Jill Abramson
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty
By Caroline Fairchild
May 19, 2014

FORTUNE — Jill Abramson knows a thing or two about resilience. Days after a very public blowup with the New York Times, the former executive editor spoke to the most recent graduates of Wake Forest University about the importance of dealing with setbacks.

“Show what you are made of,” said Abramson Monday morning to a crowd on Wake Forest’s campus in Winston-Salem, N.C. “Anyone who has 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’s comments come in the wake of a firestorm of attention surrounding her controversial exit from the New York Times. After leading the paper for two and a half years as executive editor, Abramson was suddenly fired on Wednesday and replaced with Dean Baquet, the former managing editor. Initial reports indicated that Abramson was paid less than her male predecessors, leading to accusations that the New York Times treated women unequally in the workplace. The paper’s publisher, Arther Sulzberger Jr., staunchly rejected those claims over the weekend, claiming instead that Abramson was fired due to her poor management skills.

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While the circumstances surrounding Abramson’s dismissal remain murky, the former executive editor made it clear in her speech that she would remain working in the field of journalism. She called running the New York Times newsroom “the honor or her life” and went on to say that “losing a job you love hurts,” but she plans to stay in the field.

Abramson also cited in her speech an incident nearly seven years ago where she was almost run over and killed by a truck in New York City’s Times Square. On Sunday, Abramson’s daughter, Cornelia Griggs, shared a photo on Instagram of her mom after the incident and wrote Abramson was taking the “#highroad” by honoring her commitment to speak at Wake Forest amid the controversy of her firing.

“We human beings are a lot more resilient than we realize. Resilient and perseverant,” Abramson said she realized after the incident.

Abramson added that like many of the soon-to-be graduates, she was unsure about what the future would hold for her. Similar to the graduates, Abramson lightheartedly said she was a little scared, but also excited about what lies ahead.

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To end her address, Abramson shared that last week when she left her New York Times office for the last time, she grabbed Robert Frost’s Speaking On Campus. In 1956, Frost told graduates at Colby College that life after school is like “pieces of knitting to go on with,” or as Abramson explained, life is always unfinished business, like the bits of knitting women used to carry around with them.

“For those of you who have never knit, think of it as akin to your Tumblr, something you can pick up from time and change,” Abramson said, updating Frost’s reference for the 2014 graduates. “My mother was a great knitter who made some magnificent things. But she also made a few itchy, frankly hideous sweaters for me. She also left some things unfinished. So today you gorgeous, brilliant people, get on with your knitting.”

As Abramson searches for the next chapter in her career after a major setback, she likely will seek her own advice as well.


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