Senior Elena Elliott will serve as this year’s student commencement speaker.
Elliott’s speech was chosen out of 49 speeches submitted to a committee of administrators, faculty members and students. She will present it May 14 at Duke’s 2017 commencement ceremony in Wallace Wade Stadium. According to a Duke Today release, Elliott will touch on the journey that brought her to Duke.
“I’ve seen the gap between the opportunities my peers had and the ones I’ve found here,” Elliott said in the release. “Someone who’s seen that gap should do something about it.”
Elliott is a public policy major with a minor in economics. After graduation, she will work for Teach for America, spending the next two years teaching kindergarten in Oakland, Calif.
“The committee felt strongly that her message was important, compelling and would be well-received by the students and the larger commencement audience,” said Sterly Wilder, associate vice president for Duke Alumni Affairs and chair of the selection committee, in the release.
Regarding what her speech will include, Elliot wrote in an email that it will have narratives about some of the women in her family.
“Much of the speech is about my grandmother and mother and their experiences,” she wrote. “Considering commencement is on Mother’s Day I think they'll especially love it.”
She explained, however, that the broader message of her speech is centered around the role of mentors in helping her and other students getting into Duke and succeeding.
“My speech touches on the immigration stories of my family, but it’s about much more than that,” Elliot wrote. “It’s about how we are blessed to have people in our lives who help get us where we’re going. And, it’s about the Duke experience and the power that comes with such an education. I hope these are topics many students will be able to connect to.”
For Elliot in particular, many friends, family and faculty were critical to her success, she noted, adding that several of these people helped her come up with the speech she submitted for consideration.
“I wouldn’t say I’m an excellent writer. You'd have to ask my professors about that,” she wrote. “But jokes aside, the speech was really a collaborative effort. My family and friends all provided help—listening to different versions and giving feedback along the way—which actually drives home the point of my speech.”
Elliot also recognized her high school english teacher Robert Gawedzinski from her home in Duncanville, Texas as one of the driving forces behind her success. She noted that Duke’s focus on the humanities helped to strengthen the budding skills he had initially instilled in her as a writer.
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Throughout her four years at Duke, Elliot said she has focused many of her extracurriculars on education and education policy, seeking to remedy some of the "disparities" she witnessed while growing up.
“I come from a community where higher education wasn't always a given for my peers, and upon coming to Duke I really saw the disparities between different educations across the US,” she wrote. “Some students are given so many opportunities, while others are not. I think that if given the right opportunities every child can succeed, so it's particularly important that we work in closing that gap.”
Working with Teach for America was a natural extension of that goal, she added.
Editor's note: This article was updated on Wednesday at 8 a.m. to include Elliott's comments.