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."
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.
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."
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."
Anderson Cooper, anchor of CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360°," will speak to Tulane University's graduates in the Louisiana Superdome. He is no stranger to the Gulf Coast, having spent a month reporting about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. He has returned to New Orleans more than 20 times since. Rebecca George, a senior at Tulane who will join Teach for America after graduation, says her class is the first to attend the university after Katrina hit. The students worked hard to help rebuild the community, she says. "I'm hoping, as a graduating senior, to hear what's inspired him so much to give back to the world. It'd be interesting to hear about why he's continued coming back to New Orleans, especially after what's happened has been easily forgotten by others."
While all of these students say they are anticipating hearing career advice from their commencement speakers, Kappus of Emory University also hopes Schwarzenegger adds some levity to his speech. "I'd be great to hear him say, 'Hasta la vista, class of 2010.'"
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.