Dear Commencement Speaker: Inspire Me

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

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The Obama family will have a busy speaking schedule in May as Michele Obama will also be speaking to two universities—George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., as well as the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff, an HBCU located an hour outside of Little Rock. Julie Bindelglass, a junior and president of GWU's Student Association, wrote Obama a letter asking her to speak at their community service day in September 2009. Unable to make that speaking arrangement, the First Lady vowed that if the university completed 100,000 hours of community service, she would speak at their commencement ceremony. The students, faculty, staff, and board of trustees embraced the challenge and clocked 106,000 hours—a month before the May 1 deadline. Since many members of the university community continue to volunteer, the university expects to accumulate even more hours toward the total, which will be revealed during the graduation ceremony on the National Mall.

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Bishara Addison, a senior at GWU who plans to work for Americorps after graduation, has logged more than 300 hours of community service since the fall. She volunteered many hours providing work force development for low-income individuals through the local and national chapters of the non-profit organization LIFT. She also coordinated several Alternative Spring Break trips for university students. She hopes Obama speaks to her graduating class about the importance of service and giving back to one's community. "I think her speech will be about students incorporating their academic and service experiences into how they engage in the workforce." She says the challenge showcased the idea of what Addison calls "silent hero-ship." "By volunteering, you're discovering the hero within yourself," she says. "Her challenge brought out these silent heroes you may not have seen otherwise; I think it's pretty powerful."

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President Obama's former political rival and longtime Arizona Senator John McCain will speak at the commencement ceremony at Ohio Wesleyan University, near Columbus. Jaime Castelvetere, an Ohio Wesleyan senior and a self-professed Democrat who plans to attend law school this fall, was a member of the committee that invited McCain to speak. "McCain has devoted his life to service and we thought that was very important to our class," she says. "I'm hoping he'll be speaking about community service and giving back, but not about politics."

A politician who's had former careers as an actor and body builder has draw some criticism as Emory University's commencement speaker. The school's choice of Arnold Schwarzenegger caused some frustration from students such as Tshema Nash, a senior planning to work in public health. The native Californian hopes the "Governator" drops his trite Terminator talk in favor of more serious topics. "I'd like to hear him speak more about our future and what it holds for us, and any words of wisdom that he has for us as we go off into our separate ways." Alex Kappus, a senior who plans to get a master's in student affairs administration at the University of Georgia in the fall, expects Schwarzenegger to speak about his political career at the Atlanta college's ceremony. "Hopefully, Governor Schwarzenegger will address some of the issues in government that are going to impact our futures," Kappus says.

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Many colleges have lined up media stars instead of politicians. Smith College, a women's college in Northampton, Mass., will host Rachel Maddow, political analyst and host of MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show." Maddow is a Rhodes Scholar who earned a degree in public policy from Stanford University and a doctorate from Oxford University. She is also one of the first openly gay media professionals. Samantha Young, a Smith senior who returned to college after working as a chef in Washington, D.C., admires Maddow and has a photo of her on her mantle. Maddow is a "great example of a powerful woman," Young believes. "She has complete agency in her own life. She's not compromising who she is because she's on TV."

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.