Kerry Washington told graduates to use their college experiences as “as fuel to venture forth and write your own story.” Cameron Lancaster | Contributing Photo Editor
This post was written by news editors Mary Ellen McIntire and Jeremy Diamond.
Kerry Washington didn’t expect to play a frog in a GW student musical her junior year. And she didn’t expect to speak to about 7,000 graduates Sunday on a misty National Mall, perched in front of a scaffolded Washington Monument.
In self-deprecating fashion, the award-winning actress and 1998 alumna admitted she wouldn’t have advice like one of the “esteemed leaders and thinkers” at previous Commencement ceremonies, but would speak to graduates as their peer, pushing them to take a leap into unorthodox situation – like when she played a frog.
“It was not my lifetime dream role to play a frog. In fact, the thought of it terrified me,” Washington said. “Scared that the role would be too difficult and afraid of the embarrassment that would result from my failed attempt, I wondered if there was some way that I could get out of this audition.”
She said she “crossed the threshold ” of fear and arrived at her audition, and after leading the role as the lead frog, headed to the National Zoo to study the amphibians.
Washington, known for her roles in “Ray,” “Django Unchained” and “Scandal,” delivered a speech that took graduates and their families through the steps of a hero’s journey, outlined by writer Joseph Campbell.
“The choice is yours. When you leave here today and commence the next stage of your life, you can follow someone else’s script – try to make choices that will make other people happy,” Washington said. “Or, you can look at all that you have accomplished today and use it as fuel to venture forth and write your own story.”
The actress referenced the stories of members of the Class of 2013, pointing to students who founded a political action committee to bring politicians of both parties together and the work of graduates to advance the sciences and international development.
“You are heroes who have faced fears and taken risks and forged ahead to conquer one of the most important chapters of your life,” Washington said.
She also made sure to acknowledge that her selection as Commencement speaker was a departure from recents years, which saw speeches from politics and media stars like Michelle Obama, Brian Williams, Rahm Emmanual and Michael Bloomberg.
GW students were split over her selection in the spring.
“Year after year GW sends its graduates into the world on the wings of advice from esteemed leaders and thinkers and this year, you got me,” Washington said. “You’re thinking, ‘We’re celebrating our academic and intellectual achievement with that lady who’s having an affair with the President on that TV show?’ I know. I get it.”
But the Bronx, N.Y. native tried to use her edge: She could draw from her own experiences at GW, and mentioned her sleepless nights, drinks at local bar Lindy’s Red Lion and experiences studying and preparing for roles in GW plays.
As a Presidential Scholar of the Arts while a student at GW, Washington crafted her own interdisciplinary major, combing through courses on sociology, psychology, history and anthropology. She received an honorary degree from University President Steven Knapp Sunday.
She also warned graduates that she may call them in the future, asking to turn their own success stories into big-screen productions.
“And because as your story unfolds, you will inspire others to find their stories. In fact, don’t be surprised if you get a call from me wanting to option the really good ones and turn them into movies because I’m so Hollywood now,” she joked.