Although the student commencement speaker is always a graduating student, it is not often a graduate student.
This year, however, will be different. On Tuesday, the University announced that Andrew Barnhill, a masters candidate in the Divinity School, will give the student commencement speech. Graduating students are annually given the opportunity to submit speeches to a selection committee, but they are chosen infrequently—Barnhill will be one of fewer than 10 graduate and professional school students to deliver this speech in the past four decades.
“It was almost hard to tell from his speech which school he was graduating from,” said selection committee head Sterly Wilder, Trinity ’83 and associate vice president for alumni affairs. “It really appeals to the whole audience.”
In his three years at Duke, Barnhill has focused his studies on religion and law. He has served as a graduate resident on Central Campus, a graduate assistant in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and an instructor of a house course on religion and American politics. He will complete a law degree at Duke Law next semester.
“One of the things I’ve tried to do in my time at Duke is to bridge the gaps between the undergraduate and graduate communities,” said Barnhill, a native of Wilmington, N.C. who received his undergraduate degree from Furman University. “The speaker is generally an undergraduate senior, which is wonderful… but I’d like to address both the graduate and undergraduate experience.”
Barnhill described his speech as discussing two facets of Duke life that often oppose each other, ambition and reflection.
“Ambition, drive—that’s something that is very strong in Duke campus culture. But there’s also what we are taught in a liberal arts college—to reflect, to look back. The speech wrestles between the two,” Barnhill said.
He noted that it was important to think of his speech being read alongside that of Melinda Gates, Trinity ’86 and Fuqua ’87, who will be delivering the main commencement address.
“There’s a desire to have some continuity between the two speeches,” Barnhill said.
Of the several dozen speeches submitted, most came from undergraduates, said David Jarmul, a member of the committee and associate vice president for news and communications. All finalists were required to present their speech to the committee just as they would on commencement day if chosen, and they were judged for both delivery and content. The selection committee was composed of graduating students—undergraduate, graduate and professional alike—as well as faculty and staff, said Wilder. Every speech was read by the entire committee.
Over the next month, Barnhill will meet with theater professors and speech coaches to perfect his delivery.
This year’s commencement will be Duke’s 161st and will be held on Sunday, May 12 in Wallace Wade Stadium. It serves as the graduation ceremony for all eleven of the University’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools.