Publications & Products
Volume 4, Issue 11

President Flips Script on Graduation Speakers

While many institutions pay for commencement speakers, a community college in Wisconsin does the opposite. It asks speakers to make a gift to the institution.

When Bryan Albrecht became president of Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2006, one of his first responsibilities was to select a commencement speaker for the upcoming class. The college had a budget for speakers that covered travel expenses, lodging and up to $5,000 for an honorarium. Part of this cost was funded by student activity fees.

Albrecht says he thought the college—whose student groups often benefit from how activity fees are spent—could make better use of the money it was dedicating to secure a speaker for graduation. So instead of looking among government officials or local celebrities—who might expect some sort of payment—Albrecht began asking local businesspeople who had a prior relationship with the college to speak.

“They already care about our graduates and their families,” he says. “Most are familiar with our college mission, vision and values. Their employees may have been educated at Gateway, and some serve on the college advisory committees. It seemed like the natural fit to motivate our graduates that they too can achieve greatness in our community.”

As part of his personal invitation to speak at graduation, Albrecht asks speakers to donate $10,000 in the form of an endowed scholarship that benefits a new student each year. Not only does the speaker meet or receive a thank you note from the future scholarship beneficiaries, he or she also takes part in the distribution of diplomas during graduation.

“This is my seventh year inviting speakers, with three of those years having two commencements each, and I have never had anyone decline,” he says. “In fact, to a person, they have said it was one of the most inspiring and moving experiences they have ever had.”

Jean Moran, chief executive officer and owner of local business LMI Packaging Solutions Inc., was Gateway’s commencement speaker two years ago. As a member of the Kenosha Area Business Alliance—a local workforce development group—she has worked with Albrecht and the college for many years.

“I was honored and then a bit nervous about what I would say,” she says. “I was, at the same time, excited to share with the graduates some of the things I have learned that have enriched my life.”

Moran says her company sets aside a percentage of its profits each year for social projects, so she had no reservations about accepting Albrecht’s request for a $10,000 endowed scholarship gift to speak.

“I went to college on similar scholarships,” she says. “I have been forever grateful for that. I was thrilled to be able to pay that forward.”

Gateway’s foundation has benefited from an additional $100,000 in endowed scholarships since 2006 from commencement speakers, says Albrecht. Additionally, he notes the college now has better relationships with the companies whose leaders have served as speakers.

Albrecht says other institutions that want to emulate his model have to do their homework when researching speakers.

“Select speakers who have compelling stories and, if possible, a local community connection,” he says. “It also helps to identify someone in the organization who you can share your intent with so that you select someone who is comfortable with public speaking and can prepare the organization for the $10,000 request. The more you can do to prepare for the request, the more enjoyable it will be for everyone, especially the selected speaker.”

This article is from the May 2015 issue of the Community College Advancement News.

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