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Dismissed New York Times editor to new graduates: Leading newsroom was 'honour of my life'

Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, receives an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the commencement ceremony Monday, May 19, 2014 at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. It was Abramson's first public appearance since her dismissal from The New York Times. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

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Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, receives an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the commencement ceremony Monday, May 19, 2014 at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. It was Abramson's first public appearance since her dismissal from The New York Times. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - In her first public appearance since her dismissal from The New York Times, former executive editor Jill Abramson compared herself to a new college graduate: "scared but also a little excited."

"What's next for me? I don't know. So I'm in exactly the same boat as many of you," Abramson told the Class of 2014 at Wake Forest University's graduation ceremony on Monday, to laughs and applause.

The Times announced last week that Abramson was being replaced by managing editor Dean Baquet. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has denied reports that Abramson's dismissal had to do with complaints over unequal pay or the company's treatment of women. Instead, he cited Abramson's newsroom management style.

In her speech, Abramson focused on a theme of resilience, talking briefly about her time at the helm of The New York Times but not directly addressing her dismissal. She said she didn't want the "media circus" following her to take attention away from the graduates.

"It was the honour of my life to lead the newsroom," she said, describing the risks Times journalists take to report the news.

"Sure, losing a job you love hurts, but the work I revere — journalism that holds powerful institutions and people accountable — is what makes our democracy so resilient. This is the work I will remain very much a part of."

Abramson decided not to attend Brandeis University's weekend graduation, where she was supposed to receive an honorary degree. But she went ahead with the Wake Forest speech. Abramson said students there had asked whether she would remove her tattoo of The Times' 'T.'

"Not a chance!" she said.

Among her journalism heroes, Abramson listed former New York Times reporter Nan Robertson, who wrote a book describing the fight for workplace parity by the newspaper's female employees, and former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.

"They faced discrimination in a much tougher, more male-dominated newspaper industry. And they went on to win Pulitzer Prizes," Abramson said.

Abramson also invoked the memory of her father, who told her it was more important to deal with setbacks than successes.

"'Show what you are made of,' he would say. Graduating from Wake Forest means all of you have experienced success already. And some of you — and now I'm talking to anyone who's been dumped, not gotten the job you really wanted, or received those horrible rejection letters from grad school — you know the sting of losing or not getting something you badly want. When that happens, show what you are made of."

Abramson shook the hands of all 1,059 undergraduates as they crossed the stage. Wake Forest officials said she left immediately after the ceremony, and she did not take questions from reporters.

Graduate Georgia Tanner, 22, said Abramson handled her speech well, addressing the recent news but not dwelling or sounding bitter. "I think it was a professional address," Tanner said.

Graduate Sathay Williams, 20, said Abramson made the speech about the graduates and focused on something they can use in the future.

"Life can throw curve balls at you," Williams said. "Sometimes it's not fair, sometimes it's not deserved. You can work really hard and still things don't work out. But keep chugging forward, stay true to who you are and go forward with it. She gave us a really good message."

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