After four years of campaigning by members in all facets of the Spelman community, the first African-American First Lady of the United States of America will serve as the speaker for the College’s 124th commencement on May 15, 2011.
“Michelle Obama is a positive influence and role model for young women,” said President Beverly Daniel Tatum. “She also personifies the same values as the Spelman College community of students, alumnae, staff and faculty – love of family, the significance of an education in forging one’s path in life and the value of community service in not only impacting those in your immediate community but globally as well.”
While Spelman has hosted other presidential visits – George Bush Sr., Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, Ellen Sirleaf, and Hillary Clinton also visited campus when she was the first lady — the path to Mrs. Obama’s acceptance of the invitation to address the class of 2011 has been nothing less than remarkable. Students took the lead early on in the process. Understanding that anyone invited to be a commencement speaker will also be conferred an honorary degree, the class of 2009 wanted to nominate her for the honor.
“It really started in 2008 with the class of 2009,” said Cathy Daniels, secretary of the College and chief of staff. “The day the nominations were open for honorary degrees, they came with a completed packet that included the first lady’s dissertation from Princeton as part of the supporting background information as to why she should receive an honorary degree. They were on it.”
The College did present a letter of invitation to Mrs. Obama to be the speaker for the 2009 commencement, but she declined. “We didn’t get her that year, but we were determined,” said Daniels.
Soon after the 2009 commencement, a letter from Dr. Tatum and the class of 2010 President Topaz Sampson was sent to the first lady. Alumnae and friends of the College that had relationships with the White House were also on the case, sending inquiries and talking it up with individuals they knew were part of the Obama circle. And while a follow-up letter was sent that fall, Mrs. Obama decided to address the senior classes at the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, and George Washington University in May of 2010.
The Spelman Blue Campaign for Michelle Obama
When Samantha Tulin, C’2011, was campaigning in the residence halls for senior class president in the winter of 2010, she received a request from her classmates that she wasn’t sure she’d be able to fulfill.
“They asked me, ‘If you win, can you get Michelle Obama to speak at our graduation?’” she recalls. “I didn’t want to be a stereotypical politician, so I said, ‘I’ll try. I’ll do my best. And when I won, I knew what my constituents wanted, so we started planning immediately.”
Via summer conference calls, Tulin and the 14-person student council began developing the “Spelman Blue” letter writing and video campaign. Sean Fling, C’2011, and Adelia Wilder, C’2011, created a template, which was edited by Spelman’s Graduate Program Outreach coordinator Erica Knight and placed on 10 computers in the Upper Manley student center during the Market Friday flea market in October and November. Publicizing the effort via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and flyers only garnered about 150 students to create letters.
“We realized that that was not nearly the amount of participation we wanted, so we started the second leg, which was a petition drive,” said Tulin. “Our goal was to get 600 to 700 signatures, and we got about 540. We took signatures at the senior town hall meeting and the video shoot.”
The ideas for the engaging video invitation, edited by Avril Holland, C’2011, were developed by the senior class council. Tulin, a spoken word artist, wrote and performed the poem that was weaved through the video and more than 170 students showed up for the culminating shoot. Xavier Souder, a media specialist at Spelman, completed the final editing during the two-week production process.
“When we finished the letter and videotaping, I ran to Dr. Tatum’s house and gave it to her because she was going to go to DC, and she’d be able to give it to someone on the first lady’s staff,” remembered Tulin.
The campaign was a collaborative effort and a labor of love,” said Daniels. “We’ve been passionate about this pursuit since before President Obama won the election.”
Screams and Praises of Joy
“When Dr. Tatum called me I started screaming,” said Daniels, remembering the moment she learned that Mrs. Obama had accepted Spelman’s invitation to be the 2011 commencement speaker. “I was so glad she called me at home, so I could scream. And keeping it a secret for 10 days was hard.”
Tulin was in disbelief when a friend told her of the College’s coup. “I could not believe it. I really just started praising God – especially with the dynamic line up of Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen,” she said of the actresses and sisters, who will receive honorary degrees. Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of Teach For America will receive the National Community Service Award.
“I’m humbled and honored that the victory is going to be manifested during my graduation,” added Tulin. “I feel that it isn’t just a win for the class of 2011, but for all of us — the class council, Ms. Daniels, Mr. Souder, Ms. Knight, and the former senior classes – everyone that had a hand in this blessing.” — Joyce E. Davis is the editor of Inside Spelman and associate director of Publications in the Office of Communications.