UI commencement speaker Orman: 'Your life matters as well'


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Finance guru tells graduates to help others, work on finances, but don't forget to live

Personal-finance guru Suze Orman is taking a break from fishing on her private island to inspire her fellow future social workers at Saturday's convocation for that school at the University of Illinois.

Orman speaks at 1:30 p.m. at the Tryon Festival Theater at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U.

She attended the UI and received a degree in social work in 1976. As the Urbana campus commencement speaker in 2009, she received an honorary doctorate in humane letters.

Orman is also an Emmy Award winner and New York Times best-selling author.

The alumna calls social workers "vital to the fabric of the United States of America."

But in an interview with The News-Gazette, she said she'll also offer the graduates tips on how to live well on a fairly small wage.

She said it costs as much to get a master's in social work as it does to get an MBA, but that doesn't mean they earn anywhere near as much.

Orman is the author of 2007's "Women and Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny," and she said that UI graduates will have to know how to control their destinies right away.

She talked about working in the Chicago area as a nursing home social worker, but "drifting into California and waitressing." She worked as a waitress making $400 a month.

"I was homeless for a while," she said. "I lived in a van."

She was already no stranger to difficult living conditions. While a UI student, Orman literally shared a bedroom with John Belushi and his future wife, Judy Jacklin.

"It was identical to 'Animal House,'" she said.

In her dorm years, the floor's bathroom was so jammed that she was always the first on her floor to get up, so she would have time to get ready.

She had worked at Campustown's Bubby and Zadies, in the heyday of REO Speedwagon, down the street at the Red Lion, she said, but got her real start waitressing for the Buttercup Bakery in Berkeley.

There she learned the business, and decided to buy one.

"I asked my parents to lend me $20,000 in 1980, but my parents didn't have that kind of money," she said.

"The people at Buttercup, where I waitressed seven years, gave me $50,000, a check for $2,000 here, $3,000 there, to be paid back at no interest — if I could," she said.

That got her to Merrill Lynch, where she lost her money but gained a job.

"I went in to talk to a broker — a man, there were no women then — and a guy named Randy sold me on the options market. I didn't know then it was a dangerous market," she said.

After training as an account executive for Merrill Lynch, she boned up on her Barron's and "Wall Street Week" and figured out she'd been mistreated.

She successfully sued the firm for Randy's bad options advice while she was still employed there. It's illegal to fire employees solely for filing a lawsuit against them.

They paid her back $50,000, "plus 18 percent interest," she said.

"What if it were my mom and dad that he cheated?" she asked, sounding a little more like a social worker.

Later, she climbed the ladder at Prudential Bache Securities, then started her own company before becoming a media star.

But she has retained her respect for the field in which she was trained.

"Of all the vocations out there, social workers are the most admirable," Orman said. "They go to school to get a master's, come out and get $26,000 a year, for which they have to listen to horrific stories and help those who need help the most."

She said that social workers, like many people, need to listen to their own needs.

"My advice: give to yourself as much as you give to others. Don't forget that while you have to pay bills, and pay off credit card debt and save as much as you can, your life matters as well," she said.

Orman, who is turning 66, has closed down her TV show, stopped writing for Oprah magazine and moved to her private island in the Bahamas to do a heck of a lot of fishing.

"I have found out part of who I am is an extraordinary fisherman," she said. "We fish every day. Today, I've been fishing since 6 a.m., on an outgoing tide, and that ends at 9:30 a.m."

She's coming out of semi-retirement to create a seminar based on her 2007 book about women and money.

Orman intends to teach eight-hour seminars to women, "and they'd better be able to keep up."

For those who can't, all audience members will be given an audio or video recording of the presentation, and her book.

If you go

What: University of Illinois campuswide commencement ceremony.

Who: Doctoral candidates are individually recognized. Bachelor's- and master's-degree recipients stand as a group at their seats and are recognized by college.

When: 9:30 a.m. Saturday.

Where: The main event is at Memorial Stadium. Some units have separate commencements in addition. Actor and comedian Nick Offerman will be commencement speaker for the main ceremony.

More information: commencement.illinois.edu/ceremonies/may_ceremonies.html


Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is pwood@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).