Scripps Lobbies for First Lady at Commencement

As a first-year, Sydney Swonigan SC ’13 hoped to bring First Lady Michelle Obama to Scripps College. Now, that aspiration has solidified into an organized attempt to persuade the first lady to come to Claremont. With the support of Scripps President Lori Bettison-Varga and the Scripps Communications Office, Swonigan and the 2013 Commencement Candidate Committee have embarked on a social media campaign to secure Obama as the commencement speaker for the Class of 2013. 

Swonigan and other members of the 2013 Commencement Candidate Committee sent a preliminary letter out in July and heard from Obama’s office Monday that their request had been received and was being processed.

“They told us what we already knew, that they wouldn’t tell us until two to three months before the event,” Swonigan said. “But that’s good, because they could have just turned us down right then and there.” 

The committee submitted two official form letters, one written and signed by members of the committee and Scripps Associated Students (SAS) and the other by Bettison-Varga. The committee also created a video featuring Scripps students directly asking Obama to deliver the commencement address.  

To promote the campaign, the committee launched a one-week media campaign using Facebook, Twitter and e-mail to ask Obama to come to Claremont. The campaign, which ran from Nov. 11 to 17, called on members of the Scripps community, including faculty, staff and alumni, to contact Obama directly through social media.

Swonigan said that much of the inspiration for the video and social media campaign came from discussions she had with the student body president at Spelman College, which undertook a similar, successful effort to bring Obama to campus as its commencement speaker in 2011.

“I wasn’t sure how to go about it at all, but when I found out that Spelman was trying to get her and was successful, I got in touch with their student body president, and she told me about the process, including the video they made as well as the petition letter they sent to her,” Swonigan said. 

Before beginning to pursue Obama, the committee compiled a list of possible commencement speakers—including Nike Foundation CEO Maria Eitel, author Edith Pattou, television journalist Rachel Maddow and actress Mindy Kaling—and presented it to members of the Scripps Class of 2013, asking them to choose whom they would prefer as their commencement speaker.

SAS president Emily Jovais SC ’13 said that Obama emerged as the immediate favorite. 

“Once it was obvious that Michelle Obama was the clear winner, we decided that we were going to do it,” Jovais said. “We were going to go for it. That’s where the media campaign started, to generate hype on campus and hopefully off-campus, ultimately all the way to Michelle.”

Apart from the media campaign, the committee focused on gathering support from the administration, specifically the Office of the President and the Office of Communications. Swonigan said that Marylou Ferry, Vice President of Communications and Marketing, was particularly helpful in producing the video and organizing the Facebook campaign.

Still, the First Lady’s scheduling limitations may prove to be an obstacle.

“I’d say it’s hopeful and we’re going to definitely push really hard for the rest of the semester, but if we don’t get a response when we get back in January we’re going to have to seriously start considering other options,” Jovais said.

Kari Geiger SC ’13, a member of the 2013 Commencement Candidate Committee, said, “If we haven’t heard anything by the end of the month, we’re going to move on to Rachel Maddow, who is our next choice.”

Geiger also said that some Scripps students have expressed reservations about the possibility of bringing Obama to campus.

“I really want her to come, but I’m kind of afraid that it will focus our graduation on her and not on our graduating class, which is a little scary,” Geiger said. “We’d really love the publicity and we’d love to get such a high-profile person, but it is a little scary to think that there’d be all the extra security and maybe fewer members of our families. It’s a little bittersweet, but we really want her.”

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