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St. John sizes up against past commencement speakers

Photo by Emily Tate | The Miami Student

By Emily O'Connor, For The Miami Student

Bonnie St. John, a six time best-selling author, is scheduled to speak to Miami University graduates and their families during the commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 16, at Yager Stadium.

St. John was born with a birth defect to her right leg that led to its amputation when she was just 5 years old. In 1984, she placed on the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team where she was the first African-American woman to win a medal for ski racing. St. John took home silver and two bronze medals that year.

Along with her Olympic accomplishments, St. John has written six best-selling books. The most recent, "How Great Women Lead," published in April of 2012. In this book, St. John and her daughter, Darcy Deane, explore the qualities that motivate some of the world's most powerful and influential women.

"She is not afraid to take chances and to do her best at everything, which is something we want for our students," Claire Wagner, Miami's director of University News and Communications, said.

St. John also served as a director for Human Capital Policy on the White House National Economic Council and has been called "one of the five most inspiring women in America" by NBC Nightly News.

"Her story is definitely a very inspiring one of setting high goals, persevering and achieving those goals," Ted Pickerill, the chair of the Commencement Speaker Advisory Committee said.

The Commencement Speaker Advisory Committee chooses the speaker at the beginning of each academic year. The committee is 15 members and includes a student and faculty member from every academic division, according to Ted Pickerill. University president David Hodge is also involved in choosing the commencement speaker.

Each year, commencement has a different theme. Past themes have been "Celebrating the Arts" and "Freedom Summer." Many events and groups on campus relate their activities to the year's theme, including the commencement speaker.

"We try to find a speaker that fits into the theme of the year," said Pickerill.

The committee also looks into the life, accomplishments and overall character of potential speakers.

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"For this year, inspiring was definitely one of the characteristics that the committee thought would be very important," Pickerill said.

Another notable speaker is Kenneth Merten. Merten is the former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti and a Miami alumnus. Merten was awarded the Ryan C. Crocker Award for Outstanding Leadership in Expeditionary Diplomacy for his leadership in the wake of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Merten spoke to Miami graduates in May of 2010.

"[She] spoke after the Haiti earthquake, and that tied us to a world event in a very specific way. It was very meaningful," Wagner said.

Last year's commencement speaker Forest Whitaker is one of the most famous to appear on Miami's campus. Whitaker, an Oscar-winning actor, urged the graduates to perform acts of kindness because those acts would change the world.

The list of past commencement speakers ranges from astronauts to professors and superintendents of local public schools. Each speaker shares their story and message to the graduates in hope that they will be inspired to achieve great things.

The Commencement Speaker Advisory Committee hope St. John will share her story with the graduates and help to inspire them to persevere and achieve their goals.