Class of 2020 looks forward to Khan’s commencement speech

by Lorraine Liu | 6/2/20 2:10am

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by Divya Kopalle / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Seniors were surprised to hear that the speaker at this years’ commencement ceremony will be none other than Sal Khan — founder of the free online learning platform Khan Academy. Though the graduation speaker was chosen before the pandemic, many have called Khan a fitting choice, given that COVID-19 has rapidly pushed higher education toward online learning this spring.

Senior class president Anjali Chikkula ’20, who served as an advisor to the council on honorary degrees as it selected the commencement speaker and sat in on speaker nomination meetings, said the selection of Khan as this year’s graduation speaker was a “funny coincidence.”

According to College spokesperson Diana Lawrence, staff, faculty and members of the senior class nominated commencement speakers from September to mid-October of 2019. The council on honorary degrees, which comprises engineering professor George Cybenko, Tuck School of Business professor Syd Finkelstein, economics professor Doug Irwin, German professor Petra McGillen, Geisel School of Medicine professor Bill Nelson and physics professor Lorenza Viola, then deliberated about the nominations and submitted recommendations to College President Phil Hanlon, who discussed the options with the Board of Trustees for review and approval via a formal vote during last November’s board meeting.

Lawrence wrote that the selections for honorary degree recipients, including the commencement speaker, are made based on the candidates’ lifetime contributions to their field, their connection to Dartmouth, their innovation and entrepreneurship and the broader goal of having a diverse slate of honorees with representation from all disciplines. Lawrence said that Khan will receive his honorary degree in-person next year during the in-person commencement ceremony.

During Provost Joseph Helble’s May 27 livestream, Hanlon said that while Khan was selected as the speaker last November, he believes that Khan will be a particularly inspiring speaker for the current moment because of his experience delivering online education around the world.

“From a modest start using technology tools to help his young cousin with her math, [Khan] has the vision and drive to carry his idea to hundreds of millions across the world,” Hanlon said.

Hanlon added that the other honorary degree recipients for the Class of 2020 will be revealed at next year’s in-person ceremony.

Sophie Smith ’20 said that she thinks Khan is a “good pick” for a commencement speaker given the virtual nature of the Class of 2020’s final term. Robert Castle ’20 echoed that sentiment and said that he looks forward to hearing Khan’s perspective. 

“It’s definitely interesting to hear what he has to say about online learning, since we might continue to [learn virtually] in the future,” Castle said.

Castle added that a good graduation speaker will provide advice to graduating students as they transition to the next stage in their lives — especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to Khan’s speech, Hanlon and one of the undergraduate valedictorians will speak at the virtual commencement ceremony. The ceremony will also include the traditional conferral of degrees, as well as pre-recorded performances from the Glee Club and the Wind Ensemble. 

Castle is a member of the Wind Ensemble, which has played in previous commencement ceremonies. He said he appreciates that the College is trying to maintain the normal structure of a commencement ceremony as much as possible.

“It’s unfortunate that we can’t [play in-person] this year, as I was looking forward to playing in my own graduation,” Castle said. “But it’s nice we’re still a part of the ceremony, and also it’s nice that I played on the recording, so I’ll still be playing in my own ceremony in an indirect way.”

Prior to the online ceremony, the College has encouraged seniors to submit photos that will be compiled into a congratulatory video before the degree conferral ceremony begins. Castle said that he thinks making a slideshow using photos from graduating students is a good accommodation given the online format. 

“I like how it does seem like [the College] is making the ceremony a little more personal than normal,” he said. “Normally you’re sitting on the Green with thousands of people, whereas now you can watch it at home and sit with your family.”

Although some seniors are looking forward to the ceremony in spite of its remote format, others have expressed disappointment at the loss of in-person elements.

Aditya Srivastava ’20 said that he thinks the online commencement ceremony creates a sense of “huge detachment,” as students cannot show their parents around campus, watch their friends receive their degrees on stage or see the commencement speaker in person. 

He added that although his parents are likely to watch the entire online ceremony, he might only focus on watching certain parts, such as Khan’s speech, and skip parts of the degree conferral ceremony when all of the seniors’ names will be called out.

Castle, Chikkula and Smith, however, all said that they plan to tune in to the livestream and watch the ceremony with their families. They also said that they plan to come to next year’s in-person ceremony, which they regard as an important occasion.

Smith said that she thinks next year’s in-person ceremony will not only be a good chance for the graduated students to come back to campus and reconnect with each other, but also a special milestone. 

“It’s definitely going to mean something different to our class,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what it’s going to mean, but I think it’s going to carry a different meaning for our class after having been out working outside of school for a year.”