Elliott School senior will address graduates

Zoe Petkanas only had two minutes to share her GW experience with a panel of judges who would decide if the Elliott School of International Affairs senior had what it takes to be the student speaker at the University-wide Commencement ceremony.

And after just 120 seconds of speech, Petkanas won the unanimous support of the panel.

University Marshal Jill Kasle said out of the eight students selected to represent their schools in the speaker competition, Petkanas was the one who wowed the judges. The competitive selection process is held annually to decide who is best suited to speak in front of the expected 25,000 students, parents, faculty, and special guests – including this year’s Commencement speaker first lady Michelle Obama – on the National Mall May 16.

“I’m trying to extrapolate from one person, one podium, in front of 10 people, to the Mall and 25,000 people. It’s more abstract and instinctive,” Kasle said about the competition held Friday morning.

About Petkanas, Kasle said, “Everyone in the room thought yeah, that’s our girl.”

A student representative from each school, except the School of Medicine and Health Sciences and the School of Business, attended the final competition.

“It is an incredible honor. I am happy to be able to speak to my experiences here,” Petkanas said. “I’m a little overwhelmed, but really excited. I didn’t let myself imagine it happening.”

Kasle said none of the judges came to the auditions hoping to hear a certain type of speech – they were just looking for a student with charisma and the ability to “really carry it.”

The judges included Kasle, Executive Director of Media Relations Candace Smith, Senior Class Council chair Liz Finnegan, Executive Associate of University Events Ocieola Newby, and GW Senior Class Gift Committee volunteer James Swanson.

Petkanas grew up in Putnam Valley, N.Y. in a family that she said was well-versed in politics and current affairs – not unlike the GW student body.

“My mom and dad were always giving me books and taking me to museums, teaching me to care and look at the world with a humanist kind of perspective,” she said. “We’ve always talked about injustice and poverty, and I’ve always been taught to care about those things.”

Petkanas began her two-minute speech Friday with an anecdote about walking to her first class freshman year when a presidential motorcade passed her on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“I knew GW wasn’t going to be a typical college experience,” she said.

She also spoke about her experience last summer in Jordan as a Gamow Fellow and how it changed her. After graduating, Petkanas plans to spend two months in Muscat, Oman on a critical language scholarship from the U.S. State Department.

While Petkanas said she has not done much public speaking, her experiences in theater have helped her develop strong nerves.

“The way I approached this speech is how I approach a monologue in a play,” she said. “I have to remember that I’m talking to people and trying to relate to people.”

The New York Times and the Washington Examiner have already interviewed Petkanas, asking how she will prepare to speak alongside national icon and first lady Michelle Obama.

“It’s a huge honor to be sharing the stage with her, I really admire her as the first lady,” Petkanas said. “It’s incredibly intimidating, but I’m also really excited.”

Petkanas feels that she has had a representative experience at GW, but has taken advantage of all the resources GW and D.C. have to offer, making her college experience unique as well.

“Our experiences at GW have been really unique and we should take that and understand it, this perspective we’ve been able to cultivate from being GW.”

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