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May 12, 2014

Bill Nye, Barack Obama and Neil deGrasse Tyson are all big gets for college commencement speakers (Wikimedia Commons).

Don your cap and gown, it's graduation season. Schools across New England are preparing for their commencement exercises. 

At Emerson College this week, Jay Leno joked about losing his Tonight Show chair, easing some of the pressure on graduates hoping to get and keep a job. And later this month, Medford-native Michael Bloomberg will likely tell Harvard grads about leading New York City for three consecutive four-year terms. And befitting a music school, Berklee asked Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page to riff in front of its graduates.

We asked WGBH staff members who spoke at their college commencement. Hear what they do, or don't, remember from their graduations.

Those are some of the big names appearing at local colleges this graduation season. But here at the Higher Education Desk it makes us wonder: does it really matter who delivers these speeches?

"We look for different types of people with different types of backgrounds but we look for people who can inspire our graduating students," said Marty Meehan, chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

As the chancellor for seven years, and a congressman before that, Meehan has both listened to - and given - his fair share of speeches.

"I think making a point and making it brief is critically important," Meehan said."It has to be authentic. It has to be real. You have to believe what you're saying, because people won't get it if you don't."

The long process of choosing a speaker starts well in advance, explained Meehan, with suggestions from students and faculty.

"We have a committee that actually looks at and solicits possible names and that committee makes recommendations to me and then we submit them to the board of trustees and then the board of trustees actually votes on them," said Meehan.

And that's exactly how UMass Lowell chose this year's speaker: Bill Nye the Science Guy.

"It was first mentioned by a faculty member who was on the committee and my first reaction was, 'Bill Nye the Science Guy? My kids have been watching his tapes for years!" Meehan recalled. "I said, 'Will our graduates remember Bill Nye the Science Guy?,'"

Across campus, inside the dining hall, seniors Jennifer Suriel and Sheila Rodriguez are studying for one last final. Suriel laughs, recalling when she found out that Bill Nye would be their speaker. Then she sings the Bill Nye theme. Rodriguez remembers getting a text from her friend right away.

"And I posted a picture of it on Facebook and everyone was like, 'I'm so jealous,'" said Suriel.

For Suriel and Rodriguez, having a name they recognize really does matter.

"I think it's cool to have someone who's been influential from such a young age. I think it just makes the overall experience of commencement a lot more exciting," said Suriel.

Marty Meehan spoke on Greater Boston about choosing the perfect commencement speaker:

Of course, there's more to it than giving seniors something to look forward to. Marty Meehan admits, it's also about the money.

"We like to have a fundraiser every year the night before commencement," Meehan said. "Last year we raised $750,000 at that event."

Getting a big-ticket name is an easy way to entice alumni to give, which, Meehan notes, all goes to scholarship funds. But it also means setting a bar that inches higher and higher every year.

"It's difficult to get people, depending on when the commencement is and scheduling so I can tell I have a certain amount of tension that's forming right now. But I'm thinking about next year," Meehan said. "People are going to say, 'Well how are you going to top that?' A certain pressure develops."

But for all the work, some older alums can't even remember their commencement speaker, let alone what they said.

"I will confess I do not remember who the speaker was when I graduated," said Meehan.

But that doesn't stop schools from aiming high. Next year, UMass Lowell is hoping to follow Bill Nye with an international figure -- maybe Hillary Rodham Clinton or Tony Blair.

increasing access and success, graduation, higher ed, commencement, Umass

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