Commencement speakers should have star power, unique experiences and be able give a speech worth remembering. And this year’s Commencement speaker seems to deliver on all three.
Last week, GW announced that Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., will speak at this year’s Commencement. Duckworth, who is a woman of color, a combat veteran, a Purple Heart recipient, the first Asian American female senator and an alumna, is the type of Commencement speaker GW should strive to recruit each year. Because of her varied life experiences, and her own diverse identity, Duckworth will be able to connect with most people in the graduating class, even if only because she is an alumna. While it’s not the Commencement speaker’s job to represent every person within the student body, it’s promising that if someone wants to, they will probably be able to see a bit of themselves in Duckworth.
It’s not surprising that officials went with a politician as the speaker. Even though this will be the second year in a row that the Commencement speaker is a Democratic senator, the choice shows that officials understand the GW community and the types of people students want to hear speak. Our student body is known to be political, even if not every student wants to be a politician, and we’re a liberal-leaning university. The speaker sending students off into the real world should reflect that.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that every Commencement speaker has to be a politician. But a speaker should have a way to connect with the graduating class. In Duckworth’s case, that’s easy – she earned her master’s degree from the Elliott School of International Affairs. And when GW brought Kerry Washington to speak at Commencement, even though Washington is an actress and not a politico, she had an immediate connection with graduates because she’s an alumna.
While bringing in Tim Cook in 2015 was a high-profile pick, and his speech was still well-received, there wasn’t much that Cook could do to tell GW students about how their experience at GW specifically will affect them in their chosen career paths. It’s not a necessity for the Commencement speaker to be an alum, but if the University is going to bring in a speaker without easy name recognition, the person should at least have a comprehensive understanding of GW and the GW experience – and it’s even better if they have both, like Duckworth and Washington did.
The University’s checklist for a Commencement speaker is probably different than students’. Students might be looking for someone who can inspire them with a moving speech, or someone who they want to emulate – whether it be a well-known senator, successful entrepreneur or Hollywood star. But for GW, a Commencement speaker is another cool thing to brag about on admissions materials and tours. By choosing popular figures as Commencement speakers, GW gets media attention from some news sources, like landing on yearly “best of” lists. There’s nothing wrong with either of these lists of wants – what’s important is striking a balance between the two, which Duckworth should be able to achieve.
The University should continue choosing speakers with name recognition so both students and the admissions office can do a bit of showing off. And hearing a famous person speak at Commencement might make the event all the more memorable. But bringing in someone with name recognition isn’t enough. The speaker should understand the student body they’re speaking to, whether through career goals, ethnicity or alum status. The speaker should be able to give students insight on what it’s like to succeed in the real world and how to deal with challenges they’re bound to face – like how to succeed in a field where the odds are against you and how to dust yourself off when you fall. Success stories are great, but stories about hard work and picking yourself up are more realistic for a group of graduates. As someone who lost her first race for a seat in the House of Representatives, Duckworth has her own story to share that should encourage graduates to not give up.
This year, GW struck the perfect balance between someone with name recognition and a motivator for students in Duckworth. She knows what it’s like to lose and what it’s like to have the odds stacked against her. Hopefully GW continues this trend in the future and picks speakers already known to graduates, setting a standard for future speakers that can get prospective students excited.
Our Commencement speaker isn’t always going to be the first lady, a former president or a Grammy award winner. They can still have compelling words to share with graduates that they will remember for the years to come, and it seems like Duckworth will be no exception.
The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Melissa Holzberg and contributing opinions editor Irene Ly, based on discussions with managing director Eva Palmer, homepage editor Tyler Loveless, contributing sports editor Matt Cullen and copy editor Melissa Schapiro.