Kerry Washington at GWU commencement: Grads must be ‘heroes of own lives’

May 19, 2013

Now this is how you want to return to your alma mater: On stage, as commencement speaker, at the moment your red-hot career has just catapulted you to superstar status, thousands of young fans cheering and calling your name.


Kerry Washington at George Washington University commencement on Sunday. (William Atkins / The George Washington University)

Actually, Kerry Washington could have asked for better weather, too — it was cool and drizzly Sunday morning on the Mall as she took the podium to address George Washington University’s class of 2013. But otherwise, just about everything you could ask for by the time of your 15-year college reunion.

The “Scandal” star and 1998 GWU grad sweetly attempted the usual rite of self-deprecation expected of all commencement speakers: “Year after year, GW sends its graduates into the world on the wings of advice from esteemed leaders and thinkers. And this year — you got me.”

(Jessica McConnell Burt / The George Washington University)
(Jessica McConnell Burt / The George Washington University)

She added: “I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking, ‘We’re celebrating our academic and intellectual achievement with that lady who’s having an affair with the president on that TV show?’”

Aw, no one seemed to be thinking that. “Ker-REEE!!!” they shrieked. “We love you, Kerry!!!

Showbiz personalities are sought-after speakers at graduation time. At the University of Virginia’s pre-commencement valedictory exercises, Stephen Colbert brought the house down on Saturday, teasing millennials about their reputation for egotism: “That’s very upsetting to us Baby Boomers, because self-absorption is sort of our thing.”

But with Washington, GWU could boast a Hollywood star who was one of their own, a credential she bolstered with knowing references to favorite professors, prominent alumni (including Colin Powell, who she revealed is a cousin), the stage at the Marvin Center, and Foggy Bottom pub Lindy’s (“although we called it the Red Lion back then”). She had clearly done her research, mockingly praising the class for “your heroic victory over Georgetown in the 2010 Snowmageddon snowball fight.”

It wasn’t her first time back at GWU. Washington, 36, did a stint on the university’s board of trustees and received a “distinguished alumni” award in 2008 after her role in “The Last King of Scotland.” But after a long career in supporting roles, she broke out last year as the star of ABC’s “Scandal” — a show that has not only won a massive audience but lofty NAACP Image awards for casting an African-American woman in the lead role as a powerful Beltway crisis-management fixer. Last summer, Washington also scored a prime speaking gig at the Democratic National Convention.

Her message to grads struck the usual themes of seizing one’s dreams and facing one’s fears. As an undergrad studying anthropology and psychology, she said she became fascinated by the ritual of storytelling and the mythical archetype of the hero’s journey. Her own quirky version of the hero’s journey involved the college audition she didn’t want to go on — but had to, in order to keep an arts scholarship — for a role she found terrifying, as an amphibian in a musical called “Croak: The Last Frog.”


Provost Steve Lerman and Arielle Katcher hood Kerry Washington after receiving her honorary degree. (William Atkins / The George Washington University)

But “I pushed past my comfort zone,” she said, and won the lead role, which challenged her more than any previous acting job. “It became a role that transformed my way of thinking about how I use my body to do what I do every single day.” All graduates, she said, have faced similar challenges in their past and must draw on them in the future to become “heroes of our own lives.”

“You and you alone are the only person who can live the life that can write the story that you were meant to tell,” Washington said in closing. “Don’t be surprised if you get a call from me wanting to option the really good [stories] and turn them into movies, because I’m sooo Hollywood now.”

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Prince Harry’s 2013 U.S. tour: Painfully well-behaved this time

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