The University announced two weeks ago that Commencement’s keynote speaker will be the chairman of the NAACP, and similar to last year, many students are bemoaning the decision. Some have criticized Julian Bond for controversial remarks about conservatives, but most are simply disappointed in the administration not snagging a celebrity.
Well, I have a dirty,little secret to share, having learned it from graduating with my bachelors last May: the keynote speaker at Commencement does not matter. Period.
There, I’ve said it. Awaiting my second graduation in a year, I’ve longed for the most notable personage to address me, someone entertaining and preferably comedic. Someone to compensate for the void of having no keynote speaker last year. Students are rightfully saying that Bond is a far cry from these criteria.
Give him credit where credit is due, though. This man has fought for racial and socioeconomic justice for decades and will likely give perspective to the class of 2008 on how far (or not far) contemporary society has come. His advice will be timely in the context of a fall semester replete with ethnically charged controversy on campus and the renewed national focus on race politics this campaign season. What better time to hear from an activist with our speaker’s background?
Then again, Bond is no James Bond, he is no Stephen Colbert and he is not even a Barack Obama. We won’t have bragging rights of a celebrity speaking at our graduation. And yet, schools with better headliners aren’t holding their exercises on the National Mall, nor do they have foreign heads of state and presidential candidates on their campus routinely throughout the school year.
None of this debate will matter much to the average senior six weeks from now. Commencement weekend is a whirlwind – trust me – and a singular speech will seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
Distractions abound during graduation days. Relatives are in town, move-out and move-in cause headaches, and constant meals and events bombard the schedule. At the Commencement ceremony itself, there is a large well of stress. Where do I meet up with my parents afterward? Do I really have to take a picture in this goofy, overpriced outfit? How come my cell phone isn’t working amid 20,000 other people using their phones at the same time?
To me, the speeches were the least meaningful part of the weekend. What mattered most was the alliterative trifecta of friends, family and free food. There’s nothing more important than spending time with those close to you at a milestone in your life. And there’s no better time before entering the real world to free-ride off your parents’ subsidizing of expensive meals. So, enjoy the graduation festivities, even without a celebrity headliner.
As trite as it sounds, your Commencement is going to be what you make of it. Saying the requisite goodbye to your past and looking forward toward the next phase in your life should be the focus, not some speech.
It’s been less than 11 months since my first graduation, and I can honestly not recall one specific take-away from the group of honorary degree recipients who spoke. This is coming, no less, from someone who paid attention during the ceremony and has honed his observational skills as a reporter for four years for this publication. My amnesia has company, though.
Robert Chernak, senior vice president of Student and Academic Support Services, has attended commencements at the universities he’s worked at for decades. His memory was also a bit fuzzy: “I can’t remember who my graduate speaker was at BU and can’t remember a word he said or she said. I think I might have had a bottle of wine under my seat or something . I remember people talking,” Chernak said in an interview last spring.
“It’s not the single event that should make it or break it in terms of a GW experience,” he added. After an investment of four years – or more – and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars, memories of college will gloss over how it ended. We have had eight semesters of classes, relationships, parties, mistakes and successes to ponder.
Reflect on your time in Foggy Bottom and mull over what you want to do with your life. The symbolic significance of graduation far outweighs the rhetorical significance of the graduation speech, so don’t waste away your last few weeks as an undergraduate complaining. Save that for life in the professional world or, worse yet, in grad school.
The writer, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in political management, is The Hatchet’s senior editor.