Don’t Make a Drug Pun in a Commencement Speech

Do you ever have the kind of honor you don’t know how to handle?

I think this might be like if I were ever asked to be a godparent. Gulp. A deep honor.

I have been asked to give the 2014 commencement speech for my alma mater, Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. And I will be the first ever alumnus artist to do this. They will fly me in, and I will speak. According to some links online, a good commencement speech is 18 minutes.


So, next month, I will put black academic regalia on for the first time since 2000.


Millikin University graduation day with my parents. My dad holding my cords for me.

This time I will also wear my Masters hood from Columbia College Chicago. As the first and only graduate on either side of my family, you cannot imagine what this commencement speech will mean to me and probably to my parents.

Millikin and Columbia, together they have taught me and changed me.

When I first arrived to Millikin in 1996, my style was exclusively “Goodwill.” No jeans or hoodies; because in high school I realized everyone wore jeans and hoodies everyday and I made a decision not to be everybody. I was stubborn. I wore scrubs and plaid a lot. A smart girl who loved dance and international relations. No frills. Much Beck.

When my parents, boyfriend, and best friend drove down from mid-Michigan and dropped me off at Millikin that Fall, we were all sad.


I cried for a week and didn’t tell my mother. Later I realized she did the same. That next Spring, the boyfriend broke up with me. Dramatically. I didn’t date in college after that.

Before I knew it, I was taking risks in critical thinking and choreography. In this small university that smells of the nearby soy plant, I was coming into my own.

The perfect undergraduate school for me.

My favorite classes at Millikin were Ethics with Dr. Money, Spider Biology, and Harlem Renaissance. Man, did I love those. Even kept the textbooks. Nearly failed Astronomy because it was early in the morning and very confusing to me. Darlene introduced me to Modern Dance, where I danced barefoot for the first time in my life and I excelled. There wasn’t the stress of wearing pointe shoes in ballet. My voice classes were always a struggle, but I tried. Diagnosed myself as incurably tone deaf. Laura, Kevin, Denise, Doc, Barry, these incredible professors pushed me as an artist, an actor, a director, a person.

Millikin is also where I discovered I was a choreographer. Strange works incorporating acapella tap to explore a skull surgery report, a solo inside a laundry basket, a funny dance to Chopin with a flashlight during a blackout, a 50-member piece exploring facades, a duet dance infused with stand up comedy, pieces up rape and guilt and anxiousness….

My favorite thing was to work with dancers and movers/beginning dancers alike. The less experience the better. Pedestrian movement with bolder technique and tricks. In lieu of the typical rehearsals, I held many late-nite, quasi dance therapy sessions where we jammed and explored as a community. Just because.

One of my friends wrote me a note about how participating as a dancer in one my pieces changed his life and eased his coming out. Wow, I was floored. Dance was changing lives: this was a great departure from the competition circuit I grew up in.

I have never been as artistically happy as with those 8 dance concert seasons at Millikin.

When I graduated, I knew I was heading directly to an internship at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. I knew I wanted to dance in alternative ways. I knew I wanted to keep taking risks like I had at Millikin.


I am on draft five of the commencement speech: in one version we all dance together, in another I dance alone while a recording of the speech plays aloud, in another we Skype to Egypt, and in another there is a pun about rolling joints (shoulders, neck, ankles). Yeah, this speech is going to need much more work. The only thing I know for certain is that I want to focus on the day itself, not the future, not even tomorrow.

Just a couple more weeks to get it together.

This is the kind of honor I can barely wrap my head around. Let’s hope I speak in a way that salutes the school community that gave me so much.

I need to thank them.



1 Comment

  1. Shawn – I have no doubt your speech will be full of passion and hope for the future, no matter how you choose to present it. I look forward to hearing it all!

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