Following last week’s announcement that former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey will deliver the keynote speech at this year’s commencement ceremony, the majority of undergraduate and graduate students The Emory Wheel interviewed expressed indifference toward Emory’s selection.
The Wheel spoke to 26 randomly selected students — both graduate and undergraduate — who are graduating this year, the majority of whom said they were unaware of who Trethewey was or of the commencement speaker selection announcement. All but one graduating student who knew of Trethewey expressed indifference or distaste about her delivering the speech at the May 8 commencement ceremony.
Trethewey, the Creative Writing Program director, has taught at the University for 15 years. The renowned poet will also receive an honorary Doctor of Letters degree. At the end of this academic year, Trethewey will leave Emory to join Northwestern University’s (Ill.) English Department for the start of the Fall 2017 semester.
College senior Chloe Biren, who heard Trethewey speak as a guest lecturer in one of her classes, said that she is looking forward to hearing the poet’s speech in May.
“[Trethewey] guest spoke in one of my classes with such eloquence,” Biren said. “[Her speech] showed us the magic of poetry, and I think it’s such a honor for her to be our commencement speaker.”
No other students interviewed by the Wheel shared Biren’s excitement. The remainder of those interviewed indicated disappointment or indifference toward the choice of speaker.
“I don’t know who Trethewey is; my parents don’t know who she is and none my friends know who she is other than people who are English majors at Emory,” Goizueta Business School senior Pranav Venkatraman said. “All my friends at other schools have more prominent speakers, and it’s kind of weird that we’ve had no [commencement speakers] that famous.”
While Venkatraman said he thinks Trethewey is an esteemed professor, he fears she may not have the same influence as the CEO of a major company or a top federal official.
Last year, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg delivered the commencement speech at University of California, Berkeley, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker spoke at New York University’s commencement and U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz addressed the graduates at Boston College.
College senior Saigenesh Ravikumar echoed Venkatraman’s sentiment, suggesting a “compassionate … world-leader who was a product of the American education system.” A speaker from a Silicon Valley technology start-up would have been an excellent alternative, he said.
Emory School of Medicine fourth year Lucy Shi said that although she cared about the prestige of her undergraduate commencement speaker, she doesn’t hold the same concern about this year’s commencement speaker as she graduates from Emory’s medical school.
“Our commencement speaker [at the University of Pennsylvania] was Joe Biden, and I think he did a good job in framing what future leaders or future graduates should do in the current political climate,” Shi said. “[Graduate school graduation] is different [than undergraduate graduation] because when you graduate from undergrad it’s a big deal, but you’re a little less attached to where you went to grad school.”
Emory does not pay its Commencement speakers, but it does award them with an honorary degree each year. The Honorary Degrees Committee of the University Senate typically receives approximately 100 nominations from the Emory community for honorary degree candidates, which it whittles down to a list of six finalists, according to Vice President and Senior Adviser to the University President Gary Hauk. From that pool, the University president chooses up to four nominees to award honorary degrees; one of those honorary degree recipients is also selected to speak at commencement, Hauk said.
University President Claire E. Sterk wrote in a statement to the Wheel emailed via Associate Vice President for Media Relations Nancy Seideman that as the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate and a teacher among other roles, Trethewey has shared her vision of poetry as a means of coming to understand more about ourselves and the world around us.
“Natasha Trethewey has been a source of wisdom, great artistry and inspiration for our students, Atlanta and the nation,” Sterk’s statement read. “It is fitting that Emory recognize Natasha Trethewey’s singular literary influence, her generosity and insight as a scholar, teacher and member of the Emory community and her enrichment of the lives of hundreds of Emory undergraduate and graduate students.”
Sterk held an informal discussion with the Honorary Degree committee about awarding an honorary degree to Trethewey since she was not on the Committee’s initial list of nominees presented to Sterk , according to Joseph Crespino, head of the Honorary Degree Committee and Jimmy Carter Professor in the Department of History.
“We never took a vote, but there was widespread support within the committee that she was certainly the person of the kind of esteem and accomplishment that would be deserving of an honorary degree,” Crespino said.
As Trethewey says goodbye to Emory, she carries these accomplishments with her to Northwestern.
“While it’s sad that she’s leaving, Emory was lucky to have her,” Biren said. “I think it’s fine [that she is the commencement speaker] because we’re also leaving and moving on to different things.”
Richard Chess contributed reporting.