By Mike Smith
When I was a senior in high school, I only cared about one thing: giving the commencement speech at my graduation.
I had been on the speech team for four years and qualified to Nationals two years in a row. I thought I had the nomination in the bag.
I got so ahead of myself that I even wrote the speech itself three months in advance. But then something unpredicted happened.
Got second place in my class behind a cross-country runner who was hit by a car.
Flustered but obviously unable to show it, I went to my graduation disheartened, angry, and downright disappointed. I held my head down during the ceremonies, ignoring both the pomp and the circumstance.
Yet, just when I was about to tune out, the graduation speaker stood up and tapped the microphone. I looked up and, out of jealousy, waited for him to make a mistake just so I could be hyper-critical. But he didn’t.
He started with a light joke about the accident, cutting some of the heavy tension in the room.
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He went on to detail the obstacles that came from his incident, the challenges he faced in returning to normal life, and, despite all of this, how he didn’t want our pity. At that moment, I realized how privileged I was.
I was in perfect health. I was moving on to the greatest university in the world (Roll Tide).
I was lucky enough to graduate.
I went in to that ceremony defiant and angry, but I left with a lesson. No one owes you anything. I tell this story not to rehash high school memories, but to emphasize the importance that a commencement address can bring to graduates.
Graduation speeches allow for a moment of reflection.
They act as a celebration of what you and your peers have accomplished and the support you have gotten along the way.
Graduation speeches also grant the opportunity for well-experienced members of society to give some parting advice for those moving on to bigger and better things.
Just this past year alone, Rutgers University heard President Obama recount his past fighting for justice, the University of Pennsylvania saw Lin Manuel Miranda explain the struggle of long-distance relationships, and Berkeley witnessed Sheryl Sandburg’s story of coping with the loss her husband.
The advice offered by these great speakers may not resonate with every single graduate, but it can mean a world of difference to those in similar situations.
Graduation speeches can humanize what might feel like a rather methodical ceremony.
This is why I am disappointed that the University of Alabama does not have commencement speakers at most of their graduation ceremonies.
Instead of being an inspirational function, these events treat students like products being churned out of the factory. Thus, the graduations are rather dry, dispassionate, and robotic.
Additionally, the administration has given no legitimate reason not to have them. There is no unique tradition of the Capstone that effectively “bans” commencement addresses, like sitting during football games or walking across The Mound.
In fact, the administration just recently got rid of them, most likely because a speaker in 2007 made some controversial comments about the war in Iraq.
Unfortunately, they canceled speeches for a single year, yet never changed it back.
All of this is why I, as a member of the Capstone Coalition (a student block of aligned independents), am introducing a resolution to the SGA Senate this fall to encourage the University to reinstate graduation speeches.
I urge you to contact your college’s SGA Senator and lobby them to support this proposal. The only way that the administration will change is if we collectively demand action.
Looking back, while it didn’t go as I imagined, my high school graduation was pretty remarkable.
I learned from one of my peers an important lesson that prepared me for my transition to college.
I hope that when I leave the Capstone, I can get one more piece of advice just like that.
Mike Smith is a student at the University of Alabama and a member of student government there. The University of Alabama is one of the few colleges that does not currently have a commencement speaker.
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Cover Photo Credit: The University of Alabama/ Facebook