Seniors Have Mixed Opinions on 2019 Commencement Speaker Elizabeth Alexander

Following Pharrell Williams and Justin Trudeau, some students are unhappy with the university’s choice, while others look forward to hearing from Alexander, a celebrated poet and academic.

Graduates stand for the National Anthem at last year's commencement. (Photo by Renee Yang)

Many seniors were surprised by the university’s announcement that Elizabeth Alexander will be the 2019 commencement speaker, especially in light of the last two speakers — 11-time Grammy winner Pharrell Williams and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who have more name recognition. While some remain upset with the choice, others are looking forward to hearing Alexander speak after learning about her accomplishments.

In addition to being a Yale professor, Alexander is a current Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and a member of the Pulitzer Prize board. She performed at former President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Alexander also spoke at Stanford University’s Baccalaureate — a multi-faith ceremony for graduating students — in 2018.

Following Alexander’s performance at his inauguration, Obama said, “On a day full of unforgettable moments, hearing Elizabeth read that poem was one of my favorite moments.”

CAS senior Gregory Belizaire thinks that although Alexander is not the most recognizable figure, he’s looking forward to hearing her speech.

“Initially I was a bit let down; I guess my expectations were of someone I knew of prominence,” Belizaire said. “But after doing research on her I warmed up to the idea, and she seems like a very impressive person.”

Phionna Teo, also a CAS senior, said she wasn’t excited when she saw the announcement that Alexander would be the speaker.

“My friends who are juniors now are kind of laughing at us,” Teo said. “They’re like, oh, this is who you got?”

CAS senior Gabe Hoffman said he was extremely unhappy with the university’s choice.

“The fact that you have to go and do some research and figure out who she is, is already disappointing in its own regard,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman said he is considering starting a petition and, along with several other seniors, sent an email to the university which claimed that parents are no longer attending the ceremony, and students do not wish to travel uptown, due to the choice of speaker.

In past years, NYU has hosted commencement speakers with limited mainstream celebrity, such as Ford Foundation President Darren Walker in 2016, the NAACP Legal Defense President Sherrilyn Ifill in 2015 and Janet Yellen — the first woman to serve as chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System — in 2014. Like Walker, Alexander is president of a foundation that has contributed to NYU. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation she heads provides funding for humanities programs in higher education.

Some, like Steinhardt senior Connie Li, were pleased with the university’s decision to choose a speaker who doesn’t fit the standard celebrity mold.

“I was just shook it was a woman of color who does poetry,” Li told WSN via a text message. “I thought it would only be like celebrities or CEOs, so it was cool to see it be a poet.”

Most of all, Li wrote that she appreciated the message NYU sent by choosing a speaker whose accomplishments haven’t resulted in mainstream fame.

“I’m a creative writing minor and I am mostly focused on poetry, so it was as if NYU was telling me what I care about is important and I usually don’t feel that way,” Li said.

Email Bethany Allard at [email protected]

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