Dan Grover: A new direction for future commencement speakers

As the countdown to graduation begins, students are starting to wonder who will speak at Commencement. The expectations are high given past Commencement speakers – First Lady Michelle Obama, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the host of NBC’s “Nightly News” Brian Williams.

Typically, a panel of students, faculty and administrators select the Commencement speaker. And while this is productive, there are other ways to ensure the entire University community is involved in the process.

At the start of each academic year, the University could choose a theme based on its major tenets, like sustainability, social justice, service or research. GW could spend the year putting on programming that reflects this theme. The Commencement speaker could represent the theme and highlight GW’s accomplishments in that area. This could be an annual tradition.

And past experience proves that this approach works. When the first lady was invited to speak to the Class of 2010, she only agreed to come on the condition that GW students perform 100,000 hours of community service. That year’s theme was civic engagement. And as a result, thousands of students turned out in droves to participate in community service across the District, ensuring that Obama spoke at Commencement. In one of GW’s prouder moments, the community not only rose to the challenge, but also surpassed the 100,000-hour goal.

This is an example of what can happen if students work together toward a single purpose, and the University should look to employ this approach in the future.

A speech about students’ own cause would add substance and value beyond the usual trite advice and lines of encouragement, addressing the significance of the accomplishments of a graduating class.

For example, the University could focus on sustainability and spend the year organizing environmental projects for students. A prominent environmental activist, like Al Gore, could serve as the speaker.

Graduation speeches are never easy to construct, given that it is hard not to sound generic. A speech should be based off one of the University’s major values.

Dan Grover is a freshman majoring in English.

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