Kerry Washington told David Letterman last week that she is “terrified” for her headlining speech Sunday on the National Mall. But Washington, best known for starring in ABC’s political drama “Scandal,” will be on familiar terrain when she apperas before thousands of families and becomes the first GW graduate to headline Commencement in six years.
Vice President for External Relations Lorraine Voles said the speaker selection committee wanted Washington from the get-go to help stress GW’s growing focus on arts and humanities. Voles, who steers the committee that picks the University-wide Commencement speaker, said the administration wants to look back on its ceremonies and make sure they don’t always feature “the same kind of person.” GW has leaned toward speakers involved in politics and media recently, with past headliners including first lady Michelle Obama, former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and NBC News anchor Brian Williams.
“We were so lucky this year that Kerry Washington said yes. We really wanted someone in the arts. Kerry was kind of a natural. She’s one of our most famous alumni in the arts, but she’s so visible right now,” Voles said, referencing the massive publicity tour Washington has been on for the Tyler Perry movie “Peeples,” which premiered last week.
Washington starred in last year’s Academy Award-winning film “Django Unchained” and earned an award from the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People for her appearance in the 2004 film “Ray.” Her other film credits include “Last King of Scotland” and “Fantastic Four.”
During her undergraduate years, Washington served on the Colonial Cabinet and worked as a house staffer in Thurston Hall. She graduated in 1998, personalizing her own major that mixed acting, anthropology, sociology and psychology. She also went on to serve briefly on the Board of Trustees in 2010.
As a guest on “Late Night with David Letterman” last week, a poised and elegant Washington laughed along with Letterman’s jokes and avoided divulging too much information on the contents of her speech.
“I’m going to do jokes about how I pulled a lot of all-nighters and drank a lot in college,” Washington, 36, joked.
The Bronx, N.Y. native also serves on President Barack Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and is one of a group of advisers for a global movement to end violence against women, V-Day. Washington also spoke at the Democratic National Convention last year.
She told Letterman she wants to use stories from those experiences to have a “positive impact on these graduates,” and knows there are high expectations.
“You, in 20 minutes, are going to unravel the world and give them the key to solve the problems?” Letterman joked.
“That’s my plan,” Washington said. “I’m going to do it, and I’m going to send you the recording and you too will be enlightened.”
But Washington said she’s aware that GW may be a tough crowd: “I’m sure some of [the students] are like, ‘Oh, an actress at commencement, what does she know?”‘
Speakers at college-specific graduation ceremonies:
Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Graduate and doctoral ceremony
Friday, 8:30 a.m. – Smith Center
The assistant history professor received the 2012 Walker Cowen Prize from the University of Virginia Press for most outstanding manuscript in 18th-century studies in the Americas and Atlantic world for his book, “The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World.”
School of Nursing
Friday, 6:30 p.m. – Lisner Auditorium
The former dean of the nursing school at the University of Tennessee-Memphis is a fellow in the American Academy of Nursing and maintains a clinical practice as a nurse in Heber Springs, Alaska.
GW School of Business
Friday, 3:30 p.m. – Smith Center
Steven S. Ross
The trustee and 1981 alumnus is the senior vice president of RBC Wealth Management. He began working at the firm 33 years ago as an intern, making $3.65 an hour. He has managed the financial portfolios of numerous individuals and corporations, and made it to the top of the firm decades laterc.
Graduate School of Education and Human Development
Saturday, 8 a.m. – Smith Center
The alumnus is the former CEO of America Online and served on the University’s Board of Trustees. Since retiring from AOL in 2002, he has worked as the chair of The Learning Alliance, an organization that promotes literacy in Indian River County, Fla.
College of Professional Studies
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. – Smith Center
George S. Hawkins
The Princeton University professor and general manager of D.C. Water has focused on environmental, conservation and sustainability efforts throughout his career. Before joining D.C. Water, Hawkins served as director of the District Department of the Environment.
Elliott School of International Affairs
Friday, 11:30 a.m. – Smith Center
The former dean of the Elliott School and professor emeritus of political science and international affairs has received two Fulbright awards to Norway. He is a senior fellow at the Strategic Concepts Development Center of the U.S. Department of Defense.
School of Public Health and Health Services
Saturday, noon – Lisner Auditorium
Currently on leave from teaching environmental and occupational health at GW, Michaels is the assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, working on regulations for workplace standards.
GW Law School
Sunday, 2:30 p.m. – Smith Center
Randall R. Rader
The chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit earned his J.D. from GW Law in 1978 and has taught at the school since 1990. He has co-authored several texts, including the most widely used textbook on U.S. patent law, and spearheaded the development of the law school’s international program in India.
Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Undergraduate ceremonies
Saturday, noon and 3:30 p.m. – Smith Center
Daina Eglitis and Jennifer Christine Nash
The professors of sociology and American studies, respectively, will address the undergraduates. Eglitis is a Fulbright scholar at the Academy of Culture in Riga, Latvia and was recently selected to be an international scholar in the Higher Education Support Program of the Open Society Institute. Nash researches black feminism and women’s studies, and has held fellowships at Columbia University and at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.
School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Saturday, 4 p.m. – Lisner Auditorium
The internationally recognized cardiovascular surgeon received his M.D. from GW in 1962. He is chief executive and chairman of the Board of Governors of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, working there for 33 years to help develop new techniques in coronary artery surgery and valve repair.
School of Engineering and Applied Science
Friday, 7:30 p.m. – Smith Center
The alumna co-founded Paragon Technology Group, the D.C.-based information technology contracting company. She is a member of the school’s advisory council and a mentor in the Clark Engineering Scholars program, which will pay $8 million for 20 students to go to SEAS for free by 2014.
This post was updated May 13, 2013 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Kerry Washington graduated from GW in 2008. She graduated in 1998. We regret this error.