Pomp. Circumstance. Controversy.
A Conversation With E. Brennan Bollman Notre Dame valedictorian

Friday, May 8, 2009 8:17 PM

Pomp. Circumstance. Antiabortion banners. National news organizations clamoring to cover a controversy. Oh yeah, and the president of the United States. Happy graduation, Notre Dame class of 2009. A week from today, in his second commencement address of the season, Barack Obama will share the stage with E. Brennan Bollman, valedictorian of the graduating class. She spoke with Outlook's Rachel Dry about the debate surrounding a pro-abortion rights politician's appearance in South Bend, how she's using Obama's past speeches to prepare for her own and why her classmates aren't totally freaked out by the job market they're entering. Excerpts:

So the president of the United States is going to hear you give your valedictory address.

Yeah, that's what everyone keeps telling me. "President Barack Obama will be listening to you." I said, well, you know, I wouldn't blame him if his mind wandered a little bit. He does have a lot going on.

Does it change how you're thinking about the speech?

No, not at all. The core message is really a simple thing that my parents have always told me: From those to whom much is given, much is expected. I'll talk about the things that Notre Dame has given us and what's expected of us because of that.

Do you speak before the president does?

I'm pretty positive that I go before. Which is good, because it would be pretty difficult to speak after President Obama. Actually, I've been listening to some of his speeches as I'm practicing. By no means could I expect to deliver a speech as well as he can. He's had years of practice and is obviously phenomenal. But he has a certain presence and a cadence that I hope to at least try to work for, a little bit.

I imagine that it's pretty exciting.

Being valedictorian of Notre Dame is a great honor and a privilege, but mostly so because my class is so full of engaging and accomplished and passionate students that it's just a responsibility to represent them. So I hope that I'll be able to deliver a message that will not just say "this is what Brennan Bollman thinks," but "this is what Notre Dame is."

That's a very diplomatic answer. Do you have public service or politics in mind for the future?

Actually, I'll be attending medical school next year.

Do you know where yet?

Yes, I'm going to Harvard. Where, actually, President Obama is obviously an alum . . . . I hope to enter the field of public health. I've done some international health work, so I would like to continue that. I've spent some time in Haiti through experiences at Notre Dame and also in Cambodia. I would like to try to return to Haiti as part of my medical practice.

Obama is the ninth president to speak at Notre Dame, so it's not exactly unprecedented. Did you imagine that the controversy would be so intense?

When the announcement came out that Friday afternoon, I would say within a half an hour -- just because of mass text messaging and Facebook status updates -- everyone was talking about it. People were just unbelievably ecstatic that President Obama was going to be our graduation speaker. I definitely had a feeling of my heart stopping when I read that announcement.

I know that the perception of the school is that it's a little bit more conservative, and it certainly is more morally conservative, but I would say that, politically, it's quite even. I have some fellow students and friends who are opposed to awarding him an honorary degree because of the Catholic stance on life issues, but they're being very mature and thoughtful -- I would say almost academic in expressing their viewpoints. The sensationalism comes externally.

Which was a bigger controversy among students: whether Obama should come to speak or whether the school should have fired football coach Charlie Weis after going 3-9 and 7-6 the past two years?

I would have to say [Obama] is a stronger issue. It's political, it does affect a lot of lives, whether you're thinking about women's lives in making certain choices or being in certain situations. I think that the firing of Charlie Weis also comes on strongly. But, yes, this has been a bigger issue.

It certainly spawned many more letters to our student newspaper. Actually, they did a poll. Ninety-seven percent of the letters from senior class members were in support of Obama coming to speak. The football team's record has also generated letters to the editor, but not quite as many. Football is always dear to Notre Dame, but I think we also realize which things are more important.

I read a letter to the editor of the campus newspaper that you wrote during your junior year discussing some controversy over Raytheon and the CIA recruiting on campus. You wrote that "we fail as students if we accept information without critically evaluating it in light of our values." Do you feel as though people have done that in this case?

The students are taking this issue to heart in a very appropriate fashion. There is certainly a very present and visible portion of our student body that cares very deeply about these life issues, and it's important that they evaluate the actions of any institution, whether it's Notre Dame, their academic institution or their government, in light of values that they believe religiously, personally, morally and intellectually.

Did you support Obama's candidacy?

Yes, I did.

Did you go door to door in Indiana or anything?

I was really busy last semester interviewing for medical schools. I did work on the campus non-partisan campaign to register voters. I didn't personally work for him. I would have, though.

Your class entered Notre Dame in the fall of 2005. Today, it's a pretty different economy. What do you and your classmates think of the world you're walking into?

People who have had the benefit of receiving an education are at an advantage to be able to help rebuild things that are broken in our economy, in our health care and a whole host of other sectors of society. At Notre Dame I think we have a particular bent on the issue because service is so inculcated here.

How are the black market sales for graduation tickets?

Tickets are impossible to come by. Every family is guaranteed three. I know there was a lottery for faculty tickets. I'm sure every seat will be filled. In past years it hasn't been that difficult to get tickets. I went a couple years ago and just got a ticket outside.

Are people selling them on Craigslist?

I haven't checked. I just know I get mine.

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