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May 15, 2023

Colleges use commencement speakers to boost profile, inspire students

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-CT) addressed Universtiy of St. Joseph students during their graduation last year.

College graduation ceremonies are now underway across Connecticut, which means schools are featuring keynote speakers that aim to inspire the next generation.

While some might consider them part of commencement ceremony lore, speakers are often much more than that to colleges.

Attracting top, recognizable names can put a university in the limelight and sustain media attention for years.

For example, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford has received over 41 million pageviews and 24,000 comments on YouTube. Numerous comments were posted in recent days, weeks and months.

Elite colleges like Harvard and Yale often battle it out for the most prestigious speakers: Tom Hanks is scheduled to speak at Harvard’s 2023 commencement on May 24, while acclaimed poet Elizabeth Alexander will speak at Yale’s May 21 ceremony in New Haven.

Other Connecticut colleges also compete for top-name speakers. But even local schools that don’t get former presidents or high-profile celebrities, still view commencement speakers as an important way to promote their brand to current and future students, as well as alumni who serve as the all-important donor base.

Hartford’s Trinity College has a track record of recruiting big-name graduation speakers, including former President Jimmy Carter in 1998.

Hartford’s Trinity College has a track record of recruiting big-name graduation speakers, including former President Jimmy Carter in 1998.

In 2019, Boston Red Sox President and CEO Samuel Kennedy spoke to graduating students. Actor, academy-award winning filmmaker and 1996 alum Will McCormack addressed Trinity grads in 2020.

This year’s speaker — 1992 alumna Nicole Hockley, co-founder and CEO of the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation — will address students at their May 21 graduation.

Jason Rojas

Trinity College Associate Vice President for External Affairs Jason Rojas said the liberal arts school livestreams all commencement speeches, records them for archival purposes, and shares them online.

He noted that when President Carter recently entered hospice care, WNPR asked for more than two-decade-old footage of his address to Trinity students.

“Commencement speakers build greater awareness among prospective families and prospective students who might want to have Trinity College on their list of potential institutions they’d like to attend,” Rojas said.

Capturing the moment

Colleges tend to spend six to nine months figuring out and then recruiting speakers, who typically reflect a school’s values. Most speakers are chosen by selection committees that consist of various constituents, including faculty, staff, alumni, community leaders and even students.

Some schools pay for high-profile speakers, but most don’t. Officials at the University of Hartford, Trinity College, Central Connecticut State University and the University of St. Joseph said they do not pay their speakers, but they do cover hotel, food and airfare expenses.

Barrett Cordero, president of California-based speaking bureau BigSpeak, said commencement speeches have grown in popularity over the last two decades because colleges use them for marketing/brand development, community engagement and student-body connection.

Barrett Cordero

“And, big-name speakers get everyone’s attention — their speeches usually get ample online views once shared on social media or platforms like YouTube,” Cordero said. “It ultimately elevates a traditional ceremony and makes it more memorable.”

Cordero said every college can promote and market graduation speakers, even if they aren’t nationally known figures.

It starts with garnering public and media attention before the ceremony, and then recording the speech and promoting it on social media and other channels.

“Capture the moment and market it,” Cordero said. “Putting (the speech) on the school website, social media handles and in email campaigns are a must. Put it on YouTube for a duration of time, as sometimes speeches like Steve Jobs’ go viral and get tons of views. Anyone in the world can see it, and sometimes, just sometimes, they will go viral.”

Alumni connection

University of Hartford communications professor Sarah Miner said there is no better marketing campaign for the school than bringing in a successful alum.

Sarah Miner

This year, 1999 alum Nicole Hughey, senior vice president and head of diversity, equity and inclusion at satellite radio giant SiriusXM, was one of two speakers at UHart’s May 14 graduation ceremony held at the XL Center in downtown Hartford.

Greg Barats, CEO and president of HSB Group, parent company of equipment-breakdown insurer Hartford Steam Boiler, addressed graduate students.

“When you hear from an alum, and they are successful, it highlights the fact that you can come to the university, study and go on to do incredible things,” Miner said. “Other universities might have really big names but, to me, somebody who is really rooted in the community and has success in their industry, and who has ties to the university, really brings it all full circle. That’s not full circle just for the students, but also for the families who are going to be in attendance and supporting these graduates.”

University of St. Joseph President Rhona Free said her West Hartford school uses commencement speakers to motivate and inspire students, while also using them as a marketing tool.

“The commencement speaker is a way of providing a model for students of what we hope their lives will be,” Free said. “The marketing aspect of it is really conveying to a broader audience — family members, students, employers, potential students, potential employers and just the community in general — the type of outcome we want for all of our students.”

Rhona Free

Free said she has the final say on all USJ commencement speakers, and personally signed off on this year’s choice: Bruce Mandell, co-founder and chairman of the Hartford Athletic soccer team, and owner of Newington-based direct-mail company Data-Mail Inc.

“He is a good example of someone you want representing your university,” Free said. “He is working hard to develop the southern part of Hartford, his family has done well in business, and he is very philanthropic.”

Free said USJ posts information on its commencement addresses on social media before and after the event, and in its semi-annual alumni magazine, “Outlook.”

She said some speakers, such as U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-CT), who addressed USJ students in 2022, continue to get positive feedback on social media.

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