In a tumultuous and triumphant year, women are dominating as college commencement speakers
2018 is indeed shaping up to be the year of the woman.
Entertainment events have been dominated by talk of #MeToo, of survivorship and sisterhood, of excellence and equality.
Women are taking their political convictions to the streets with renewed vigor, and a historic number of women are running for office in this year’s midterm elections.
And behind podiums across the country this spring, women from every professional and political stripe will be sharing their stories with graduating college classes.
What a female-led graduation ceremony looks like
The Savannah College of Art and Design, one of the most prominent design schools in the world, was founded in 1978 by a woman: Paula Wallace, who now serves as the university’s president.
This graduation season, the university hosted a trio of powerful female speakers at their three international campuses: Actress Hilary Swank spoke in Savannah, film producer Juliet Blake spoke in Atlanta and Wen Zhou, CEO of the fashion brand 3.1 Phillip Lim, is set to speak at the university’s Hong Kong campus.
On June 2 in Atlanta, Swank told graduates the two critical things emerging creators need are “perseverance and integrity” and that the early challenges of her career — getting fired, being unemployed — paved the way for her eventual success.
“Inevitably, the universe is going to throw some very ugly curve balls at you,” said the two-time Oscar winner. “No matter what they look like, never assume that any of them are bad.”
Oprah Winfrey also made a surprise appearance at the Atlanta ceremony.
“We’re all seeking to be the truest, purest, highest expression of ourselves as human beings,” she told graduates. “And so you’ve been able to do that here at this university — express yourself fully, artfully, collaboratively, with each other, with yourself.”
Both Winfrey and Swank were presented with honorary doctorate degrees from the school.
In her own speech, Wallace, who founded the school while still in her twenties, mentioned a common phenomenon shared by powerful women: That there is no singular identity for greatness.
“When I first created SCAD, I was an educator … not a historic preservationist, writer, speech maker or diplomat,” she said. “But I’ve had to learn to be all those things, just as you will find yourselves cast in so many surprising roles … because your dreams require it.”
What other schools are doing
At schools around the country, the array of female commencement speakers this spring reads like a who’s who of political and cultural relevancy:
Cynthia Nixon, actress, activist, LGBT figure and New York gubernatorial candidate, spoke at Helene Fuld College of Nursing earlier this month.
Ava DuVernay, director of this year’s genre-bending adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time,” will speak at Cornell.
Worcester Polytechnic Institute will host a duo of influential STEM women: Margot Lee Shetterly, whose book “Hidden Figures” was turned into an Academy Award-nominated film, and Marcia McNutt, the president of the National Academy of Sciences.
Hillary Clinton will speak at Yale, her law school alma mater.
Even from those few examples, the power and scope of the female voices is clear: They are influential in every professional field, every political movement and every cultural moment, and that’s a reflection of social change.
According to an AP study, for the first time in at least 20 years, the majority of commencement speakers at top colleges will be women this year.
Choosing speakers can take more than a year
Colleges and universities usually start the process of choosing their graduation far in advance; at the beginning of the academic year if not sooner.
At the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, the process takes more than a year and is handled by the University Council Honorary Degree Committee.
With the help of a student advisory group, students are asked who they would prefer as speaker.
In 2016, this process netted Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway sensation “Hamilton,” and a very au courant choice.
This year, the college will host journalist Andrea Mitchell, who is also a 1967 graduate of the school.
Some schools rely on students to decide
Some schools, like Ohio State University, rely even more heavily on the student body to choose a speaker.
OSU has an online speaker nomination tool as part of their process, and asks that nominees have name recognition and be “a leader in her or his field or linked to important and compelling issues.”
This year, the University will welcome Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann, the CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Here are some more 2018 speakers
Name recognition. Public interest. Social, cultural and political relevancy. If those are typical criteria for commencement speakers, it would make sense that more and more women would be asked to step up for the job.
Here are some more high-profile women that will speak this spring:
Oprah Winfrey: USC Annenberg
Joyce Carol Oates, writer: Columbia University School of the Arts
Queen Latifah, entertainer: Rutgers University
Anne-Marie Slaughter, political expert: Washington University in St. Louis
Rene Fleming, soprano: Northwestern University
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Mindy Kaling, actress and director: Dartmouth College
Mayim Bialik, actress and scientist: UCLA
Abby Wambach, soccer player: Barnard College