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Seniors react to choice of 2012 Commencement speaker

Kristen Durbin | Wednesday, May 16, 2012

When Notre Dame administrators took more time than usual to announce the 2012 Commencement speaker, senior Jeremy Lamb said he hoped the delay meant his class would be addressed by a prominent orator.

“While in my head I sort of knew [the delay] probably meant the University was having some trouble finding someone to agree to fulfill this role, I couldn’t help but hope that maybe, just maybe, the delay was due to the University going after a really ‘big fish,’ so to speak,” Lamb said.

But when the University announced 1995 alumna Haley Scott DeMaria would deliver the 2012 Commencement address, Lamb said his initial reaction to the news was “one of confusion.”

“When [I] first learned of her selection, I did a quick Google search,” he said. “As petty as this may sound, I was disheartened a bit by the fact that my commencement speaker did not even have a Wikipedia page.”

Senior John Heid said DeMaria’s relative obscurity also influenced his initial reaction to the announcement.

“When I first heard, I did not even know who it was until I read the little blurb about it on the Notre Dame website,” Heid said. “I was not happy with the choice.”

A member of the Irish women’s swimming team, DeMaria suffered a broken back and was paralyzed when her team’s bus slid off the Indiana Toll Road during a snowstorm in 1992. After doctors told her she might not walk again, DeMaria made an astounding recovery, even returning to swim for the Irish the following year.

Despite the inspirational power of DeMaria’s story, Lamb said he thinks Notre Dame could have explored other options in filling the role of commencement speaker. 

“I fully acknowledge the tremendous strength that she displayed in her emotional and physical recovery from an event worse than most of us can imagine,” he said. “However, I feel that, if it were the University’s desire to select an individual who has overcome unimaginable personal tragedies or obstacles, there were other options.” 

As classmates of deceased students Samuel Marx, Declan Sullivan and Xavier Murphy, the graduating seniors have dealt with significant personal losses during its time at Notre Dame. In this respect, Lamb said, DeMaria was an “appropriate” choice to speak at Commencement.

“Our class, more than most others, has had a great amount of experience with tragedy and loss,” Lamb said. “However, I think our class has done an outstanding job of dealing with our own losses and growing from them. In other words, I think maybe the primary lesson that Ms. DeMaria has to offer is one which our class has learned on its own.” 

Lamb said he thinks the University chose DeMaria as the speaker to reinforce the Notre Dame community overall instead of focusing specifically on the members of the Class of 2012.

“I respect the fact that she is an alumna, but is that necessary?” Lamb said. “Is that going to make her any more relatable for us? It just seems as though maybe the University is trying to take a day that should be 100 percent about us as a class and turning it into something that really just points back to the University as a whole.”

Both Lamb and Heid said the University’s reputation as a widely renowned institution is not reflected in the selection of DeMaria to join the ranks of recent Notre Dame commencement speakers as President Barack Obama, news anchor Brian Williams and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

“The fact that the 2012 Commencement speaker will probably be the least notable of the last couple decades, in a group consisting of presidents, CEOs, archbishops and national media figures, didn’t really sit well with me,” Lamb said. “Our University should be able to attract some prominent individuals to speak, whether their prominence be due to commercial success, political prowess or simply social fame.”

“Certainly, [DeMaria] is characteristic of the Notre Dame spirit,” Heid said. “But at the same time, it is not fair that previous classes have had presidents, cardinals and governors, and we get somebody that nobody has ever heard of … As a prominent university, we deserve prominent speakers.”

For senior Nneka Ekechukwu, DeMaria’s lack of widespread recognition will not take away from the significance of her remarks at Commencement.

“I’m looking forward to our speaker and the message she has for us,” Ekechukwu said. “While she is obviously not of the same caliber as having the President, for example, she is someone that has experienced a lot and is sure to have a lot of insight and advice for all of us that are soon to be new alumni of this University.”

Ekechukwu said the selection of DeMaria challenges the expectation of inviting household names as commencement speakers.

“I think her selection as our speaker is showing everyone that there is not one set type of speaker that a university has or should have,” Ekechukwu said. 

The primary role of a commencement speaker does not necessarily have to be providing advice to new graduates, Lamb said. 

“Many believe that the purpose of a commencement speaker is to offer advice and insight into how the ‘real world’ works,” he said. “However, my personal opinion is that the commencement speaker should serve primarily to please the graduating class, to excite and entertain them. It is in this capacity that I think the University may have been able to find someone better suited.”

Despite any disappointment in the selection of a relatively unknown speaker, Lamb said the 2012 Commencement address merits discussion.

“I mean absolutely no disrespect to Ms. DeMaria. I think she has had to go through a lot and has emerged as a successful and strong woman,” Lamb said. “I think this year’s choice of commencement speaker is fairly unique, and therefore deserves an equally unique discussion.”

Although his original opinion of DeMaria as a commencement speaker has not changed, Heid said the end result matters most in this situation.

“If she delivers a good speech, I will be satisfied,” he said. “Whether or not she will is an open question.”