Senior Shannon Beckham will serve as the student commencement speaker at the 2016 commencement ceremony.
Beckham’s speech was chosen out of 30 speeches submitted to a committee of administrators, faculty members and students. She will present it May 15 at Duke’s 2016 commencement ceremony in Wallace Wade Stadium. Beckham, a public policy major with a certificate in policy journalism and media studies, explained that she plans to discuss the shared experiences of the class of 2016 in her speech.
"I want to get up there a say something that can really make a difference," she said.
Beckham noted that her speech focuses on values like empathy.
"I talk about how on a day like graduation, we all talk about how we're so great, but no one talks about how we are good people," she said.
She wants to express to the class of 2016 that the values they learned at Duke should guide them toward a path of goodness, not just greatness, she explained.
However, she noted that her speech is not about imparting wisdom but rather grappling with what the class of 2016 has learned at Duke.
Beckham gained experience in writing speeches from her internship at the White House last summer where she served on a speechwriting team for President Barack Obama. She worked to find anecdotes and historical references for President Obama's speeches, including ones that he gave on visits to Kenya and Ethiopia. She also assisted when Obama announced the re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba and when he spoke in Charleston following a church shooting there in June.
She explained that this job taught her the value of incorporating research into speeches.
"Before I started writing this speech, I went through old letters and speeches from past Duke presidents to learn about what they saw as the vision for Duke when it was founded," Beckham wrote in an email.
Speeches with "beautiful rhetoric or compelling stories" give her inspiration, she noted, adding that she enjoys working with language.
Beckham said that she plans to incorporate her experiences at Duke into her commencement address, especially the lessons she has learned as the president of DefMo, a multicultural student dance group. The people she encountered through this activity helped her learn the value of empathy, she said.
"It's the people and the experiences outside of the classroom that have taught us empathy," she said.
During her time at Duke, Beckham has worked for the Sanford School of Public Policy’s Reporter’s Lab on fact-checking initiatives and founded the Duke chapter of Democracy Matter.
In addition, she studied abroad in Argentina and did DukeEngage in India working with Pakistani refugees.
She said that she hopes to make a career out of speech-writing. After graduation, she will join the speechwriting team that supports Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. She will work with the campaign at least until the election in November.
"We’ll have to see how that goes,” she said about her new job, in a Duke Today release. “Six months from now I don’t know where I’ll be—which is exciting.”
Members of the committee that selected Beckham noted that they are excited to hear her speech this weekend.
“She had an honest approach in her speech,” said Sterly Wilder, associate vice president for Duke Alumni Affairs and chair of the selection committee, in the release. “She was vulnerable and she wanted her message to be distinctly Duke. It really resonated.”
Beckham noted that she hopes her speech will make an impact this weekend.
"I think it only takes one line hitting home with one person in the audience for the speech to make a difference, so that's what I'm hoping to accomplish this weekend," she wrote.
Editor's note: The Chronicle spoke with Beckham both over the phone and via email. This article was updated May 12 at 6:00 p.m. to provide additional information and quotes from Beckham.
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