‘Our jaws dropped:’ Oprah Winfrey announced as 2021 graduation speaker

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Photo credit: Provided by Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey is a media personality, actress and activist known for her journalism and advocacy for racial equality and female empowerment. She will give the commencement speech at the Class of 2021’s graduation on May 28.

By Rio Hundley, Features Editor

For the past four decades, Oprah Winfrey has been one of the biggest names in entertainment. Many teachers, students and administrators at Archer have been affected by Winfrey’s work as a journalist and advocate for racial and gender equality, evident in the “excitement” over her appearance at Archer. On Friday, May 28, Winfrey will give the commencement speech at the graduation for the Class of 2021.

After Winfrey accepted the school’s invitation to speak live over video call, Head of School Elizabeth English “felt immense relief and joy.”

“To be totally honest with you, I had faith that it was going to happen,” English said. “I have felt for your class, and I was very hopeful that we could do something special for graduation.”

One of Archer’s founders, Dr. Diana Meehan, is Winfrey’s neighbor and consulted with her when Winfrey was founding her all-girls’ school in South Africa. 

“Dr. Meehan has always been very respectful of Oprah and not wanting to ask her a favor, because people are always asking her for things,” English said. “I just held [the potential opportunity] in my back pocket and this being a year where the senior class had such a rough road, and also it being Archer’s 25th anniversary, I thought it was worth a shot.”

English is not the only one who feels the senior class has had it “rough.” Twelfth grade dean Jim Russo believes the Class of 2021 has endured many obstacles throughout their time at Archer, not just in their senior year.

“It seems like this grade in particular has been hit with [a lot].  You’ve gone through multiple [class] deans, you’ve had to move to a temporary campus. And then there was COVID,” Russo said. “There was obviously incredible racial unrest that affected our country over the last couple of years. I feel like you folks have been in sort of a storm and had to react to it and deal with it.”

Despite the difficultly of the 2020-2021 school year, English and Russo believe that the values Winfrey stands for align well with what has always been Archer’s message.

She’s this incredibly successful woman that came from a meager background and built herself up. Archer is all about building strong, confident women and you can’t get a more accurate parallel than Oprah Winfrey.”

— Jim Russo, 12th Grade Dean

“I think [Oprah] has done so much work in bettering the world and helping others,” senior Caterina Nobili said. “That is something that Archer has instilled in me, and other students, to do with [our] lives.”

Russo also believes Winfrey’s identity as an activist and philanthropist aligns directly with the senior class’ priorities and passions. He was “inspired and encouraged” by the 12th grade students who advocated for more works by authors of color in the English curriculum, and those who have pushed for more diversity in the faculty and staff as well as the student body.

“These are all causes and ideas that that Oprah Winfrey stands for,” Russo said. “She’s overcome so many challenges in her own life to rise to the place that she’s at, and I feel like I see a lot of Oprah-ish qualities in the students here … I think that in many ways this class is so passionate about, not only social justice and advocacy, but also there’s so much budding entrepreneurship in this class in particular, that she just seems like a such a wonderful fit.”

Of course, Winfrey’s celebrity status also created much excitement around her appearance at the 2021 graduation ceremony. When Russo first learned the news his “jaw dropped.” Many seniors, who were told the news together at a class meeting, had a similar reaction.

“When I found out, I was in pure shock,” Nobili said. “I think it’s genuinely the most shocking news I’ve heard in my life and I’ve heard some shocking news. But that took the cake. … I still can’t believe that Oprah is speaking at our graduation.”

Associate Head of School Karen Pavliscak “doesn’t watch a lot of TV,” but is particularly “excited” for Winfrey’s speech because of how her career aligns with the themes of this school year.

“When I think about Oprah, I think about a woman who is not only strong, but deeply human. And in the year where our theme has been ‘story,’ she is someone who gave people an opportunity to connect through story,” Pavliscak said. “I think that is her universal appeal; she just asks the right questions of people and gives them the gift of being able to tell their story and gives everyone else the gift of universality in that story. …. She helped us as a country to talk to each other.”

Although most of the class of 2021’s senior year was remote, English felt a need to give a “shout out” to their resilience.

“[The seniors] have come back to campus with open hearts. You have come back with the most positive attitude, like ‘We’re going to get through this together and get the most out of these last few weeks,'” English said. “I’ve been really moved by that. So thank you, and I’m proud of you.”