This week, Bill Maher was announced as the keynote speaker for UC Berkeley’s December 2014 commencement. Maher will predictably bring a wealth of knowledge and anecdotes of his experience as a television host and political commentator to the ceremony, although some students on campus are protesting this choice. When choosing commencement speakers, we should prioritize campus graduates. Our pool of alumni is expansive and brilliant, and to not tap into our campus resource is a disservice to graduates looking to build their own legacy after leaving UC Berkeley.
Those with fame can draw in extra attendance and provide inspirational anecdotes by telling the stories that led them to their renowned status. We must remember, however, that students are the spotlight of the event. We need to find ways to emphasize their triumphs over difficulties on the road to graduation.
A good speaker is not necessarily one whose name is familiar. Public-speaking skills are more important than simply the acclaim of the individual. The source of inspiration should be the speech itself, not simply impressive accomplishments. Speakers must be chosen based on their journeys to success and how relatable their stories are to our graduates.
The relevancy of the speaker’s experience to that of UC Berkeley undergraduates is also important. We applaud the choice of Maz Jobrani, who graduated from UC Berkeley, and Randy Schekman, who works on our campus, as the 2012 and 2013 December keynote speakers. We strongly recommend the senior class council examine our numerous successful graduates and pick someone who not only serves as an inspiration to all of us but whose journey is identifiable.
The council is about to receive the results of its senior poll distributed via Facebook asking for recommendations for May’s commencement speaker. We assume many of the answers will call for big names such as President Barack Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. While having these speakers address our graduates would be impressive, we want the council to also consider and research lesser-known alumni who have relatable stories to share with graduating seniors.
Commencement is about celebrating students and the end of their journeys on campus and the start of their futures beyond UC Berkeley. It is not a day for excess security and autographs. It should not be centered on the commencement speaker. This is the graduates’ day to shine, and picking someone who is both relatable and a good speaker should be a higher priority than picking a notable figure.