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Who’d Be a Good Pick to Give a ‘National Commencement’ Speech for Seniors?

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 21, 2020 3 min read
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An online plea to help high school and college seniors preserve some normalcy got a lot of attention—and got us thinking about some of the best people to contribute to a little pomp and circumstance.

The education policy world has focused on how the coronavirus has shut down in-person classes and standardized tests. But for a lot of high school seniors, the greatest pain the coronavirus has caused comes from canceled proms and wrecked senior nights. And graduation ceremonies are also in jeopardy, given ongoing concerns about large social gatherings.

Last Thursday, @lincolnjackd made a plea, which quickly went viral, to former President Barack Obama that he should give a graduation speech for the class of 2020:

And as people piggybacked on the idea and the #ObamaCommencement2020 hashtag gathered steam, at least one person said: Hey now, don’t forget about the former first lady.

Actor John Krasinski has been hailed for his “virtual prom” featuring Billie Eilish, Chance the Rapper, and others. So why not virtual commencement speeches?

First off, it’s worth noting that the Twitter user in question identifies himself as a “stubborn Democrat,” although he quickly stressed in a follow-up message that he didn’t ask Obama for a commencement speech just to irritate President Donald Trump. Obviously, not everyone would welcome an Obama commencement speech in the same way.

We don’t know yet if Obama will act on the request. But if you’re looking for Obama speeches to K-12 students, they’re not hard to find.

He gave a televised speech to students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., in September 2009, for example, as a sort of “back-to-school” message. In that speech he said puckishly, “I imagine there are some seniors out there who are feeling pretty good right now.” (It’s easy to imagine he’d take a different tone in a commencement speech to the class of 2020.) In fact, Obama made a habit of these back-to-school messages; here’s his third annual such speech.

Trump, meanwhile, spoke at the commencement of Liberty University in 2017. As recently as two months ago, he gave a speech to former prisoners graduating from an educational program in Las Vegas, in which he said, “When you return to society, we are not going to leave you behind. We’re not leaving you behind. But now we don’t have the excuse of a bad economy.” (His remarks about the economy might be slightly different today.) And he plans to give a commencement speech at the U.S. Military Academy later this year.

Leave the current and former president aside for a second. It’s hard to pick high-profile people who wouldn’t bring any political overtones to a “national commencement.”? But would someone with celebrity cred like LeBron James, Taylor Swift, or Oprah Winfrey do the trick? International religious leaders like Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama would have the right level of name recognition, although mixing faith into the proceedings might rub some the wrong way.

Or perhaps the answer would be for a whole bunch of celebrities to each broadcast their own commencement speeches so students could pick and choose their favorites.

Need a last resort? Politics K-12 writers Evie Blad, Daarel Burnette II, and Andrew Ujifusa are more than happy to give commencement speeches to seniors. We’re sure our close family members would be very excited.

So who do you think would make a popular and engaging commencement speaker for the nation’s high school seniors? Let us know at our Twitter account @PoliticsK12 or leave a suggestion in the comments section below.

Photo: President Barack Obama waves as he arrives to speak during a visit to Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, Oct.2016, where he highlighted the steady increase in graduation rates. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)