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Speakers, Not Graduates, Take Center Stage at Commencements


There is a constant at the end of academic years. Each May or June, graduates from colleges and universities across the country receive their degrees.

After years of hard work, homework, tests and obscure vocabulary terms, there are a few words college students long to hear from their educators.

Final statements, such as George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg declared the other day, "I hereby confer your degrees and I declare you fully entitled to the rights (cheers)."

College commencements. The details may vary but the moment is constant -- college students become college graduates.

Some graduations are especially meaningful and jubilant, such as Tulane University's first commencement since Hurricane Katrina devastated the school's home city, New Orleans.

Some take a humorous turn, as when George Washington University's namesake -- the American president who held office more than two centuries ago -- showed up with his wife to take the stage.

Some graduations are even a bit contentious. Protesting students at Columbia University carried umbrellas with anti-war slogans and turned their backs to Republican Senator John McCain. "I supported the decision to go to war in Iraq. Many Americans, including a few out here, did not."

Some students actually have messages for the audience. And some grads have so much to share; they talk on their cell phones through the ceremony.

While graduates are the reason for the graduation, they aren't the focal point. Commencement speakers -- often famous names in the political, business or entertainment worlds -- offer final words of advice to graduates about to enter the so-called real world.

Former President Bill Clinton at Tulane's graduation said, "Dream your dreams and try to live them. For life's largest disappointments are not rooted in failures or mistakes. Anybody who's lived long enough has made a fair share of both."

Former President George H.W. Bush also spoke. "Find a way to be of service to others. And though I've had a challenging, diversified, wonderful life, I got more of a kick out of being one of the founders of the Midland, Texas, YMCA in 1952 than almost anything else I did because we did something positive."

Most commencement speakers underscore the same message time and again -- so much so that Mr. Bush and his wife Barbara made that point at George Washington University.

"Barbara and I thought we'd give you a Cliffs Notes version of our favorite commencement addresses -- sort of a greatest hits of commencement speeches." (laughter) Former first lady Barbara Bush added, "Don't just talk about principles. Live them."

Mr. Bush makes the distinction of politics and personal values. "Your success as a family, our success as a society, depends not on what happens in the White House, but on what happens inside your house." "Read, read, read," said Mrs. Bush.

At the University of Pennsylvania graduation, award-winning actress and director Jodie Foster also borrowed someone else's words. The Ivy League graduate quoted controversial rapper, Eminem. “Class of 2006,I'll leave you with a quote you should all know by know. Feel free to chime in. I'll say it twice. It's from Eminem.”

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment,
You own it. You better never let it go.
One shot! Do not miss your chance to blow.
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime.

Another entertainer, Bill Cosby, spoke words that were all his own -- and a departure from standard commencement remarks. At Spelman College, a historically black school for women, Cosby told the graduates they needed to take the lead in society because they could not count on black men.

"The men as young boys are dropping out of high school, but they've memorized the lyrics of very difficult rap songs. They know how to braid each other's hair."

But what goes through the minds of graduates as they listen to speakers' words of advice?

George Washington University graduate Mark Facciolo: "Some of the speeches were, I don't know, a little mundane. But the take-home message is the same: it's over. Where's the beer?"

Fellow graduate Omkar Kulkarni: "Lots of good advice for the future and things like that. I liked it a lot."

At the University of Pennsylvania, student Agnes Terry was impressed by Jodie Foster, even though before the speech many students had complained of the school's choice of speakers. "I thought she could relate really well to the younger generation. I liked the metaphor of picking up experiences and putting them in a bag."

For Tulane Law graduate Sean Brady, the presence of two former presidents benefited the graduates and hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. "I think it's great that people like them keep coming down here and bringing attention to New Orleans and keeping people focused on what we're trying to do here and what needs to be done here."

Years down the road, after the celebratory music fades from memory and graduates forget the faces of their classmates; will they remember the words of their esteemed speakers?

Does a proud father who watched his daughter graduate with a degree in biomedical engineering from George Washington recall the advice of his own graduation speaker? "Not really, no. No," he confessed.

But that fact will not prevent schools from lining up the biggest names they can find for next year's ceremonies.