United States Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson will be the keynote speaker at Occidental’s May 17 commencement, according to a Feb. 9 post on the college’s website.
According to Occidental’s Director of Communications James Tranquada, Johnson’s connections to Occidental made him the ideal candidate to speak at graduation this year. The secretary’s son, Jeh Johnson Jr., is a sophomore at Occidental, and Johnson’s boss President Barack Obama attended the college from 1980–81.
“We don’t typically shell out the $25,000 or more fees a lot of big name speakers ask for,” Tranquada said. “With high profile speakers like this, we look for people that are connected to the college.”
Johnson said he promptly accepted the invitation because he viewed the speech as an opportunity to give back to the community that embraced his family.
“I think Occidental has been terrific for Jeh,” Johnson said. “He made an excellent choice, and he enjoys it so much that his mother joined the Board of Trustees and now his father is giving the commencement speech.”
According to Johnson Jr., his father enjoys giving commencement speeches because of the lessons he learned during his own college experience.
Johnson struggled through his first two years at Morehouse College, but worked hard the last two years before earning a spot at Columbia Law School, Johnson Jr. said.
“I think that achievement for him is why he likes to revisit college graduation, because his own graduation meant so much to him, and being able to share that story with students gives him a great sense of accomplishment,” Johnson Jr. said.
Johnson spoke at four graduation ceremonies last year alone, including his alma mater Morehouse College and his own daughter’s high school graduation.
“What I always like to do in a commencement address is speak directly to the students, without giving some lofty policy statement that will have national implications and get a lot of press,” Johnson said. “I prefer to speak to students in a meaningful way and say something that they may take with them and remember.”
Although Johnson believes Occidental’s progressive values already overlap well with his own political views, he will speak with several leaders of the senior class in the coming months so he can fashion his speech with Occidental students in mind. Most of his political speeches are done from notes or memory, but Johnson said he will come with a prepared text because commencement is a special occasion for many students.
Nick McHugh (senior) is particularly enthusiastic about this year’s commencement ceremony. He said that Johnson’s involvement in both global and domestic affairs makes him a valuable source of knowledge for Occidental students.
“We talk about being members of a global community, we have funds and grants for global initiatives, and Jeh Johnson certainly confronts global challenges on a daily basis,” McHugh said.
After the commencement keynote speaker announcement was made, Johnson Jr. received only positive comments from his peers on campus. Seniors he never met have approached him to say how excited they are to hear his father speak, Johnson Jr. said.
“It means a lot to me, to get that kind of recognition from people I don’t even know,” Johnson Jr. said.