Howard grads remembering Sean Combs’s commencement speech? Probably not

Petula Dvorak
Columnist May 12

I remember that the woman in front of me at graduation consumed an entire bottle of champagne. I remember someone had “Hire Me” in masking tape on top of her mortarboard. And I remember that my shoes hurt.

But I don’t recall a single thing the commencement speaker — the new president of the University of Southern California — said during his speech.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Does anyone remember anything from those speeches?

Howard University’s Class of 2014 will totally remember that Sean Combs — Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, etc. — spoke at its commencement ceremony. And not just because Howard made headlines with an A-list celebrity.

Puffy (I’m dating myself by sticking to that incarnation of his name, I know) covered his humble beginnings as the child of a single mom in Harlem, the excitement of stepping onto the Howard campus for the first time and the tough days after he dropped out of college and lost his job at a time when his girlfriend was pregnant.

It was a real and honest speech about a journey and a struggle. And in picking him, Howard University reflected some of its values as an institution.

Commencement season is fun that way, watching the universities roll out their speakers and try to guess what they’re hoping to convey with their choices.

There are the schools who go for the safe, solid, big-box media celebrity: Katie Couric at American University, Gwen Ifill at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. They are like sipping chardonnay at a nerve-wracking work party or wearing a little black dress. No one will object.

There is the predictable, boring Washington model, featuring a politician. Graduates of the University of Maryland in College Park will endure a speech by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) May 22. Graduates of the University of Maryland University College are getting the even less exciting Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md). Now, crack-addled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford — he would be exciting. But isn’t he still missing in Chicago?

Don’t worry, Terps, maybe — no, wait, certainly — someone will have a bottle of bubbly in your row. Or you can always go over to Marymount University’s speech and listen to fellow Terp Kevin Plank, founder and chief executive of Under Armour, give the commencement address there.

He’s part of another popular group of commencement speakers: the entrepreneurs. They are the story of American capitalism and ingenuity. Norman R. Augustine, who dominated in the private and public aerospace sector, will speak at Bowie State University. Washington billionaire David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group — whose charitable contributions include $7.5 million to repair the newly reopened Washington Monument — will try to inspire graduates at George Mason University.

I wonder how many YouTube views the speech at Johns Hopkins University by Susan Wojcicki, YouTube chief executive, will get.

Then there are the outside-the-box speakers this year. The one I want to hear is José Andrés, chef and chief executive of the nation’s small-plate trend, who will entertain George Washington University graduates.

There’s also NFL quarterback Philip Rivers, a devout Catholic and father of seven, who will speak at Catholic University. He’s done work on behalf of orphaned and abandoned children and says he gets all seven kids to Mass before games.

And Tiger Woods’s ex-wife Elin Nordegren, who earned her psychology degree, spoke about her life at Rollins College’s graduation, with a few jokes at Woods’s expense. Funny, good to tell at bars. But what life lessons did she impart besides the reminder to monitor your spouse’s texts?

Two years ago, the University of Vermont had SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick the Starfish (or the middle-aged men who did their voices all those years) onstage. These are the Björk swan dress choices. Memorable, but . . . really?

The truth is, unless it’s Theodor Geisel, most commencement speakers won’t be especially memorable.

And that’s okay. Because, you know what? It isn’t about the speakers. It’s a day for reflecting on the journey, however difficult, to get there and the adventure ahead.

Our university president said nothing at my graduation that compared to what we had been through and what we were all anticipating. I wondered about my husband’s college graduation and why I couldn’t remember who spoke there. Could it have been a politician?

“George Lucas and Steven Spielberg,” he said. “I definitely remember that.”

What did they say?

“I have no idea,” he told me.

Yup.

Twitter: @petulad

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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