By Caleb Bissinger
After more than a year of deliberation, Senior Class President Christian Martnez-Canchola announced last Saturday that Aileen Hefferren ’88 will deliver the 2012 commencement address.
A political science major, Hefferren graduated summa cum laude from Kenyon and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She also won all-NCAC honors as captain of the Ladies cross country team.
Since 1992, she has served as chief executive of the New York non-profit Prep for Prep, which annually prepares 225 elementary and middle school students of color for placement at some of the Northeast’s best independent day and boarding schools.
Since its founding in 1978, more than 2,000 students have graduated from Prep for Prep. Nearly 40 percent have gone on to Ivy League universities and more than a quarter have earned graduate degrees.
Hefferren believes the academic and professional success of Prep for Prep alumni comes from their wealth of personal experience. “They’re of two worlds,” she said. “They’re comfortable in the larger world and the community from which they came.”
In addition to running Prep for Prep, Hefferren sits on Kenyon’s Board of Trustees and chairs its Diversity Committee. “I was honored to be asked to be on the Kenyon Board, to serve an institution that I felt had given me such tremendous opportunities – that had taken a chance on me,” Hefferren said.
During her tenure as diversity chair, the number of students of color at Kenyon has increased. “Kenyon benefits from it,” she said, but added, “It’s something that needs continual attention.”
Hefferren, too, has benefited from working closely with trustees and administrators, gaining an appreciation for the College’s mission and its charge to improve diversity. “What I value in terms of being part of this is knowing how important diversity is to the College,” she said.
Despite Hefferren’s accolades, however, some students are disappointed that she is not a better-known figure. “I don’t know what the selection process was,” Andrew Davenport ’12 said, “but I wish we had selected someone who is a more prominent public figure – maybe someone with a literary background as well.”
Hefferren will step up to a podium cast in the long shadow of novelist Jonathan Franzen, whose commencement address last year drew the national eye when it was reprinted in The New York Times.
“I know [Hefferren’s] not a marquee name,”President S. Georgia Nugent said. “[But] I think there’s a kind of interest in having a Kenyon-related speaker a lot of the time. The work that she does has been very successful, important work as far as diversifying education in higher education.”
While Nugent has no say in the speaker selection process, members of the Honorary Degree Committee agreed on the value of inviting a Kenyon alumna. “I think first and foremost, the best speeches have been people who have a connection to this place, who won’t give us a canned speech,” committee member Martnez-Canchola said.
Committee Chair and Professor of History Jeffrey Bowman agreed. “Some places, when they look to identify commencement speakers, focus on getting a celebrity, and that doesn’t really, to my way of thinking, fit with what Kenyon is,” he said. “I think it’s important to get people who really understand what the institution is about. It’s not uniquely Kenyon alumni who are able to do that, but I think oftentimes if we can find an alumnus or alumna who can speak to that, that’s great. That’s terrific.”
The committee also recognized that Hefferren’s nomination ends a six-year drought of female commencement speakers. “I think we really loved the fact that she’s a leader and a woman. In the past few years we haven’t had a woman speaker, so we were drawn to that diversity,” Martnez-Canchola said.
But gender was only a plus, not the deciding factor. “The Junior Class Committee ended up compiling a list,” Martnez-Canchola said. “We sent that list to the Honorary Degree committee to get approved, and Aileen was pretty up there on our list, so we’re glad.”
This chain of command marks a change of protocol from years past, when the Junior Class Committee submitted its list directly to Nugent. The Honorary Degree Committee was established last year after disorganization left administrators scrambling to secure a commencement speaker. “The Honorary Degree Committee really helped in giving us deadlines,” Martnez-Canchola said.
Additionally, the committee, which is comprised of students, faculty and administrators, confirms the viability of student-proposed candidates. “We do additional research with particular regard to commencement speakers,” Bowman said. “We want to have somebody who can speak eloquently. We want to have somebody who is in some way intimately connected to the college’s mission. There are some particular challenges that we have in some regards because a lot of commencement speakers ask to be paid a great deal of money, and we don’t pay our commencement speakers, and probably shouldn’t.”
When Nugent called Hefferren this summer and asked her to take up that task, Hefferren was honored but surprised. “She wanted to think about it for a little while,” Nugent said. “Within a day or so she called me back and said she was very honored to accept it.”
Hefferren admits that she has not thought much about the speech’s content since her initial deliberations, but over the coming months she will draw on her memories of Kenyon for inspiration. “I think, most importantly, what I learned at Kenyon was how to think,” she said. While she might not think about Aristotle every day, she does draw on problem-solving skills she honed in Gambier.
How that will translate into a speech remains to be heard. “I will carefully consider what wisdom I’m going to share with the graduates,” Hefferren said. “It’s a big day and only a few moments.”