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Commencement speaker an appropriate choice

Editorial Board | Thursday, March 29, 2012

After a long wait, the Notre Dame class of 2012 has its commencement speaker: Haley Scott DeMaria, a Notre Dame 1995 graduate and a survivor of the 1992 bus crash that killed two members of the Irish women’s swimming team.

It would be easy for seniors to reflect on the choice and focus on what DeMaria is not. She is not the President of the United States. She has not hosted “NBC Nightly News” or “Meet the Press.” She has not run the U.S. Department of Defense, General Electric or The Carnegie Corporation. She is not another flashy, nationally visible commencement speaker – that is undeniable. It would be easy for the seniors to focus on these things.

Rather, the soon-to-be-graduates could – and should – focus on what the choice of DeMaria as commencement speaker offers them. The commencement speaker is chosen to inspire a group of young adults on the verge of full adulthood, to evoke a sense of promise in the years ahead and offer advice on dealing with the challenges that lie before the graduates.

Who better to do this than DeMaria?

In the days following the tragic bus accident that killed freshmen Colleen Hipp and Meghan Beeler, a paralyzed DeMaria was told she would likely spend the rest of her life confined to a wheelchair. Faced with extreme hardship, she persevered. Within a week, she had feeling in her legs. Within a month, she was walking. 20 months later, she swam once again in an Irish uniform – and won.

When DeMaria speaks to the assembled Class of 2012 on May 20, she will be speaking to a class that has seen its share of hardship in its time at Notre Dame. They have weathered the storm together, but there will be many more obstacles in the future. DeMaria offers a golden example of the grace and fortitude with which Notre Dame graduates face hardship. To put it another way, she embodies the intangible quality that is often referred to as the Notre Dame spirit.

That spirit highlights yet another positive aspect of DeMaria’s selection that the senior class may overlook: she will deliver a strong Notre Dame-specific message in her address. Robert Gates, Brian Williams or any other national figure may offer an inspiring and positive message, but their words would ring just as true at Stanford, Boston College or Harvard. Having lived through a Notre Dame undergraduate experience and all it entails, DeMaria possesses a unique connection with the current undergraduates that national figures almost certainly lack. She understands what the graduating Domer can bring to the world that graduates of other universities cannot, simply because she has lived as a Notre Dame graduate for 17 years. For an institution with as unique a mission as Notre Dame, DeMaria’s experiences and character make her an ideal choice.

Yes, Class of 2012, you will not read much of your commencement speaker in national publications. Her selection will not inspire discussion on cable news, nor will it bring protesters to campus. After years of political figures that divided the student body along ideological lines, the graduating seniors have a unifying speaker behind whom they can rally. No, this is not the edgy pick, nor the popular one. But it is the right one.