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Commencement speeches: Help wanted

It must be nice to attend a school that scores incredible commencement speakers year after year. There is, after all, no more exciting time for college students than commencement. It is then, surrounded by their friends and family, that the sacrifices they have made to their brains and livers over four years finally pay off.

And for thousands of students across the country, the headline moment is when a big-name personality speaks to students directly, pushing them to excel and do great things.

Just think: Harvard’s 2008 graduating class landed Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling to deliver their commencement address. Last academic year, those that graduated from George Washington University had First Lady Michelle Obama, New York University had Alec Baldwin and Tulane University had Anderson Cooper.

This university, however, is about as good at attracting interesting commencement speakers as it is accommodating student drivers. Year after year, it seems, students patiently await the announcement of who will headline their graduation ceremony. They mull over whether it will be someone awesome, such as political satirist Jon Stewart or the U.S. president, or if it will be someone incredibly boring, like every previous speaker.

As was announced last week, those seniors lucky enough to be graduating this winter will hear the inspiring words of a lawyer (and “activist”) from Baltimore. His name is Craig Thompson, and you have never heard of him. Thompson is an alumnus, has hosted a radio show, works for a major law firm and was named one of the state’s 60 most influential people by The Daily Record, a newspaper you’ve also never heard of.

According to senior government and politics major Emily Burke, chairwoman of the commencement speaker committee, Thompson was the first person the committee asked, claiming the members were attracted to his activism and involvement. Surely it was a thrill for Thompson to receive the invitation, but good grief — a lawyer from Baltimore sets the bar?

Winter commencement has a long history of being the ugly and pathetic sibling of spring commencement. Last year, seniors not only had their ceremony postponed due to a ridiculous amount of snow, they were also subjected to listening to the vice president of a company that builds bombs. A few years before that, the CEO of the United Way of America lulled students to sleep. And before that, the committee picked a professor, as if students don’t have to listen to them enough as it is.

Spring commencement tends to bode a bit better, but not by much. Last May, while the Silver Fox was gracing Tulane’s graduating seniors with his presence, this university’s seniors were listening to Victoria Kennedy, whose only relevance was that her late husband — Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) — had just died. While her speech was just as generic as any other commencement speech, it was hard not to wonder if we could have done the least bit better.

Students do have alternative options, though. YouTube provides a plethora of commencement speeches recorded from all over, allowing students to find a favorite and pretend it is their own. Nevertheless, in the long run, whatever bigwig (or nobody in this university’s case) speaks at commencement is irrelevant. Their lofty words about going out into the world as model citizens and pursuing one’s dreams are overused, overwrought and forgotten almost as quickly as they are spoken. A well-off business owner or lawyer may provide a nice success story, but they are far from memorable.

And that, it seems, should be the committee’s ultimate goal: selecting someone memorable. For students, the selection of someone who has garnered a name for themselves based on their ability to make people laugh, cry or think should hold some sway. It is who they are that is remembered, not necessarily what they say. The committee has once again failed to meet that goal this semester, and students have once again been cheated out of a suitable commencement speaker.

Alas, in the end, I suppose there is always YouTube.

Justin Snow is a senior history major. He can be reached at snow at umdbk dot com.

Originally published in The Diamondback.

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