Will Oprah, Katie, or Michelle Be The Sheryl Sandberg of 2012 Commencement Speakers?

With Spring in full bloom and graduation just around the corner, schools across the country have started to announce their 2012 commencement speakers. The race is on to see which schools can snap up the most high-profile, notable speaker for their commencement  — and whose speech will create a splash among students and the media like Sheryl Sandberg’s did last year.

Last year, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg delivered the commencement address at Barnard College (watch it below), where she encouraged the all-female graduating class to do what she believes her generation couldn’t: rise to the top in their industries and provide women with an equal voice on the world’s forum. Sandberg’s words were meant to inspire ambitious women to become leaders in their industries, but there was considerable backlash that claimed she was too harsh on her generation. Nevertheless, Sandberg’s empowering, inspirational speech entered the ranks of oft-quoted, memorable speeches like Steve Jobsiconic 2005 Stanford commencement address and JK Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement speech.

This year’s crop of impressive commencement speakers include a number of prominent women, including Katie Couric, who’ll be speaking at her alma mater, the University of Virginia; FLOTUS Michelle Obama, who’ll be speaking at Virginia Tech, North Carolina AT&T University, and Oregon State University ; and Oprah Winfrey, who’ll be returning to Spelman College, where she received an honorary degree in 1993, to receive the National Community Service Award and deliver the commencement address.

Will any of these women be able to create the same waves Sandberg’s speech made last year, or will they decide to play it safe?

All three women are seasoned commencement speakers. Katie Couric was last year’s commencement speaker at BU, where she spoke of the challenges of being the first solo female news anchor on an evening news program and how she related to the uncertainty new grads faced. She spoke of becoming a widow and a single mom, and how she used her career as a platform to launch her advocacy. But her speech, though humorous and touching, failed to challenge graduates like Sandberg’s did. It will be interesting to see her speak at UVA, her alma mater, this year, and listen to her reflect on the over 30 years since she graduated in 1979.

Oprah Winfrey is also a veteran commencement speaker, and, of course, one of the most inspiring speakers in the country. In her 2008 commencement address at Stanford, she encouraged graduates to be the best them they could be and not compare themselves or their success to others. She also spoke about failure and, true to form, gave everyone in the audience copies of two books (Katie Couric even parodied this in her BU speech, telling the audience they’ll have to buy her book if they want it and joking, “Who do you think I am, Oprah?”) However, it will be interesting to see what new insights Oprah will have when she speaks at Spelman College this year, her first year since retiring from the long-running Oprah Winfrey Show.

Michelle Obama is again doing triple-duty as commencement speaker this year, which she also did last year and in 2010. Although the FLOTUS has given a number of inspirational speeches, including a notable nod to gay families in her 2011 commencement speech at West Point, this year is different. First of all, it’s an election year, so the Obamas are already in speech and campaign mode. After Michelle’s passionate and inspiring speeches during the last election, we can expect her to raise the bar even further this time. This is a deviation from the campaign trail, but everything she says and does will be noted by the country, and her speeches will be no exception.

Second of all, Michelle is speaking at Virginia Tech, which is still grieving from its 2007 shooting. A statement from the White House asserted that “Obama was “inspired by the resilience of the student body and community coming together to support each other during difficult times.” Then she will travel to N.C. AT&T, a historically black college, where she will discuss “the rich legacy of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that have been instrumental in educating generations of African Americans.” Next she will travel to OSU, whose student body “ has been recognized for its efforts to promote healthy communities by organizing large scale food donation drives.”

My guess is that of the three speakers, Michelle Obama is most likely to deliver this year’s standout speech. She is speaking on three major election topics (African-American education, health promotion, and community support), but also three topics that are close to her and that she will be able to speak about eloquently and leverage in order to inspire and challenge the new graduates. And hopefully, she’ll be able to encourage female graduates to build upon her generation’s successes instead of minimizing them.

Other notable 2012 graduation speakers include:

  • President Barack Obama, Barnard College, the Air Force Academy, and Joplin High School in Missouri.
  • Bill Nye the Science Guy, Harvey Mudd College.
  • Dr. Jill Biden, Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, FL and Southwestern Community College in Creston, IA
  • NBC news anchor Brian Williams, George Washington University and Fordham University.
  • CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, University of Michigan.
  • Mayor Michael Bloomberg, UNC at Chapel Hill.

Photo: news.stanford.edu

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    • Jessica

      Bloomberg is also speaking at Cornell University’s convocation

    • Lisa Skapinker

      Thanks for the tip Jessica!