Commencement Speakers

Student Speakers

Each school or college ceremony includes an address by a graduating student. If you would like to be considered as a student speaker, review the Featured Students information.

Keynote Speakers and Honorary Degree Recipients

Each school or college ceremony also includes a keynote address by a distinguished speaker who receives an honorary degree from American University. Remarks from past commencement speakers are available in our Highlights archive.

Fall 2018 Keynote Speaker

Helene D. Gayle

Helene D. Gayle president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust

Before assuming leadership of the Trust in October 2017, Dr. Gayle was CEO of McKinsey Social Initiative (now, a nonprofit that builds partnerships for social impact.

For almost a decade, she was president and CEO of CARE, a leading international humanitarian organization. An expert on global development, humanitarian and health issues, Dr. Gayle spent 20 years with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), working primarily on HIV/AIDS. She also worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, directing programs on HIV/AIDS and other global health issues.

Dr. Gayle serves on public company and nonprofit boards including The Coca-Cola Company, Colgate-Palmolive Company, the Rockefeller Foundation, Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, New America and the ONE Campaign. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Public Health Association, the National Academy of Medicine, the National Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Named one of Forbes' " 100 Most Powerful Women" and one of NonProfit Times' "Power and Influence Top 50," she has authored numerous articles on global and domestic public health issues, poverty alleviation, gender equality and social justice.

Dr. Gayle was born and raised in Buffalo, NY. She earned a B.A. in psychology at Barnard College, an M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and an M.P.H. at Johns Hopkins University. She has received 15 honorary degrees and holds faculty appointments at the University of Washington and Emory University.

She will receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree at the fall commencement (10 a.m., Sunday, December 16). Learn more about Dr. Gayle.

Spring 2019 Keynote Speakers

Stacey Abrams

Stacey Abrams Former Georgia House Democratic Leader

Stacey Abrams is an author, serial entrepreneur, nonprofit CEO and political leader. After serving for eleven years in the Georgia House of Representatives, seven as Minority Leader, in 2018, Abrams became the Democratic nominee for Governor of Georgia, when she won more votes than any other Democrat in the state's history. Abrams was the first black woman to become the gubernatorial nominee for a major party in the United States. After witnessing the gross mismanagement of the 2018 election by the Secretary of State's office, Abrams launched Fair Fight to ensure every Georgian has a voice in our election system. Over the course of her career, Abrams has founded multiple organizations devoted to voting rights, training and hiring young people of color, and tackling social issues at both the state and national levels. She is a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the 2012 recipient of the John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award, and a current member of the Board of Directors for the Center for American Progress. Abrams has also written eight romantic suspense novels under the pen name Salena Montgomery, in addition to Lead from the Outside, formerly Minority Leader, a guidebook on making real change.

Abrams received degrees from Spelman College, the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, and Yale Law School. She and her five siblings grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi and were raised in Georgia.

Pam Kaufman

Pam Kaufman President of Viacom Nickelodeon Consumer Products

As President of Viacom Nickelodeon Consumer Products, Pam Kaufman leads worldwide licensing and merchandising for Viacom Media Networks and Paramount Pictures. This multi-billion-dollar consumer products business consists of Viacom’s portfolio of brands and iconic franchise properties, including Nickelodeon’s PAW Patrol, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and SpongeBob SquarePants; MTV’s Jersey Shore Family Vacation; Comedy Central’s South Park; and Paramount Pictures’ The Godfather, Top Gun and Grease, among others.

Kaufman previously served as President of Consumer Products and Chief Marketing Officer for Nickelodeon where she was the force behind some of Nickelodeon’s most iconic, long-lasting franchises. Her commitment to transformation, innovation and brand-building has led to some of the most ground-breaking partnerships in Nickelodeon’s history, including cutting-edge co-branded collaborations with some of the biggest names in social media (JoJo Siwa), fashion (Jeremy Scott/Moschino) and sports (Carmelo Anthony).

Kaufman was named to lead Consumer Products for Viacom globally in 2018 and is focused on delivered exciting and compelling products and designs for all demos and aisles in every market.

Kaufman’s career accolades include: Advertising Age’s Entertainment Marketer of the Year, License Global’s list of Influentials, Multichannel News’ roster of Wonder Women - an annual list of powerful and influential women in TV and communications who are making a difference for future female leaders - and in 2019, Women in Toys, Licensing & Entertainment (WIT) recognized Kaufman’s commitment to developing the next generation of leaders with its Wonder Woman Mentorship Award.

A passionate advocate for women and families, Kaufman serves on the board for Bottomless Closet, a non-profit that prepares women for workplace success, and for the Pace Women’s Justice Center.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Award-Winning Author

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1977. She grew up on the campus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where her father was a Professor and her mother was the first female Registrar. She studied medicine for a year at Nsukka and then left for the US at the age of 19 to continue her education on a different path.

She graduated summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in Communication and Political Science.

She has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Arts degree in African History from Yale University. She was awarded a Hodder fellowship at Princeton University for the 2005-2006 academic year, and a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute of Harvard University for the 2011-2012 academic year. In 2008, she received a MacArthur Fellowship. 

She has received honorary doctorate degrees from Eastern Connecticut State University, Johns Hopkins University, Haverford College, Williams College, the University of Edinburgh, Duke University, Amherst College, Bowdoin College, and SOAS University of London.

Ms. Adichie’s work has been translated into over thirty languages. 

Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), won the Orange Prize. Her 2013 novel Americanah won the US National Book Critics Circle Award, and was named one of The New York Times Top Ten Best Books of 2013.

She has delivered two landmark TED talks: her 2009 TED Talk The Danger of A Single Story and her 2012 TEDx Euston talk We Should All Be Feminists, which started a worldwide conversation about feminism, and was published as a book in 2014.

Her most recent book, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, was published in March 2017. 

She was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2015. In 2017, Fortune Magazine named her one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. She is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Ms. Adichie divides her time between the United States and Nigeria, where she leads an annual creative writing workshop.

Roger W. Ferguson, Jr.

Roger W. Ferguson, Jr. President and CEO, TIAA

Roger W. Ferguson, Jr., is President and Chief Executive Officer of TIAA, the leading provider of retirement services in the academic, research, medical, and cultural fields and a Fortune 100 financial services organization.

Mr. Ferguson is the former Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System. He represented the Federal Reserve on several international policy groups and served on key Federal Reserve System committees, including Payment System Oversight, Reserve Bank Operations, and Supervision and Regulation. As the only Governor in Washington, D.C. on 9/11, he led the Fed’s initial response to the terrorist attacks, taking actions that kept the U.S. financial system functioning while reassuring the global financial community that the U.S. economy would not be paralyzed.

Prior to joining TIAA in April 2008, Mr. Ferguson was head of financial services for Swiss Re, Chairman of Swiss Re America Holding Corporation, and a member of the company’s executive committee. From 1984 to 1997, he was an Associate and Partner at McKinsey & Company. He began his career as an attorney at the New York City office of Davis Polk & Wardwell.

Mr. Ferguson is a member of the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents and serves on the New York State Insurance Advisory Board. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and co-chairs its Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education. He serves on the boards of Alphabet, Inc.; General Mills, Inc.; and International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc.

He is Chairman of The Conference Board and serves on the boards of the American Council of Life Insurers, the Institute for Advanced Study, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He is a fellow of the American Philosophical Society and a member of the Economic Club of New York, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Group of Thirty.

Mr. Ferguson served on President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness as well as its predecessor, the Economic Recovery Advisory Board, and he co-chaired the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on the Long-Run Macro-Economic Effects of the Aging U.S. Population.

Mr. Ferguson holds a B.A., J.D., and a Ph.D. in economics, all from Harvard University.

James L. Jones

General James L. Jones (Ret.) Former National Security Advisor to the President of the United States
32nd Commandant of the Marine Corps

As President of Jones Group International (JGI) and one of America’s leading authorities on foreign policy, energy security, and national security, General Jones provides JGI clients with strategies for navigating the complex nexus of business, international affairs, and public policy.

General Jones was appointed by President Barack Obama as National Security Advisor to the President on January 20, 2009. During his tenure in the White House, General Jones served as a trusted Presidential advisor, represented the President as an envoy to American allies and partners, provided steady leadership during times of conflict, and oversaw an expansion of responsibilities of the National Security Council to include cyber security, homeland security, and strategic foresight.

Upon General Jones’ retirement, President Obama said, “Jim has always been a steady voice in Situation Room sessions, daily briefings, and with meetings with foreign leaders … the American people owe the General a debt for making the nation safer.”

General Jones came to the White House from the private sector, where he served as the President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy. At the Chamber, General Jones worked to unite energy consumers and producers in pursuit of common goals—to increase U.S. energy supply and improve infrastructure, to advance international cooperation on energy issues, to protect national energy security, and to promote a better understanding of changes to the global climate and its effects on the environment.

While leading the Chamber’s energy work, General Jones also served in the George W. Bush administration as the State Department’s Special Envoy for Middle East Regional Security. In this capacity, he worked with Israeli and Palestinian officials in furthering the Peace Process, focused on strengthening security for both parties to the conflict.

General Jones retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in February 2007 after a distinguished forty-year career. From July 1999 to January 2003, General Jones served as the 32nd Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, the most senior position in the Corps.

In 2003, General Jones was nominated to serve as Commander, United States European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe. As Commander of U.S. European Command, General Jones’ area of responsibility included 92 countries from Europe, Eurasia, and

Africa. In his capacity as Commander of all NATO forces, General Jones led the Alliance into overall command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the largest combat mission in NATO’s history. General Jones also oversaw the military integration of the Alliance as it expanded from 19 to 26 members, and he advocated that NATO take on energy security and defense of critical infrastructure as a core mission.

General Jones spent the formative years of his youth living in France, where he became fluent in French and developed a global perspective. General Jones graduated from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps in January 1967. He served as a rifle platoon and Company Commander in Vietnam, where he earned a Silver Star. On returning to the U.S., he attended the Amphibious Warfare School in 1973 and the National War College in 1985 and served as Marine Corps Liaison Officer to the U.S. Senate. In addition, he served as Commanding Officer of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Northern Iraq and Turkey on Operation Provide Comfort; Chief of Staff, Joint Task Force Provide Promise, for operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia; and Commanding General, 2nd Marine Division, Marine Forces Atlantic. He also served as Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense from 1997-99.

Upon leaving the White House in 2010, General Jones founded Jones Group International. General Jones and the JGI team leverage their unmatched expertise, access, and credibility to assist clients in matters of energy security, national and international security, market access and trade promotion, and strategic leadership.