Last week, I had my high school graduation. Sitting in the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell, my classmates and I were anxious to get through all the speeches and finally get our diplomas. Though I wanted my diploma so badly, I was still excited to hear what our speakers had to say. I actually thought time was going to fly by with each speech.
That was far from the case. While there were some fantastic speeches from my history teacher, the class president, the student speaker, among others, very few were impressed with our guest speaker Michael Brown, co-founder and CEO of City Year. Some may claim the biggest problem is that people don't remember who their commencement speaker was, or what the speaker said. Michael gave light to a far worse problem: people remembering who their speaker was and what he said, but in a bad way.
To be honest, I was in my grade's class council, the student organization that picked Michael as our commencement speaker. We had a tough act to follow from last year's speaker, Rachel Dratch. We knew we wouldn't get anyone nearly as famous or as funny, but we wanted to find someone who would still have something powerful and meaningful to say. When our class president suggested Michael, most class council members liked the idea. City Year, Michael's organization, is a national service program that has young adults volunteer in schools around the country to keep students on track for graduation. The big idea was that students like my classmates and I take a year off from college and give a year of service. I thought he would be inspirational to our class and open our minds to something different.
Fast-forward several months later. Instead of carefully listening to my commencement speaker, I found myself drowning in a 15-minute crossover of an autobiography and an advertisement. And unfortunately, I wasn't alone. On Facebook, I asked my classmates what they thought about Michael's speech.
"The message was okay," wrote Henry Davidson. "But it was just contributing to the idea that we should do a City Year. It was one big advertisement. He talked too much about himself and his own experiences and not enough about anything relevant to our graduation."
Another classmate, Darwin Ding, summed his thoughts in one sentence:
"I couldn't tell if it was a speech or an advertisement."
It is one thing to give the audience background information so they understand where you're coming from. Bragging about your life and achievements, however, isn't the point of a commencement speech. A speaker at any graduation -- high school, college, preschool, Ivy League, state school -- has the chance to give one last piece of advice to a student before they venture off into the next stage of life. The advice doesn't have to be amazing. Even something so simple can resonate in someone for a long time. Although Michael didn't know my class, he must have had something valuable for us to take away as we pursue college, military service, gap year and other future endeavors.
Well, he did. Some did look at the bigger picture.
"I felt that he was presenting his principles above all else, and more advocating for us to leave the classroom for the good of society, whether it be with City Year, the Peace Corps, or any other service organization," wrote Dan Bernstein, another classmate. "He was a tremendous speaker, and his points really hit me... it's good to remember that there is much to be done in college outside the classroom for the greater community."
Still, Michael buried that important message with his own objectives. When he did bring up that message, it came across as we could only help if we participated in City Year.
"He made giving a year sound like a moral obligation," wrote Leah Leshchinsky. "While it might be a good experience for some people, there are many more ways for students to make a difference."
It wouldn't have felt so forced if he didn't repeat the phrase "give a year" over and over before having us say it back to him. Honestly, it felt like a technique someone would use to brainwash people, or what evil dictators do to control others.
I'm sure Michael meant well. No one has expecting him to be the greatest speaker ever, but he abused the opportunity to advertise his organization rather than enlighten us. Even more so, I think he talked more about how he went to Harvard and was roommates with Alan Khazei than the purpose of City Year. Had Michael taken himself out of the picture and focus on what it truly means to give a year, or even an hour, of service, he would've left a bigger impact.