Previous senior commencement speakers at Stanford have included Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, and Susan Rice. This year, the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, will be giving the parting message to the class of 2011.
Dante DiCicco, Earth Systems ‘11, is one of the Senior Class Presidents, alongside Pamon Forouhar, Mona Hadidi and Molly Spaeth. Each year, the class presidents assist in the selection process of the commencement speaker and narrow down the pool of potential candidates. President Hennessy and his staff ultimately have the final say.
DiCicco said the process this year began when the presidents sent an e-mail out to the class list asking for suggestions.
Alexandra Zapata Hojel ’11 commented upon the suggestion. “There was a survey that we could fill out with the name of the speaker we were suggesting,” she wrote in an email to The Review. “I suggested President Calderon.”
The senior class presidents also asked members of the senior class to list any personal connections they might have.
“A Stanford connection is an essential part of choosing a commencement speaker,” said DiCicco. The Senior Class Presidents have to ask a person to be the commencement speaker directly.
A member of the senior class is a close family friend to Calderon’s family.
“A few people had suggested Calderon in our class survey and she came forward and said, ‘I have a personal connection,’” said DiCicco.
Calderon was one of many proposed candidates – some more realistic than others – by the senior class. He became the first choice after President Hennessy’s staff approved him as a viable option.
The Senior Class Presidents received this verbal confirmation just before Thanksgiving break. President Hennessy presented a formal invitation to Calderon and Calderon formally accepted the role of commencement speaker.
According to DiCicco, the response to the commencement speaker decision has been “largely positive.” At the same time, he acknowledges that “like any politician, there will be some supporters and some detractors so we can’t say it’s been 100% positive.”
There has been controversy about Calderon’s selection due to disagreement with some of his political actions as president since December 2006. At the top of many minds will likely be Mexico’s drug wars which resulted in over 15,000 deaths in 2010 and which has spilled over the American-Mexican border. The violence has been rising steadily over the past few years, rising from 2,800 drug-related deaths in 2007.
DiCicco saw the speech as an event rooted in experiences. He said that “a commencement speech at the end [the] of day is a life talk, so you ideally want someone with a lot of life experience. Given Felipe Calderon’s extensive academic background and his background in the policy sector, he’s had a lot of experience dealing with some tough times. He’s tried a lot of things that have failed, he’s tried a lot things that have succeeded.”
But Ben Allanson ’11 is excited about hearing a global leader speak to his class and is interested to hear Calderon’s advice. “I think he’s an inspirational guy,” said Allanson. “Hopefully he’ll have something to say which is truly a message for us, a message we can grasp as a class.”
Allanson recalls people being unhappy with commencement speakers in the past, not because of their speeches, but because they were not important or famous enough.
“In general I think most people are pretty pleased with [Calderon],” he said. “It’s nice to have the big name.”
Further planning for commencement is now mostly in the hands of University. The senior class presidents will focus instead on arranging other parts of the commencement ceremonies. According to DiCicco, Calderon will arrive a day or two before commencement in order to have a dinner along with the president, the provost, the board of trustees, and the senior class presidents.
“We’re incredibly excited about it,” said DiCicco.