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2011 Commencement Speech

Dean Larry Kirkman

Class of 2012, on behalf of the faculty and staff of the School of Communication, congratulations on your achievements. Today you join thousands of SOC alumni working across the communication professions and around the world.  

You are prepared to succeed in a society increasingly defined by media and communication.  You are empowered to make a difference in our politics, culture, and economy.  Historical context and global perspectives, demanding professional standards, the high value placed on independent critical thinking, digital media skills and the lessons of team-work -- these have provided the compass points for your careers and are the grounding for your life-long learning. 

This summer we will break ground on the renovation of the McKinley Building as a new home for SOC.  McKinley will provide the facilities that our programs need to prosper and strengthen our identity as a leader in communication education, professional innovation, and research.   

We have leveraged our considerable academic power and unique connections to move us to this enviable point, where employers seek our students, where faculty are sought for expertise in Washington and across the country, and where our content attracts major media partners, but we will gain ground with the new building's expanded facilities for collaboration and creation. SOC has built a reputation for involving students, faculty, and alumni in a community of professional practice and of moral and intellectual inquiry. We have created a meeting ground for creative storytellers, media strategists, investigative journalists and communication scholars.  We pursue the exchange of ideas and insights across borders of race and ethnicity, of geography, of age, of economic class, and of academic disciplines.  Together, we are rethinking and reinventing communication as a field of study and research, as a profession and as a social responsibility. Through our community we can reflect on what matters and why, can keep ourselves honest, can size up the challenges we face. The deepest conversation takes place in the context of community.  

Today the majority of you are graduating with degrees that have the word “public” in their titles, almost 60% of you, with the BA and MA in Public Communication or the MA in Journalism and Public Affairs. Public service, public affairs, and public media are themes that cut across all of our programs. Our Center for Social Media explores media for public knowledge and action. Our annual student festival, Visions, uses the slogan Media that Matters. 

Public space has become contested territory: public education, public health, public transportation, public parks, public broadcasting.  

You are the pioneers of the new public sphere. Your generation is mapping and shaping the Internet landscape, the emerging interactive, participatory digital space where content and connection are intertwined. You have grown up in the links age, sharing knowledge, sharing tools, sharing aspirations. You have come to expect openness and accountability. You link the personal to the political. You link individual needs to collective solutions. 

I trust that the habits of heart and cast of mind cultivated during your time here have prepared you to be both communication professionals and active citizens.  That you will link together reflection and action and be both producers and cultural critics. You can help develop new modes of literacy in which to interpret the world and new strategies to defend those vital institutions that are central to democratic life. 

You have learned to confront reality, to clarify issues, to cope with complexity, to provide the evidence and testimony that frame public debate, to champion the common good. You have learned to examine, to compare, to question, to doubt, to look beyond yourself, to ask the unimagined question and listen to the unexpected answer.  Each of you in your own setting in your own way can help shape the vigorous and inclusive communication environment that we all want to work in and live in. 

Our graduate flagbearers are Barry Gordemer and Wei Wang. Barry Gordemer receives his MA in Interactive Journalism after 25 years in Public Radio.  After covering 5 presidents, 2 wars and the horrors of 9-11 for NPR, Barry joined our ranks of adult learners who gave up 20 months of Saturdays -- and braved facing grades! -- to polish old skills, and learn new ones.  He compares his two year degree to bungee jumping, saying  “Over these past two years American University has gotten my pulse racing. When you feel your heart beating in your chest, it’s usually a sign that something meaningful in your life is happening.” 

Another weekend student, Wei Wang receives her MA in Producing for Film and Video today.  Wei Wang grew up as a deaf child in Beijing, where she and her parents struggled to create her path for education and work.  She developed a passion to portray the stories of deaf people and came to Washington because there were no opportunities for a deaf person to study media in China.  While working at Gallaudet University, she has pursued her dream in our film program to become a professional media producer and to use media, she says,  as “a tool for change, to use the power of documentary filmmaking “to change the old concepts of disability” and “to empower” deaf people.  She says, “I love being deaf and am proud to stand before you today.”   

Our graduate speaker, Peter Kimball, receives the MFA in Film and Electronic Media today.  Peter is a screenwriter, with a feature film script as his MFA thesis project, and he’s moving to Hollywood.  But Peter has exercised a wide peripheral vision at SOC, seizing opportunities that go far beyond his professional focus.  He was the teaching assistant for Distinguished Producer in Residence Chris Palmer.  He helped manage our Center for Environmental Filmmaking and co-authored eight articles with Professor Palmer.  In addition, Peter won one of our two competitive Technology fellowships at the Associated Press, to work on AP Television’s transition to High Definition.  While earning a 3.92 GPA, Peter interned at Discovery Communications, German Network News, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.   

Our undergraduate student speakers and flag bearers today have excelled in the classroom and in the community.  They have worked closely with faculty and taken advantage of SOC's media partnerships and professional networks.  

Hands-on learning has been a central feature of our programs for more than 40 years.  Every one of you will treasure your experiences off campus, including your internships, class projects and class assignments with major media companies, nonprofit and community organizations, in corporate communications and government agencies. 

Our undergraduate flag bearers represent the richness of experiential learning at American University. In her first three years, Broadcast Journalism student Emily Roseman interned at BBC World News, the White House and MSNBC.  And, as a senior, she was selected for a dean’s digital journalism internship at USA Today, where she has earned national bylines. She wrote “I became a professional intern… but interning is just half the experience. Lessons from our professors did not end when the class time was complete but when the questions were all answered. They gave me the confidence and the proficiency to succeed.”  

Sylvia Carnignan, who receives her BA in journalism with minors in Psychology and Economics, interned at our radio station WAMU and at National Public Radio.  Sylvia has been a dean’s intern at the Washington Post her entire senior year, and was just hired by the Post as a reporter for the summer.  Working with the Metro section, Sylvia earned 69 bylines covering stories from escaped zebras to local food deserts to environmental concerns in Spring Valley -- that latest story ran as a front page Metro feature with photos. Our undergraduate speaker is Lindsey Anderson, who receives her BA in Journalism with minors in Spanish and International Studies. Lindsey has earned a 3.94 GPA.  She was Editor in Chief of The Eagle this year.  She has been an online content intern at Washington Post Live and has written many stories for the Post’s Style section.  And, she was an intern at USA Today reporting on health and science.  Lindsey is a semi-finalist for a Fulbright grant to conduct a multimedia journalism project on domestic violence in Peru.  Our fingers are crossed.   

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