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Bailhe ’15, Johnson ’15 named commencement speakers

Seniors’ orations to explore themes of persistent inquiry, school spirit

Michelle Bailhe ’15 and Lucas Johnson ’15 have been selected as the student speakers for the 2015 commencement ceremony. The two seniors said they hope to use their orations to critically examine the meaning of a Brown education and inspire classmates as they embark on life beyond the Van Wickle Gates.

Bailhe and Johnson were named after a competitive annual selection process that started at the beginning of the spring semester.

Every January, faculty members, deans and seniors nominate potential speakers. Nominated students can choose to write speeches and submit them anonymously to the selection committee, which is composed of seniors, faculty members and the associate dean of the College for upperclass studies — a position currently held by Besenia Rodriguez. After reviewing the speeches, the committee selects finalists to deliver their orations before the committee before making a final decision.

Johnson said he did not expect to be nominated and almost did not submit a speech. He decided to submit a speech just a day before the deadline, calling it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to reflect on his Brown experience. Learning of his selection was “surreal,” he said. “I was just in a state of disbelief.”

Johnson’s speech is titled “School Spirit,” a name that “invokes a strange reaction from any Brown student I tell that to,” he said, adding, “That’s sort of the point. It highlights and explores what my idea of school spirit and my idea of being a Brown student was like as a starry-eyed pre-frosh, and how that transformed” over four years at Brown. The speech “takes a critical approach to the idea of what it means to be a Brown student, though I also feel like it has an encouraging, empowering message to it as well.”An education concentrator in the history and policy track, Johnson has tutored students in several Providence public schools. He has also worked as a tour guide and is a member of the Brown Organization of Multiracial and Biracial Students. Johnson will return to Brown after graduation to pursue a master’s degree in teaching. He plans to teach high school English before eventually transitioning to education policy and reform work.

In a way, delivering a commencement speech brings Bailhe’s Brown experience full circle. In spring 2011, a few months before she arrived on campus, Bailhe said she was struck upon reading that year’s student commencement speeches. “When the 2011 speeches came out, that was the first moment I felt like I had no questions, like this was the place for me,” she said.

But four years later, Bailhe will use her oration, "I Don't Know," to prompt students to be full of questions.

“My speech is about questioning yourself and your goals and self-evident truths and dominant narratives, and how a lot of these questions at Brown have been uncomfortable and powerful and challenging and how those moments have been the most growth,” Bailhe said.

The theme of questioning is especially pertinent for seniors as they transition to life after college, she said. “I wanted people to feel excited about those unknowns and feel ready to dive in headfirst.”

Being selected feels “wonderful and odd,” Bailhe said. “It feels weird because I can think of so many amazing people that I wish we could have 200 speeches on graduation day,” though she added that she looks forward to reading more of the speeches posted on the Alternative Commencement website.

Bailhe is a human biology concentrator focusing on health disparities. Her senior thesis examines the effects of incarceration on women’s family planning and health goals. While at Brown, she has done research on Rhode Island’s prison system, served as a teaching assistant for PHP 0320: “Introduction to Public Health” and danced with imPulse Dance Company. After graduating, she will work as a consultant for McKinsey and Company.

Both Bailhe and Johnson said they are nervous but excited to deliver their speeches and have received positive feedback and support from fellow seniors.

Bailhe said she has received “good responses” from classmates who have heard the speech. “They felt like it spoke to their experience.”

“It’s definitely going to be the biggest crowd I’ve ever spoken in front of,” Johnson said, adding that he has felt “humbled” by his peers’ enthusiastic responses to his being selected.


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