By Dianna Douglas
Photo by Dan Dry

Convocation reinforces that we are not on our own, but part of a much larger community.”
—Trisha Macrae
Fourth-year and Student Marshal

If walking into a room of her peers and delivering a three-minute speech made fourth-year Amara Ugwu a little nervous, she certainly didn’t show it.

In May, Ugwu faced a panel of student judges and launched into an impassioned speech about the education she’s received at UChicago. She took a few questions and left, waving at other hopefuls in the hallway on her way out.  

Ugwu was in the semifinal round of auditioning to be a student speaker at the College ceremony during the University’s Spring Convocation, an honor reserved for three seniors who demonstrate poise, creativity, and clarity in delivering an original message to their peers.

“This selection process favors people who don’t just have an interesting story, but can tell it in a way that resonates with everyone in the audience,” Ugwu says. As valedictorian of her high school, she has some experience speaking in front of crowds.

Giving the graduating College class a chance to choose their speakers is one of many distinctive features of Convocation, literally “a calling together” in which the University community celebrates graduates of the College as well as all of the graduate and professional schools, and reaffirms the values and progress of the University itself. The University community will gather for the 515th Convocation on June 15 on the main Quadrangles.

From the UChicago faculty speaker who addresses the crowd, to student and faculty marshals who assist the ceremony, to the distinctive tartan of the bagpipe band that leads the procession, Convocation is steeped in traditions dating to 1893.

“It’s palpable how the students and faculty respond to the tone of the proceedings,” says Susan Art, Dean of Students in the College. “The students have committed themselves to the serious work of an education here, and this ceremony honors that.”

A final lecture from the faculty

Since its inception, the Convocation address has extolled the power of ideas and the central place they hold at the University of Chicago, more than offering basic advice for graduating students.

The main Convocation address has been delivered by a member of the UChicago faculty since 1970. Even when dignitaries have visited UChicago, such as President Bill Clinton in 1999, they have not delivered the main address.

Rocky Kolb, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, notes that the honor of being invited to speak at Convocation is tempered by a unique challenge: “This institution values originality, but when you attempt to do something that hundreds of people have done previously, it is not so easy to be original,” he says.

Kolb, who used his address at Summer Convocation 2010 to remind students that every great scientific discovery involves abandoning some cherished belief, is one of more than 500 speakers who have accepted that challenge.

“I look out at the graduates, and I am unable to recognize those who will make revolutionary discoveries,” Kolb said that day. “But I know you are out there.”

Abbie Smith, the Boris and Irene Stern Distinguished Service Professor of Accounting in the Booth School of Business, will deliver this year’s Convocation address, with a talk titled “Corporate Governance—Is It Personal?” Her address will challenge graduates from every field to examine how they measure and define their success as they leave a university setting.

The voice of the graduating class

Student leaders from the Class of 2013 chose this year’s student graduation speakers from a field of nearly 70 hopefuls. To be considered, Ugwu had to be nominated, write an essay, write a three-minute speech, and then deliver it in two separate auditions—once for the student judges and once on video.

“We’re looking for someone with something original to say about the University of Chicago experience, who can speak about it from the heart,” says Nick Popp, a student marshal on the selection committee.

The judges found what they were looking for in Ugwu, and in fellow graduating seniors Jonathan Grabinsky and Rahul Roy.

Ugwu’s speech describes her experiences as a first-generation Nigerian immigrant and her study at UChicago with the help of Gates Millennium and Quest scholarships.

“There are many reasons that someone would want to speak at graduation, but for me, the desire came from a feeling of thankfulness,” Ugwu says. Her speech will invite her peers to channel that gratitute into a commitment to civic engagement.

Marshaling graduates through their rites

Silent but indispensible assistance at Convocation comes from the University Marshals, an elite group of faculty and rising fourth-year students who lead thousands of people in and out of the event with order and ceremony.

Catherine Baumann, senior lecturer in Germanic Studies and the College, has served as the University Marshal for four years, carrying a mace that is a symbol of the University for events of high ceremony. She will call Spring Convocation to order for 3,385 students, the University faculty and Trustees, and their 20,000 family and friends.

“The student and faculty marshals serve the entire university to enable a significant event in people’s lives to take place,” Baumann says.

Fifty College students were selected as Student Marshals for the 2012-13 academic year, and served at all four seasonal Convocations. It is the highest honor conferred on undergraduates by the College. They wear maroon bachelor’s robes that distinguish them from other graduates.

Trisha Macrae, a fourth-year in biological sciences who was selected as a Marshal, says the ceremony will be a welcome conclusion of the “happy panic” that often precedes graduation.

“There’s so much to do, and this is the last time we’ll be with our college friends,” Macrae says. “Convocation reinforces that we are not on our own, but part of a much larger community.”  

Originally published on May 20, 2013.