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Commencement speakers inspire graduates with blend of wisdom and wit

Pictured from left to right are UCLA alumni Randall Park, Katelyn Ohashi and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. All three alumni have spoken at various UCLA commencement ceremonies. (From left to right: Joseph Jimenez/Photo editor, Daily Bruin file photo, and Creative Commons photo by U.S. Department of State via Flickr)

By Maia Hull

June 11, 2023 8:19 p.m.

After years of midterms and finals, graduating Bruins look forward to their commencement ceremonies as a way to celebrate their accomplishments. Serving as a culmination of their time at UCLA, commencement marks the beginning of a new chapter in graduates’ lives and also allows graduates to reflect on their years in Westwood.

The commencement address in particular plays a role in highlighting the achievements of graduates and creating a memorable experience.

According to JSTOR Daily, the commencement speech has established its importance by its emphasis on words of wisdom, inspiration, experience and its often humorous delivery.

This year, UCLA alumnus Randall Park will be giving the address at the College of Letters and Science Commencement Ceremonies. Park, who graduated from UCLA in 1997, is an actor, comedian and writer, best known for his portrayal of Louis Huang in the sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat.”

According to Time Magazine, the past three or four decades have seen a flood of celebrity commencement speakers to headline graduation ceremonies, compared to the tradition of notable professors or academics giving the speech. The speaker chosen tends to impart advice considered valuable to the graduates, such as current and former presidents, who commonly give multiple speeches a year.

Former UCLA commencement speakers include notable celebrities such as alumnus and basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 2007 and alumnus and gymnast Katelyn Ohashi in 2022.

Communication professor Rob Carpenter said a good commencement speech conveys a fun and inspiring message and added that people aren’t looking for commentary on the current state of the world.

“Most of it should be about lifting other people through humor and through joy and through celebration,” Carpenter said. “People won’t remember a boring or overly serious lecture. They’re there to have fun.”

Fellow communication professor Karyl Kicenski added that speakers who are enthusiastic and have something genuine to say often give strong commencement speeches.

“You want that person to be present and available and excited,” Kicenski said. “The ones that have really been impactful for me are those that have something unique to say to people who are beginning their lives.”

According to UCLA Newsroom, during Park’s time at UCLA, he co-founded Lapu, the Coyote that Cares Theatre Company, an Asian American troupe that remains on campus today.

The LCC Theater Company is a club that aims to promote Asian American voices in creative expression with different media forms, including writing, theater and video. It has grown to become the largest Asian American college theater group in the country.

Gergio Ricacho, a fifth-year sociology student and member of the LCC Theatre Company, said he is especially looking forward to Park’s commencement speech because of his own connection to the club.

“(I’m) super excited because … the club, it’s a really integral part of my time here at UCLA,” Ricacho said. “I’m looking forward to see what Park has in store for us there, and it’s a good way to just wrap up my time here at UCLA.”

Park has experience in the area of commencement speeches, including giving the address at the UCLA English Department ceremony in 2017.

English professor Lowell Gallagher said the main goal of commencement speeches is to deliver an inspiring message in an inventive and moving way. Park’s speech met those requirements in Gallagher’s eyes.

“(Park) presented a very mature and yet very witty understanding of how one can take what one has learned as an English major and … use it in a very compelling and productive way,” Gallagher said. “So he ended up being … very inspiring in a very personal way that couldn’t be replicated by anybody else.”

Gallagher added that he believes the commencement speech is one of the most important parts of the ceremony because it reassures graduates about their paths after college.

“They represent a kind of exemplary way of moving from the undergraduate degree into a very successful career,” Gallagher said. “Hearing someone who’s been there and … has had that experience is always very useful.”

Ricacho added that they hope to hear an inspiring message about postgraduate life because it can be an uncertain and anxiety-filled time for some graduates.

With the typical commencement speech’s emphasis on inspiration and providing words of wisdom, the speech helps to characterize the rite of passage that commencement is for young adults, and many of them greatly look forward to hearing the address, according to JSTOR Daily.

Ricacho said he is looking forward to hearing what Park has to share with the class of 2023.

“He’ll be a good mix of getting in the point of making us laugh, but also being a … tear-jerker and making us really appreciate the moment of, ‘Wow, this is a time to celebrate all of our accomplishments,'” Ricacho said.

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Maia Hull
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