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In early November Skye Fitzgerald received Eastern Oregon University’s Distinguished Alumni Award. Below is the speech that he gave at the event.

Many years ago, when I was a Sophomore at EOU I was struggling with what I should study. At the time, I was deeply enamored of the theatre but equally concerned that it was a fool’s path fraught with the stereotypical angst of life as an artist. And so I thought – why not law school? So I spent a day in the library studying what lawyers do and found myself excited by the financial prospects but entirely dispirited by the idea of sitting in an office all day.

In fact my struggle was educationally fundamental – I was concerned whether there was a real value in pursuing a liberal arts education.

And in the middle of trying to sort this out, I mentioned it to a mentor at EOU – a professor now retired but who always gave me his fullest attention and mindfulness.

And I’ll never forget what he said to me. To paraphrase badly:

A liberal arts education is not designed to learn how to make a living, but how to make a life worth living.

And that stuck with me.  It was enough to turn the tide and convince me that my intrinsic motivation to create was worth pursuing.  And this idea has served to guide me in strange and mysterious ways since.

Skye Fitzgerald

Speaking at EOU

For the past 18 years I have made living doing what I love – creating nonfiction films on human rights issues.  It’s not always easy.

Two weeks ago, 24 miles off the coast of Libya, I was filming on a Search and Rescue vessel that encountered over 2000 refugees floating in makeshift boats in the middle of the ocean.  With no other rescue vessel in the area, our job was to try to evacuate these thousands of human beings from makeshift boats before they sank, or the people died from exposure.  No easy task when you’re a crew of 16 on a 30 meter boat.

Out on a zodiac it was often a choice of filming someone drown or putting down the camera and pulling them into the boat. And so, it was an easy choice really. And though the film we will make from the experience will suffer for it, I will never regret my decision nor the decision of my Director of Photography to simply stop filming for long periods as we pulled people from the ocean.

In the end, we safely evacuated all but two people – we lost one woman, and a man who drowned in front of us before our zodiac could reach him.  But over 2200 human beings were pulled from the ocean to continue their lives free from the horrors of war they were leaving behind. And hopefully, we will create a film from the experience that will help marshal resources towards preventing similar tragedies from happening.

I share this experience because I think it exemplifies the fundamental criteria I use to gauge whether I tell a story or not.  If we finish this dinner here tonight, and I step out onto 6th street and am hit by a car – would I be happy with what I’ve left behind?  If the project I am working on is important enough to me to elicit a clear and unadulterated ‘yes’ then I know I’m on the right track.  On the track to a life worth living.   

I have my time here, at EOU, to thank for this. Professors in small classes nurtured my questioning nature instead of trying to shape it.  They also challenged the notion that practical concerns should trump an internal compass in life.  

For me, this idea is beautifully expressed by Sterling Hayden the actor, author and war hero:

“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsman who play with their boats as sea – cruising it’s called. Voyaging belongs to seamen and to the wanderers of the world who cannot or will not fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. …

What does a [person] need, really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment.”

Thank you EOU for helping me understand this.

To learn more about Skye’s journey to becoming a documentary filmmaker, read this article.