Earlier this month the college announced that spoken word poet Sarah Kay will be the speaker for this year’s Commencement Ceremony. According to Director of Campus Operations Rachel Bly ’93, the announcement follows a yearlong decision process involving students, faculty and administrators.
“So there’s a Commencement Committee that gets formed in the students’ junior year. Their first order of business essentially as a committee is to recommend Commencement Speakers,” Bly said.
This Committee then has to narrow down this long list of potential speakers to a shorter one that fits a variety of criteria.
“They look at how well they speak. This is really important, you don’t want someone up there who isn’t a good speaker,” Bly said. “Will they resonate within the class and the college? Can we get them here?”
Once they have a smaller list, the Committee submits its recommendations to the Executive Board and the President in order of preference. Composed of faculty from all disciplines, the Executive Board has the power to veto student suggestions, add to the list of recommended speakers and adjust the order of preference.
“Generally, [the list] stays about the same,” Bly said. “They pretty much take what the students give and move forward with that.”
Kay was high on the list of the ten speakers chosen by the student committee and represents many of the qualities that students and faculty look for in the role.
“She has done amazing things. There is an excellence about her that our students can aspire to and I think that’s one of the things that is really important for us to have in a Commencement Speaker,” Bly said.
Kay is, among other things, a poetry writer and reader and spoken word poetry teacher. She founded the organization Project V.O.I.C.E., which encourages youth self-expression through spoken word poetry on an international level. A campus precedent for spoken word appreciation made Kay a good candidate for Commencement Speaker.
“You know Joshua Bennett came and then Joshua Bennett came again and there were a lot of people who were like ‘spoken word is really cool,’ so I think Sarah Kay came up in that light, too,” said Commencement Committee member Kathy Andersen ’13.
There are, however, some concerns about how the Commencement Committee works and how speakers are chosen to represent the senior class.
“It would be really simple to get more people’s input—just use P-Web or something,” Andersen said. “[But] nobody knows that the Commencement Committee exists and that you can be on it.”
The process of choosing a speaker was also unfamiliar to many of the students on the Committee.
“They sat us down, they gave us a list of the speakers they’d had in the past … then they said here’s a shiny glossy book that agents send out on people you could have do commencement speaking,” Andersen said. “We just had that one list and the one book and then they said just go out and do your own research.”
The Committee also depends heavily on the members’ ability to attend meetings, which meant that sometimes only three or four people participated in discussions about speakers or events.
“There was no emphasis on people going out and talking to other seniors and getting input,” Andersen said.
As a result, some members of the senior class were surprised to learn that Sarah Kay was chosen as a speaker, partially due to her age. Although she already has an impressive résumé, she is only 24 years old.
“A lot of people that I talk to now, they’re kind of upset because the speaker is so young,” Andersen said. “She’s only two years older, maybe less, for some of us. What perspective on life and what happens from your graduation years to after, really does she have to offer? What did her graduation mean to her?”
Ultimately, the system relies heavily on students to take a vested interest in the Commencement Committee and its responsibilities.
“There definitely is student input and student initiative. It’s up to people to do the work,” Andersen said.
The Commencement committee for the class of 2014 has already begun meeting to make important decisions regarding the speaker and other events related to graduation. Contact Rachel Bly or Shannon Geisinger in the Conference Operations and Events department if you would like to be involved.