Westminster College is going to bid farewell to another graduating class as they enter the working world during the 2019 commencement ceremony at the Maverik Center May 11.
With everybody’s attention on the stage, there will be a number of speeches given. But like every year, only one student will have the opportunity to represent the graduating class as student commencement speaker.
Westminster’s application process to find a fitting student commencement speaker usually starts in February, when the Dean of Students Office sends out emails to all graduating students, inviting them to apply for the role.
Sabi Lowder, senior communication and cultural studies custom major, was elected to be the Class of 2019 student commencement speaker.
Upon receiving the Dean of Students email, Lowder said she was indecisive and concerned if she was the right fit.
“I was afraid, but then I was like, this is something that scares me but also feels like something I want to do,” Lowder said. “I might as well push myself to do something that feels nerdy and true to myself and a little scary.”
If students decide they want to be the student commencement speaker, there are several steps necessary to be able to speak to their graduating class.
First Step: Submitting application materials
After the students receive the email in February, they have about a month to submit their application materials to Erica Torres, the student affairs coordinator.
Torres said that in one document students must submit a current resume, a letter of intent and a first draft of their speech.
“Basically, the question is like, ‘why do you want to be commencement speaker?’” Lowder said. “I wrote my [letter of intent] all about, ‘This is why I feel like I’d make a good commencement speaker’ and then at the very end also, ‘I know this campus pretty damn well.’”
The first draft of the speech is not allowed to exceed four minutes, according to the email sent to students.
“Students only have about four minutes on stage,” Torres said. “So, it’s really important that they keep within that time frame.”
Second Step: Presenting speech to the selection committee
After submitting applications, the selection process moves to the second phase were the students must sign up to present their speech to the Commencement Student Speaker Selection committee. This year’s applicants presented on March 1.
In four minutes, students have to convince the committee that their speech incorporates all criteria the committee is looking for, according to Torres.
“We look for it to include reflections on the mission, vision and values of Westminster,” Torres said. “We look for the speech to be able to articulate how the student’s academic experience translates into the realm of possibilities to the graduating class.”
Third Step: Selection of the speaker
According to the email sent to students, the committee chooses a student commencement speaker by considering three aspects: demonstrated academic success and involvement as a student at Westminster, motivation to be the speaker and quality and content of the speech.
Torres said Lowder’s speech stood out to the committee because they were drawn to the poetic delivery.
“For several of us in the committee, it took us back to when we were sitting at our own commencement ceremonies and having all of the feelings graduation brings: excitement, being scared, feeling accomplished, hopeful,” Torres said.
Fourth Step: Preparation for commencement
After the committee has chosen a student speaker, the preparation begins to ensure a flawless presentation.
“It doesn’t matter how you do it, but practice it,” Torres said. “And, keep within the time frame we ask.”
The student commencement speaker is not left to prepare for the big day on their own as Associate Professor of communication Tamara Stevenson is tasked with helping the students with their public speaking skills.
Stevenson said she was given the role of mentoring the students because she used to teach speech classes for the college.
She said she has been coaching the student commencement speakers for the past seven years, working on everything from inflection, to when to breath and when to wait for applause.
“It’s been a really amazing process to see the different ways that students approach their speeches,” Stevenson said. “We certainly want to and try to keep to the authenticity of the speech from when they auditioned to the actual day at the commencement exercises.”
Stevenson said it has been “a delight” to work with Lowder this year because Lowder’s personality comes through in her words.
“Her speech is allowing us to really reflect on this amazing experience that students and their families have had in the college-going process,” Stevenson said. “Her speech inspires us to take time to say ‘What have I done? Here’s what I’ve done. I’ve done some great things and it’s okay to celebrate that.’”
Lowder said Stevenson has been an amazing coach and that she has also rehearsed a lot with her friends.
What takes away her fear of being the commencement speaker, Lowder said, is how important her whole college career is to her identity.
“It sort of grounds me in the fact that I have a lot to be grateful for,” she said. “I have things to say.”
*The interview of Associate Professor of communication Tamara Stevenson was conducted by Editor-in-Chief Stephanie Held.