Monday, May 25

Tabatha Lewis: Limiting commencement speakers to alumni shortchanges students

(Audi Zhu/Daily Bruin)

After four or five long years of pulling all-nighters, waking up for 8 a.m. classes and telling yourself you’ll attend office hours, you’re finally ready to enter the next phase in your life and actualize your dreams, using what you learned in college.

At your commencement ceremony, a former student speaks to you about all the experiences you know all too well – getting De Neve Late Night after staying up late making new friends, and the dreaded 2 a.m. trip up Bruin Walk from Powell Library. As touching as the speech is, you can’t escape the feeling that this is just another part of UCLA’s borderline cultlike campaign to promote True Bruin Values and being a Bruin for life.

UCLA’s College of Letters and Science invites alumni to speak at the commencement ceremony every year. The College’s selection committee gives priority to graduates of the College. A committee composed of students, appointed by the undergraduate student government president, and faculty, nominated by their peers and the dean of humanities, select the nominees for commencement speaker.

Requiring that graduation speakers be alumni greatly limits the pool of speakers. UCLA graduates are preparing themselves to go out into the world, where they will be exposed to people from different backgrounds who are contributing to society in some way. The purpose of a commencement speech is to inspire the graduating class to use what they have learned to better the world.

The College therefore should not limit its commencement speakers to simply alumni. The university should be able to choose people outside of the alumni community to deliver a speech during commencement. After all, it’s not like Bruins are the only people capable of motivating a graduating class of UCLA students.

Jean-Paul Renaud, the College’s executive director of communications, said the College seeks alumni speakers so students and other audience members feel a connection to the speaker and see someone succeed with a UCLA degree. Renaud added the College accomplishes this goal by choosing alumni who embody the True Bruin Values.

But these values are a broad set of standards that any decent human being can meet.

Students understand this. Cinthya Alaniz-Salazar, a fourth-year international development studies student, said she thinks it shouldn’t matter whether the commencement speaker is an alumnus, as long as they have acted in a manner that reflects True Bruin Values.

Choosing any member of society based on these standards does not rule out many options. However, forcing the speaker to be an alumnus severely constricts who will be talking to students on commencement day.

Take this year’s commencement speaker, Mayim Bialik, as an example. Bialik received her bachelor’s degree and doctoral degree in neuroscience from the College. She’s also an actress who starred in the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”

Unfortunately, the College’s search for a noticeable name comes as a loss to this year’s graduating students. Bialik’s primary life experience as an actress would cater more to students of the School of Theater, Film and Television, and is largely irrelevant to UCLA’s goal of showing graduates what they can do with their degree.

On the other hand, there are countless examples at other universities of nonalumni giving commencement speeches. Former president Barack Obama spoke in 2009 at Arizona State University, a university he did not attend. University of Southern California will have Oprah Winfrey, who graduated from Tennessee State University, as the commencement speaker for the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Even UC Berkeley is inviting Kamala Harris, a U.S. senator from California, to speak at this year’s commencement.

Though there are many fitting nominees who are UCLA alumni, the pool is still nowhere near as diverse as that of other universities who allow influential members of society to encourage their graduating class to use their degrees for good, regardless of where they graduated from.

Commencement is one of the most memorable events in a student’s life. Graduating Bruins will encounter an endless stream of people who have gone through similar experiences but did not come from UCLA. And that’s good: Being from the same college is not the sole condition for connection. A Northwestern or Berkeley graduate is equally capable of producing a heartwarming and inspiring speech.

Opinion columnist | News contributor

Lewis is an Opinion columnist and News contributor.

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