a woman in a wheelchair, born with tremendous difficulties, who now, because of a computer, can actually talk?”
While most parents are quite happy to see their children graduate from traditional schools with traditional majors, parents of FIT graduates “really think they have done something,” Cosby said.
“They don’t talk about graduation. They say, ‘Thank God she’s healthy’ or ‘He’s never been in trouble.’ Your folks are here today, and this is the first thing they’ve seen that looks like mainstream to them. They do not know these are not real professors. These people have small apartments in Greenwich Village.”
Cosby advised them not to worry about entering the real world, especially since they’d been living there for some time, crossing Seventh Avenue, riding the subway and doing other things that real people do.
The professional world was another story.
“You’re going to work. Most of you will become interns. The word intern is a French word for slave,” he said. “You will find you will get coffee for someone. Get the coffee and keep your mouth shut.”
Inquisitive minds often lead to layoffs, he said, because superiors can be threatened. Cosby also warned that there comes a point in a career where one is afraid to pursue the things of which one dreamed. The question is how to handle it, he said.
In terms of dealing with parents who might not appreciate the value of design careers, Cosby said, “All you have to do is tell them what you are and who you are.
“You can say, ‘Lawyers, doctors and teachers — those people have nice jobs, but I designed the suit. And the toys they have, I did that.’ It’s important to know you are a person who contributes and makes everybody’s life a lot better. Be proud of what you do.
“You’ll have dreams and you will say to someone, ‘This is great idea.’ And someone else will say, ‘No it isn’t,’ and then you’ll go back to your cubicle. The question is, Who do you believe?”
Cosby, a Temple University graduate and one of America’s best-known comic actors, is also a veteran of the commencement circuit. Cosby, who has a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the State University of New York, of which FIT is part.
He opened his remarks by explaining why he enjoys addressing college grads.
“I get more from this than you,” he said. “I have a retirement plan and a wonderful wife who will oversee me as I get ready to leave and live.”
But he also struck a more serious note, acknowledging how some in the crowd may have wept or prayed for his family, after a tragedy four years ago, when Cosby’s son, Ennis, a doctoral student in special education at Columbia University, was killed while changing a tire on a Los Angeles highway.
He urged students to listen to people who love them, not just to those who will agree with them.
“The fact that you have no idea what tomorrow will bring is because you haven’t thought about what you’re bringing to tomorrow,” Cosby said. “From this point on, you’re not above it or beyond it, you’re in the middle of it. Don’t think about failure. That’s academic.
“Just be happy about one thing. These [tuition] prices will no longer exist for next semester.”