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Changemaking Speakers to Address AU’s Class of 2023

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy will deliver the address at AU’s 146th commencement ceremony, December 17.

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AU commencement speaker and Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. Illustration by Jaylene Arnold.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, the trailblazing 21st surgeon general of the United States, will offer words of encouragement and wisdom at AU’s 146th commencement ceremony on Sunday, December 17. His address to the Class of 2023 will center on health and well-being—two of his top priorities during his tenure as the nation’s top doctor.

The first surgeon general of Indian descent, Murthy has twice held the post: first during the Obama Administration, from 2014 and 2017, and again under President Joe Biden, beginning in March 2021. As the vice admiral of the US Public Health Commissioned Corps, Murthy leads more than 6,000 public health officers serving vulnerable and underserved populations across the country and around the globe.

Murthy’s address comes on the heels of his We Are Made to Connect college tour and the launch of his 5-for-5 Connection Challenge, aimed at combating the loneliness epidemic and helping Americans forge bonds in their daily lives. Earlier this year, he released the Surgeon General’s Advisory on Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, which warns of the profound mental and physical health risks posed by social disconnection. 

“Dr. Murthy and I served together at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration, so I know firsthand the dedication, skill, and compassion that drives his work as our nation’s top doctor,” said AU President Sylvia Burwell. “From his important work on the loneliness epidemic, and its impact on college-age youth in particular, to his service as a key advisor to President Biden's COVID-19 pandemic response operation, Dr. Murthy is a true changemaker who will inspire our graduates as they begin their own impactful pursuits.” 

About 1,700 Eagles are graduating this semester; 900 of them are expected to collect their diplomas during AU’s two ceremonies on December 17.

“I am honored to celebrate this important milestone with American University’s graduates this year,” said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. “Commencement serves as a unique moment for graduates to reflect on the past and look forward to the future they want to build. As graduates begin their next chapter, I hope this time with peers, professors, and loved ones is filled with pride and joy.” 

Along with Murthy, four student speakers have been selected to address their fellow graduates. Get to know them here.

From left: Yanie Wong, Jermaine Gassaway, Brianna Starks, and Daniella Olivares. Graphic by Jaylene Arnold.

From left: Yanie Wong, Jermaine Gassaway, Brianna Starks, and Daniella Olivares. Graphic by Jaylene Arnold. 

Brianna Starks, SOC/MA ’23

Graduate student speaker, 9:00 a.m. ceremony

Brianna Starks was only a few months into her strategic communication master’s degree when she decided to quit her full-time job—a bold decision that came with no backup plan.

Since then, her AU experience has been defined by the confidence that can come with navigating uncertainty. “There’s a certain level of delusion you have to live in,” she said. “You have to be able to believe in yourself.”

During her remarks, Starks will share how she found her voice and her purpose—which includes an interest in politics and a deep-seeded commitment to social justice.

After graduation, Starks plans to launch a firm called Breakthrough Unlimited, which will train people of color to work in politics. She said she wants to help others to step outside of their comfort zone—just as she did at AU.

“I want to give other people a voice,” Starks said. “I always felt like I was told to be muted, that my voice didn’t matter. It’s time for my voice to come out, and it’s so fulfilling to give other people that empowerment.”

Daniella Olivares, CAS/BA ’23

Undergraduate student speaker, 9:00 a.m. ceremony

In July 2020, Daniella Olivares was excited to move to DC for her first year of college when she got an email. Due to COVID-19, AU’s fall classes would be virtual.

Instead of studying in the nation’s capital, Olivares spent her first year of school on Zoom in her childhood bedroom in Massachusetts. “It was a huge period of isolation,” she said. “The only way to make friends was online, so that was intimidating.”

It was then that Olivares took control of her destiny. She made one of her first connections in her abnormal psychology class by reaching out to a classmate over email. They’ve since become close friends.

In 2021, Olivares arrived on campus for her sophomore year emboldened to make the most of finally being in-person. The psychology major joined the League of United Latin American Citizens Council, the CAS Dean’s Student Advisory Council, and the Psi Chi International Honor Society.

“You can’t wait for opportunities to magically start appearing,” said Olivares, who is currently applying for doctoral programs in clinical psychology. “You have to take the initiative, be a changemaker, and try to make the change for yourself.”

Jermaine Gassaway, SOE/MEd ’23

Graduate student speaker, 1:30 p.m. ceremony

Jermaine Gassaway’s path to AU began with the difficult decision to leave his native DC.

As he entered high school, Gassaway, now the superintendent of Movement School in Raleigh, North Carolina, petitioned for permission to attend a higher performing school. When that request was denied, he did what he felt he had to do to secure his future: enroll at a boarding school in Jackson, Mississippi.

“I left DC with no money in my pocket, donated bedding and supplies for my dorm room, and a generous 16-hour car ride from my basketball coach,” said Gassaway, a first-generation college graduate. “No child should ever have to leave their home and travel over 600 miles to attain a quality education.”

Gassaway’s journey inspired his passion for education, which was further fueled by AU’s online master’s in education policy and leadership.

There were times Gassaway thought he wouldn’t make it. He spent many long nights studying, on top of a full-time job and fatherhood duties. So, when he takes the stage to address his fellow graduates, he plans to make the most of the full circle moment.

“It’s surreal because American University was right around the corner from where I lived,” he said. Even still, “I never thought I would be a graduate of American University.”

Yanie Wong, CAS-Kogod/BS ’23

Undergraduate student speaker, 1:30 p.m. ceremony

Growing up in Hong Kong, Yanie Wong thought college would be like the movie Pitch Perfect.

She came to AU ready to dive into acappella and planning to minor in music. Though her plans soon changed, her search for a community like the one she saw on the big screen endured.

“Even though I did not have the exact same experiences as the students in Pitch Perfect, staying inquisitive enriched my experience in a much more rewarding way,” Wong said.

She got involved in AU’s Korean Student Association and found her community in the group. And in the classroom, she discovered a knack for numbers, double majoring in math and accounting. She also got her Hollywood ending, landing a position as a tax associate with PricewaterhouseCoopers—one of three accounting firms where she interned during her undergraduate career.

“I feel very included and very supported by AU,” Wong said.