Shonda Rhimes ’91 was not yet an award-winning writer and producer of hit television shows when she retreated to a Vermont farmhouse in September 2001 to hole up for a month, miserable after a breakup with a boyfriend. But everything changed on her second day in the country when her best friend called and told her to turn on the television and watch the horror of the 9/11 attacks.
It was an epiphany, said Rhimes, Dartmouth's Commencement speaker, who today shared stories with students about her work, her life, and her Dartmouth experience over lunch and a reception. The September 11 attacks led the then-movie writer to realize she wanted a family.
"Life is short. What are you waiting for?" Rhimes said she asked herself. "If the world is going to end, I haven't done any of the things that I wanted to do." Nine months later, she adopted the first of her three daughters.
The creative force behind acclaimed television series Scandal, Grey's Anatomy, and Private Practice, Rhimes was generous to take time to talk with students, said Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson.
"I hope they take away some advice," Johnson said.
They did—after getting over the fact that they were chatting with such a famous celebrity, said Camille Van Putten ’14.
"I didn't know what to expect. She's so famous and so popular, a contemporary icon," said Van Putten, who found Rhimes quite approachable. "It's just like talking to a Dartmouth student who has been out in the world."
Senior Class President Chisom Obi-Okoye ’14 said Rhimes is "still like one of us."
Rhimes had lunch with members of the Palaeopitus Senior Society and then attended a reception with students from the Afro-American Society and BUTA, the Black Underground Theatre Association. At the reception, Rhimes said a few words, and then invited students to step forward. She was immediately surrounded by students eager to tell her their stories.
"I want to know what it's like to be black at Dartmouth now. We know what it was like 20 years ago. So let's chat," she said.
"Is there somewhere to get your hair done?" called out Zola Mashariki ’94, a senior vice president of production at Fox Searchlight Pictures and one of three friends who accompanied Rhimes.
"That would be no," shot back Dean Johnson, to laughter from the crowd.
Rhimes told students that she left Dartmouth knowing she "wanted to be a writer. And I knew my parents didn't want me to starve."
So she set her sights on a post-graduate year and then medical school, but "at the last minute I bailed," she said, and moved to San Francisco, where she bunked in her sister's basement and started film school at the University of Southern California.
Rhimes said she was an early adopter of social media, and began blogging about each episode of Grey's Anatomy when the show began a decade ago. Social media is one way for middle- and upper-middle class African Americans to "stand together in a space and have a conversation. It's a powerful force."
And it's brought her shows important notice, she said. "When Oprah's on Twitter and going, 'What's this Scandal thing?' That's a good thing," Rhimes said.
Rhimes said that from the beginning, she's behaved fearlessly in the television business, "like somebody who couldn't be fired. It's stunning what happens when you teach people how they are allowed to treat you," she said.
When asked what is most meaningful in her life, Rhimes told the students she is most passionate about her three daughters, about finding solitude, about a newfound interest in collecting African American art, and about her work, which, she said makes her very happy. Writing for television doesn't feel like a job, she said. "It's a great lab we get to play in every week. It doesn't feel like work."
Rhimes was asked for a sneak preview of her Commencement speech, which she said she wrote on the plane Friday after staring at her computer "for days and days and days on end," and after reading many other graduation speeches online—a process that she said served to intimidate her and make her even more anxious about what she should say.
"I want to say something worthy of a commencement speech and worthy of you guys," she said, mischievously adding, "So, who knows?"