To reward you for making it through college, schools give you three things. The first and best is a diploma. The second is the chance to sit in the sun wearing an unventilated nylon tent, sweating out beer from the night before. The third and least appreciated is having to listen to someone talk while you try not to pass out.
Commencement speeches range from the inspiring and true (David Foster Wallace’s ‘05 address at Kenyon College comes to mind), to those of the you-will-not-remember-anything-about-this-in-one-year variety. But all are delivered by someone in one of the six following categories.
When it comes to politicians, you’ve got your Big Deal National, Minor Deal National, Big Deal Local, or Minor Deal Local speaker. Examples: President Obama spoke at Barnard this year as a Big Deal National. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is delivering a speech at Walters State Community College this year, which counts as both Minor Deal National and Big Deal Local and also gets its own category, No One Outside of Tennessee Knows Who You Are.
These are the most exciting commencement speakers, as people have generally heard of them before. For example, Natalie Portman is speaking at Harvard’s Class Day. Harvard is fancy, so they get both a cool Class Day speaker and a Commencement speaker (Deval Patrick, a Big Deal Local—see above). The rest of us peasants just get one Minor Deal Local politician to tell us to follow our dreams. Sometimes celebrities who’ve been out of the spotlight for a while pop their heads up, like LaVar Burton from Reading Rainbow, who spoke at UMass Lowell and is arguably the best get of the year. Note: If a supporting character on a reality TV show is speaking at your college, your degree might not get you as far in life as you were hoping.
These people are saving the world. Their speeches are supposed to inspire students and make them want to save the world, too, but they mostly just make them break out in hives. While it may just be because of the synthetic fabric, the allergic reaction is most likely due to the terror of never amounting to anything, given that the person speaking founded their own charity by the time they’d graduated from high school and started a second in college. An example of a Do-gooder is Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative—he’s speaking at Holy Cross this year.
Entrepreneurs are big gets for colleges. Especially good-looking, tech-drenched people like Jason Kilar, who spoke at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Older, successful business people who are wildly successful in their fields are also coveted, like Richard Saul Wurman, the guy who founded the TED conference. Babson got him this year. If they were smart, they wined and dined him afterward. Maybe they’ll even get mentioned in his next ear-piece facilitated TED talk.
Alumni might fall into any of the other categories listed here. Or they may be rich donors who will only keep giving money if they’re allowed to wear a tassel-y hat and pontificate about the importance of hard work and perseverance. An example of the legit kind of alumni speaker is Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer for the United States who went to—and is speaking at—MIT this year. It would be mean to name an example of the latter group.
A current student’s parents
This is a real hail Mary. If all else fails, and some graduating kid’s mom or dad is as close to a rock star as the commencement planning committee is going to get, they’ll lob off an email and hope it lands in the end-zone, which is in this case the “read and responded favorably’’ section of the recipients inbox. No names will be mentioned because that would get the author of this article in trouble.