While graduation from Stuyvesant is a final sigh of relief from the burdens that high school brings, a major part of the excitement is watching a celebrity keynote speaker address the graduating class during the ceremony. This year, the senior class was given a list of potential speakers ranging from comedian Jerry Seinfeld to Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. The class voted on whom they would most like to see on graduation, with actor Neil Patrick Harris receiving the most votes. However, the process is not as simple as it seems, and this vote does not necessarily mean graduates will look up to see Harris on a podium during commencement.
The keynote speaker is chosen by the senior caucus and the Senior Advisory Council. This year’s Senior Class President, Eric Han, is responsible for choosing a speaker that class will approve of and for contacting the speaker or his or her representative. In addition, Principal Stanley Teitel often offers his opinion, but the ultimate decision is made by the Senior Class President. Coordinator of Technology James Lonardo is also responsible for contacting the speaker and assists in the decision.
Once a choice is made, a letter is written and sent to the candidate asking him or her to be the keynote speaker. The letter gives some background information about Stuyvesant, its history, why he or she was chosen to speak, and a deadline of about three weeks for a response. Often, the letter does not go directly to the candidate, but to a representative, who may later contact the school to accept or decline the invitation. If a response is not received by the deadline, a letter is sent to another candidate until someone accepts. The speaker is not paid, but travel fare may be covered by the school.
The more popular a person is, the more difficult it becomes to get him or her to speak at graduation. “It’s like writing a college essay, trying to make our school stand out,” Lonardo said.
In 2006, comedian Conan O’Brien spoke at graduation after the Senior Class President at the time went to O’Brien’s office in New York and gave the letter directly to his secretary. Former President Bill Clinton spoke in 2002, following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center of September 11, 2001. However, choosing a graduation speaker is not merely a matter of getting the most famous person possible.
“It’s the students’ graduation and it’s fun to get a celebrity, but sometimes the celebrity doesn’t put much though into it. They rest on their fame,” math teacher and dean Gary Rubenstein said.
“We try to get someone with a connection to the school, because they can reflect on their experience,” Lonardo said.
Though many students might rather see a celebrity they recognize from television or film, an alumnus can offer students more personal and relatable advice. In the past decade, five of the speakers have been Stuyvesant graduates, including award-winning author Gary Shteyngart (’91), Senior Advisor to the President David Axelrod (’72), and actress Lucy Liu (’86).
“I like it when someone’s an alumnus, but I feel that someone who’s successful or has anything valuable to say is just as appreciatable,” Stuyvesant alumnus Oark Ahmed (’11) said.
Many almuni from Stuyvesant have established high profiles in various fields and can thus motivate and impress students while still providing a relatable experience. “It wouldn’t be too hard to combine both things [alumni and celebrity], because so many Stuy grads are successful, but ultimately it’s [the students’ graduation,” Assistant Principal Social Studies Jennifer Suri said.
Often, alumni are sought after because they are more likely to accept the invitation than people who do not have ties to Stuyvesant.The residence of the speaker is also taken into account, as those who live in or near New York are much more likely to be available.
If a speaker has not been scheduled by New Year’s Day, Teitel personally involves himself in the search and uses his connections to find someone who is willing to give a speech. Often, congressmen or senators are likely to accept.
The most memorable keynote speakers, according to Teitel and Lonardo, were O’Brien, Axelrod, Holder, and Clinton. “Conan and Clinton were very funny. I liked that Holder talked about being in Stuyvesant and the different experiences he had from that time,” Teitel said.
Likewise, Ahmed (‘11), who graduated the year Axelrod spoke, said, “[Axelrod] really knew what it was like to be a Stuy student. He seemed knowledgeable and knew what he was talking about.”
Though the past years have seen prominent keynote speakers whose speeches inspired the Stuyvesant community, there have also been speakers who have done little to enlighten students. Recently, Lucy Liu, who spoke during the 2009 did not receive much accolade following her speech.
“I was a little disappointed by Lucy Liu because [her speech] was a rehash of her resume, how she got to where she is,” Teitel said.
Whether the speaker is an entertainer, a politician, or an author,the quality of the speech is the memory that will be etched onto the minds of graduates.
“These folks show that you need to be passionate about what you want to do,” Lonardo said. “They say how you should give back to society, not just take.”