Dear Commencement Speaker: Inspire Me

College seniors task graduation speakers to give advice on succeeding in this tough economy.

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With graduating college seniors facing record high unemployment figures, the timing couldn't be better to hear inspirational career advice from the likes of news anchor Anderson Cooper, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Barack Obama. Colleges are recruiting top-name speakers for their commencement ceremonies this May to give their personal two cents on how to pursue one's dreams in a highly competitive job market. Some schools have even opted for career advice from more controversial bank CEOs who've captured the headlines during the financial crisis. U.S. News caught up with students at universities across the country to learn what they'd like hear before tossing their caps and hitting the streets, or their parents' houses, to search for work.

[Who's speaking where? See our 2010 Commencement Speaker interactive map and timeline.]

The selection of big bank CEOs as commencement speakers has riled up controversy at several schools. Syracuse University's choice of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon as its speaker has led to a student opposition movement on campus. More than 900 students have joined the "Take Back Commencement" Facebook group, with a petition with more than 1,170 signatures demanding a "graduation speaker sensitive to the current global climate..." Ashley Owen, a senior at Syracuse who will intern at National Geographic post-graduation, founded the Facebook group and led a protest on campus that gathered 100 students and faculty. "Having Dimon speak to our campus seems like inappropriate timing," Owen says. "Almost everyone has been affected by economic crisis, and that was largely due to big banks." Owen said university Chancellor Nancy Cantor acknowledged the opposing students' views, but didn't approve of Owen's suggestion to either replace or follow Dimon with another speaker. Cantor sent a school-wide E-mail supporting Dimon's selection as speaker, saying he is a "leader whose voice is timely and seasoned."

Some students at Columbia University are also upset with the selection of another big bank executive as their commencement speaker—Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit. Pandit, who has received four degrees from Columbia and is a trustee, is scheduled to speak at the School of International and Public Affairs' graduation. However, some students are unhappy with Pandit as their speaker and created a Facebook group with over 250 members called "We don't want a bank executive to speak at our commencement". "Our class is entering the workforce at a time of severe economic downturn, no thanks to the predatory loans and deceptive trading practices of the financial sector," says Andrew Kessinger, a graduate students who will be graduating in the School of International and Public Affairs. "With no disrespect to Mr. Pandit, many of us have difficulty with the idea of a bank CEO as a source of inspiration right now." In response to the opposition, the dean of SIPA sent an E-mail to the school's students justifying Pandit's selection. "Over the years, we have tried to select a range of speakers who reflect the diversity of our students and the changing issues of the time," Dean John Coatsworth wrote.

One of the most sought-after commencement speakers this year is—no surprise—President Obama. He will be speaking at Hampton University, in Hampton, Va., and University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Hampton senior Krystan Hitchcock, who will be attending law school at New York University this fall, expects Obama's speech to be especially inspirational to students at the historically black university. "We're going to go through a lot of things he's already done. His advice is just going to be priceless," she says. "I think he can share with us how to always be ourselves and carry ourselves with decorum and grace, even when we aren't treated with the respect that we might deserve."

Elliot Jankelovitz, a senior at the University of Michigan who will work for a sales company in Indiana after graduation, is also looking forward to Obama's advice, particularly about the job market. "Michigan has a hard time keeping college graduates in the state, and I feel like he has to be coming to talk to us about the economy and how to find jobs."

Corrected on 04/29/10: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of community service hours completed by the George Washington University community. The correct number is 106,000 hours.