EDITORIAL: Commencement speaker aligns well with Jesuit mission

Illustration by Iman Ajaz/ iman.ajaz@marquette.edu

The university announced Sister Margaret “Peggy” O’Neill, S.C., as the keynote speaker for the Class of 2015 commencement ceremony in May. Identified as the founder of El Centro Arte Para la Paz in El Salvador and a “long-time peace activist,” the announcement was inevitably met with some confusion and disappointment from the senior class and overall student body. While Sister O’Neill sounds very accomplished, she is not a high-profile celebrity like recent speakers Hank Aaron, Bill Cosby and other notables from the past.

It is natural to hope that one’s commencement speaker will be a popular celebrity and that graduation will essentially serve as a free performance from an icon such as Stephen Colbert or a rising celebrity like Mindy Kaling. Whoever speaks at your ceremony can have a tremendous effect on its tone and how one remembers the event. Graduating is a big deal so there is a lot of expectation for it to be great.

It may be good to remember, however, the intent of a commencement speech is not to merely entertain. It should serve as a capstone of graduates’ academic careers and it should provide encouragement and words of wisdom as students look toward their future.

The hype about commencement speeches has slowly shifted away from what is said and more to who says it. This should not be the case. Sister O’Neill may not be a famous Hollywood celebrity, but her accomplishments are impressive. She has worked to promote Catholic values in El Salvador through its civil war, a notably dangerous time and place for religious men and women. University President Michael Lovell also commended her for her dedication to service and her “intellectual and moral excellence.” Without a doubt, Sister O’Neill embodies the values that Marquette seeks to instill in its students.

Sister O’Neill comes with a rich history and a great trove of knowledge. Through her speech, she will surely offer graduates greater wisdom that more closely matches Marquette’s Catholic and Jesuit mission. What she may have to say is more significant than being able to boast having a high-profile personality who may not have a similar caliber of wisdom to offer.

As a bonus, Sister O’Neill is a Marquette alumna. She holds the edge over her predecessors in that she can genuinely relate to the student body, having gone through the Marquette experience herself. By having her as a commencement speaker, her speech will likely be tailored to appeal to students directly, giving her message a  more personal touch. Sister O’Neill has also used her Marquette education as a launch pad for pursuing major endeavors, which can give hope to those graduating seniors who still feel like they have no idea what they are doing.

In the end, we expect Sister O’Neill will offer a strong and positive contribution to the Class of 2015 commencement ceremony. By selecting her, Marquette shows that it remains loyal to its Jesuit values through the very end of its students’ careers. Her speech will likely have great impact for the university and its graduates and be remembered even though she was never a sitcom star. The university’s choice of a down-to-earth role model gets more to the heart of a commencement speech than hiring speakers for their flashiness and popular appeal.