This past week Ursinus College’s 2020 commencement speaker was announced: Novelist Min Jin Lee, author of “Free Food for Millionaires” and “Pachinko.” Lee is a first-generation American and student. Her novels are both critically acclaimed and award-winning. I got together with Professor Meredith Goldsmith in Academic Affairs to discuss the selection process and how they knew Lee was the right choice.
Q: Who is typically involved in choosing the commencement speaker?
A: For the past few years, we send out an open call right after graduation to the Ursinus community asking for nominations. Then the list is sent to the Campus Planning and Priorities Committee. This committee consists of staff, faculty and typically a student rep.
Q: What are the qualities you look for in a commencement speaker?
A: We always want to look for someone who is a compelling speaker, a meaningful life story. We also tend to look for someone who has a meaningful student experience as well. For example, last year Rhiannon Giddens spoke on how she was conflicted while in school and how that lead her to where she is today. As far as this year is concerned, Min Jin Lee was a first-generation who ended up at Yale Studying history and then became a novelist.
Q: How does the process work typically speaking? How far out do you start meeting, how do you find candidates, etc…
A: It really has to be done a year in advance, we actually cute it really short this year by starting in the summer but it’s just so hard to think about graduation that far in advance. By June we had already generated a list. We had about six to eight people in consideration and we went through it as a committee and people made selections. We all just really liked Min Jin Lee and I called her agent and she just happened to be free. We got so lucky!
Q: How did the committee decide on Min Jin Lee for the 2020 commencement speaker? What stood out for her?
A: So since she’s an author that really stood out to us, we hadn’t had an author in a number of years. We were eager to have another person of color.
Q: Was there a particular reason Min Jin Lee was selected for the class of 2020 in particular, does her story resonate with the class in the eyes of the committee?
A: Well since it’s the 150th, we really wanted the speaker to be special. We also have an increasing number of students who are first-gen, and since Min Jin Lee is also first-generation it seemed like a good fit. It’s also a moment where immigration is in the news and since she’s an immigrant, so there are a lot of reasons why she was the perfect fit for us.
Min Jin Lee will be speaking Saturday, May 16, 2020, at 10 a.m. on the lawn outside of the Berman Museum of Art on the Ursinus campus.