This year, on Friday, May 15, Austin Johnson, assistant professor of sociology, will deliver the Baccalaureate speech for the graduating class of 2020. He will be the first member of the sociology department to give the address since the 1980s.
To choose who would deliver the address, seniors received an email last month requesting nominations for a “representative of the college” to be the speaker. The senior class committee received nominations for about 40 people, which were then ranked by their number of nominations. The top 20 were offered the chance to accept their nomination and be on the ballot, and 16 of these people accepted, according to Jodi-Ann Wang ’20, senior class president.
Once the ballot was sent out and the seniors voted, the top three results were Johnson, Associate Professor of English Sarah Heidt ’97 and Lisa Carver of AVI. Of those three, Johnson was the only nominee who qualified due to College rules that were unspecified at the time of voting. Heidt was ineligible because she had given the speech in 2018, and Carver, because she is not technically an employee of the College as stated by the Office of Campus Events.
“The reason why there was a little bit of misunderstanding was [because] it just wasn’t as clear as it could have been,” Wang explained. “We were undergoing two transitions across three different offices at the time of this whole selection process.”
Despite the confusion, Johnson expressed enthusiasm about delivering the address. “I really care about our seniors and I’ve gotten to know them over the last three years,” he said. ”So when I got the email from Jodi-Ann asking if I wanted to do it I thought, ‘oh man, yeah. I really do.”
Johnson’s work and interests center around LGBTQ+ health and the ways that community can positively impact the lives of those who identify as LGBTQ+. He plans to focus his speech around the importance of human connection, which, based on his research, has demonstrated that everyone suffers when they are isolated or marginalized.
“Something as simple as extending friendship and extending community to people can change your life and can change others,” Johnson said. “We make choices about who we include in our lives and, I think we can be really intentional about the way that we break down the barriers and the walls that we erect in our lives and that other people erect in our lives to allow more people in, because it’s a better time when it’s a more diverse group of people and we feel better when we do it.”
While he does not plan to address religion directly in his address, as Baccalaureate speeches have historically done, Johnson wants to focus on where people put their faith. “When I think about what guides me, the higher power that structures my life or shapes my values, I think about community,” he said. “I think about bringing people together and reaching out to people and creating a space where people feel at home and motivated. That’s what faith is to me.”
Johnson also wants to address the students’ need to find their purpose, whatever that may be. “We all need something that drives us and it doesn’t have to be the traditional faith that we’ve been given,” he said.
Finding this purpose does not always have to mean going at it alone. Johnson explained that he wants the senior class to create an open and inclusive community. He plans to discuss the ways in which many people become too focused on themselves in life, rather than thinking of graduation as a team effort of professors, mentors and friends.
“If you focus on why you’re doing something, who you’re doing it for, and put all of your energy into that, it’ll pay off in different ways than if you focus on yourself. If you give, the world gives back,” he said.
While Johnson prepares to deliver the 2020 address, Johnson and Wang hope to make guidelines clearer following this year’s confusion about Baccalaureate speaker eligibility. Wang explained that the senior class committee and the Office of Campus Events have discussed having a rotational schedule throughout different departments and the administration. They also discussed making any member of the Kenyon community who has made a significant impact on the students eligible. Whatever they decide on, Wang hopes they can make the process more clear in future years.
“Whatever we end up deciding to go with, we will make sure it is on paper, on the website, so in a couple years this won’t repeat itself,” she said.
Wang expressed that she hopes Carver can speak to the senior class at the senior dinner the day before the Baccalaureate ceremony.
“Lisa is so loved by this whole community and she was so closely nominated to Professor Johnson and we wanted to give her an honorable mention. So perhaps, if she’s comfortable, we will have her speak at the senior dinner,” she said. “We will make sure that she gets the proper recognition that she deserves for everything that she has done for everyone.”
Johnson agrees that anyone who has made a significant impact on the community should be eligible to be the Baccalaureate speaker.
“I think it’s really great to open [the eligibility pool] up—it really is about who has meant something to you since you’ve been here,” he said.
Johnson hopes to emphasize to the class of 2020 the importance of building upon their college experience, just as he has.
“I thought I knew myself in 2008 when I was graduating college; I thought I knew who I was and where I was going to be — and it was not standing on that stage delivering the Baccalaureate address at Kenyon College. That was the farthest thing from my mind,” he said. “Don’t put limits on yourself, because if I had believed the story I told myself about who I was, I would not be here.”