Schools select broad range of personalities to address graduates

By Bryna Zumer Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (KRT) As president of the senior class at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Jessica Zerges will get to have dinner with this year’s commencement speaker, popular children’s book author Judy Blume. “Because it’s a women’s college and so many of us read her works growing up, it’s going to be interesting to hear her voice now that we’re grown up,” said Zerges, a history and politics major. Blume has written 22 novels, including classics like “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” and “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.” Zerges was on the committee that polls the senior class for their choice of speaker and decides who to invite. “This year we were very lucky,” she said. A good commencement speaker should be someone who “not only has national recognition but someone who also feels like they have something important to say to the graduates.” Mount Holyoke’s choice of Blume reflects the diversity of this year’s batch of commencement speakers, which features fewer politicians than last year. Graduation speakers in 2002 included President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. However, some universities said their choices do reflect a global sensibility. Former President Bill Clinton will speak at two commencements, at Tougaloo College in Mississippi and at a joint commencement between Syracuse University and State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “I’d assume with the world the way it is today, the topic of war will come up,” said Tougaloo communications specialist Chip Washington. “It will be very interesting to hear his take on international relations.” At Maine College of Art, the students who chose artist Yoko Ono as their speaker this year “were most interested in her because she’s a pioneering artist, but also because of her role as a global citizen,” said Kathy Mills, the school’s director of public relations. “I think that did play in their decision.” Some colleges, on the other hand, wanted to avoid speakers that would address the tension and uncertainty of the current international climate. Framingham State College in Massachusetts, for example, has chosen children’s writer Jack Prelutsky, known for poetry books such as “The New Kid on the Block.” “You have so many downs with the war and economy and everything, it’s important to have someone with kind of an upbeat personality,” said commencement committee chairwoman Martha Flinter. Most universities do not know yet exactly what their speakers will talk about, however. “You sort of get all the nuts and bolts together in the last two or three weeks,” explained Patrick Dilger, director of public affairs at Southern Connecticut State University, whose senior class will hear actress Sigourney Weaver speak this year. Zerges said she does not know what Blume will speak about, but “I think a lot of people are just sort of hoping to hear advice on how to take the next step into the real world.” Many colleges say chance and having the right connections play the biggest part in booking famous speakers. At Tougaloo College, president Beverly Wade Hogan is a friend of Clinton and was able to contact him. “There was an opportunity in his very busy schedule,” Washington said. “This will be the biggest thing that has happened to this school in terms of commencement.” An alumnus of Wake Forest University in North Carolina knows New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who agreed to speak at the university this year. “I think he’ll be interesting in that he’s the mayor of New York City at an extraordinary time in history,” said Wake Forest spokesman Kevin Cox. The announcement of a famous speaker at commencement can attract students who would otherwise not attend the event. At Framingham, “a couple of students were not interested (in commencement) until they found out who was coming,” said senior class president Elsie el Dayaa, a communication arts major. “They said, ‘Are you kidding? It’s (Jack) Prelutsky? We’re definitely going.'” Some speakers seem as excited to speak as their audience is to hear them. Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, who will speak at Stanford University, personally called Stanford president John Hennessy to thank him for the invitation. “He went out of his way to make a special call,” said Jeff Wachtel, senior assistant to the president. “It would be fair to say that he never hesitated in his eagerness.” At Mount Holyoke, “there was sort of a sense of mutual excitement” between Blume and the students, Zerges said. “I think in general you want someone who knows your school and wants to be there.” ___ (Bryna Zumer is a journalism student at the University of Maryland in College Park and is an intern for KRT Campus.) ___ ‘copy 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.