What Seniors Want in a Commencement Speaker

by Zachary Gorman | 4/18/18 2:25am

Since the College’s original class graduated in August 1771, Commencement ceremonies have honored nearly every class of graduating Dartmouth students. After four or more years studying at Dartmouth, students celebrate their accomplishments while receiving some final guidance. Though Dartmouth’s Commencement exercises have evolved significantly over the last few centuries, the tradition of Commencement speeches remains relatively unchanged.

For Commencement speeches, Dartmouth obtains prominent speakers from various walks of life, including politics, journalism and entertainment. Some of Dartmouth’s most famous living alumni have given recent speeches, including Shonda Rhimes ’91 and Jake Tapper ’91. Students and their families will remember Commencement speeches for the rest of their lives, so it is no small task for the College to choose speakers who can eloquently share their thoughts.

College spokesperson Diana Lawrence wrote in an email statement that a long yearly process takes place for selecting a Commencement speaker. Each fall, the President’s office asks for nominations from the Dartmouth community for that year’s Commencement speaker. The faculty council on honorary degrees then examines the list of nominations and chooses a select few candidates for consideration by the President and The Board of Trustees. The trustees officially choose the College’s desired Commencement speaker, who is then formally invited to the College by the President.

Though their opinions are not officially factored into the final decisions on Commencement speakers, graduating Dartmouth seniors have preferences for invited speakers. Maya Moten ’18 believes that it is integral that a Commencement speaker knows how to keep an audience interested.

“I’m very much someone who doesn’t maintain their attention span for too long, especially when it comes to these types of things,” Moten said. “So I would like someone who is exciting or interesting. Someone who has got a few jokes around them. Something to keep my attention, because I have been to graduation many times and Commencement speeches are always the worst.”

Brett Seeley-Hacker ’18 supports the College’s decision to choose speakers from various professions, but he is most drawn to a certain type of speaker.

“I know Conan O’Brien did a talk at Dartmouth, and it was funny, and that’s a fine thing,” Seeley-Hacker said. “If it’s going to be just a comedic talk, you can pick a comedian. I’d say that if you wanted to have … a thought-provoking Commencement talk, you would go with people based on the characteristic of wisdom.” 

For Seeley-Hacker, having a Commencement speaker that is “wise” is more important than having someone famous.

“The Montgomery Fellows Program just hosted Yo-Yo Ma here, and he gave a lecture, and throughout the lecture I was struck by the fact that this guy is really wise and he’s taken his life experience and reflected deeply on it and presents it in a way that shows that he has great knowledge of how the world works and where it should be going,” he said. 

Moten does not have a preference about the livelihood of Commencement speakers as long as they have powerful communication skills.

“I’m not really particular on what type of background [the speaker should have],” Moten said. “When Conan O’Brien spoke, that was really interesting because he’s a late-night talk show host, so he knows how to engage a crowd.”

In contrast, Jerrel Catlett II ’18 believes that a speaker’s background can play a significant role in their contributions to Commencement. He worries that universities may sometimes be making the wrong choice by choosing celebrities as Commencement speakers, rather than focusing on social issues.

“As we’re graduating, we’re encountering so much talk about our democratic institution, immigration, civil rights issues, gun violence,” he said. “And I think [with] people who are leading the way in those fields regarding issues that are current and relevant to us now as we’re about to enter this world outside of Dartmouth, because Dartmouth is very much a bubble where we aren’t really exposed to those types of problems … we learn more about how we can participate in them using our new education.”

Though the College has chosen political and social leaders to give past Commencement addresses, the College has decided to go with a different route this year. Actress and writer Mindy Kaling ’01 will speak at the Class of 2018’s Commencement on June 10. Kaling, who rose to fame for her work as a writer and actor on shows such as “The Office” and “The Mindy Project,” previously delivered a speech at Harvard Law School’s 2014 Commencement.

Though Kaling is not explicitly involved in activism or politics, Catlett believes that Kaling’s selection is meaningful for the College.

“It isn’t lost on me that Dartmouth has put a really large effort in making sure that people of color are represented in terms of Commencement speeches, at least over the past decade,” Catlett said. “So it’s really exciting especially to see females of color be honored with being able to give a speech to our class.”

Seeley-Hacker is looking forward to Kaling’s speech for a different reason.

“I think it’s really exciting that she’ll be able to speak about Dartmouth from an insider’s perspective and maybe tell some stories or some jokes from her time here,” Seeley-Hacker said. “I’m interested to see what she talks about.”

Moten, a fan of Kaling’s work, believes that Kaling is the perfect choice to faithfully represent the Dartmouth experience in her Commencement address.

“Hearing that it was Mindy Kaling, I was like, ‘Okay, I can get behind this,’” Moten said. “She’s a funny person. I thought it was actually really interesting, though, that she was ... chosen because, in the past, I know that she has not necessarily had the best rhetoric when it comes to Dartmouth. She’s definitely had some thoughts about her time in reflecting on the school. Nonetheless, I think that it’s also really humane … having someone who might not always see the rosy side of Dartmouth, or who’s had their ups and downs like any one of us have.” 

Moten points out that as a Dartmouth alumna Kaling’s first hand experience with the “good” and “bad” times that many students experience during their time at the College is large part of what makes Kaling an exciting Commencement speaker. 

“I think having someone who’s been able to identify with that aspect is really nice … I don’t think I could have thought of a better person to speak for us,” she said.