Binghamton University released the names of the three students selected to speak on behalf of their classmates at Sunday’s commencement ceremonies.
The selection process is extensive, with candidates submitting two letters of recommendation and a copy of their potential speech with their application.
Janathri Nanayakkara, a senior double-majoring in economics and political science, will speak at the 3:30 p.m. ceremony on Sunday.
A transfer student from Sri Lanka, Nanayakkara wanted to speak at commencement to give her parents something a little extra to see after their 23-hour journey.
Her dad went to school in England, so going abroad for a college education is something that she always thought she would do.
She started school at the University of Maine on a full scholarship, but wasn’t happy with the level of diversity. She decided to transfer to Binghamton despite her parents having to pay tuition.
“I wanted to do this basically to say thank you,” she said. “To my parents it was more important that I was happy. I am so grateful, so I had to do something special.”
Nanayakkara is no amateur at public speaking. In high school she was part of a group called Toastmasters that participated in public speaking events regularly. In 2006 she was internationally recognized as Asia’s best orator.
“I get excited about it and I’m someone I think who feeds off of the audience,” she said of public speaking.
Nanayakkara has held internships at Law and Society Trust and UNICEF in Sri Lanka, as well as at the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York City. Focusing on the realm of international human rights, she claims some of the experiences she has gained through these internships have changed her life.
When she worked with Law and Society Trust and UNICEF, Sri Lanka was undergoing a civil war. The war included a lot of terrorism and during her internship she went to help some of the innocent victims in the north.
During this summer internship, Nanayakkara taught English, basic Sinhala, her mother tongue, and math to children living in refugee camps. She was living in a war zone and wasn’t able to have any communication with her family at the time.
“I feel very strongly about the well-being of people,” she said. “I saw gruesome things, heard gruesome stories, but I helped people out.”
Nanayakkara will work at the United Nations as a diplomat next year, but is unable to disclose her assignment because of confidentiality reasons. She said she hopes one day to become an ambassador for Sri Lanka.
“I grew up in a country where every day, bombs would go off, people I knew died,” she said. “Just to see Sri Lanka improving and doing so well economically and politically makes me happy and gives me reason for my passion. I want to stand up for countries like that.”
She credits Binghamton with giving her the confidence to talk about her accomplishments after experiencing a bit of a culture shock at first.
“I went to job fairs here where people were pitching themselves to employers and I was shocked,” she said. “Later on I got that confidence, and now I can talk to you about who I am.”
Nanayakkara said her speech will incorporate her “foreign sense of humor.”
Benjamin Summers, a senior majoring in history, will speak at the 8:30 a.m. ceremony on Sunday, and plans to focus on perspective and the fact that nothing in life comes easy.
“It’s kind of like being at the starting point of a board game,” he said about graduating. “It takes a lot of dice rolls and twists and turns, but you’ll make it in the end.”
Delivering a commencement speech is something Summers said he always pictured himself doing because he likes public speaking, but it wasn’t until this year that he knew what he wanted to say.
“None of us are the same as we were freshman year,” he said. “We’re different forms of ourselves, one could say more developed forms, but I would say we’re just a lot more confused.”
Summers hopes that the speech will help people feel like they’re not alone on this journey. Whether it’s the day of graduation or over 20 years from now, Summers said that he wants everyone to know he will be there for anyone who needs him as they head toward the future.
In addition to honoring his graduating class, he also wants to honor his family and thank them for the time and energy they spent raising him.
After graduation, he plans to go to Atlanta, where his parents live.
“I’m going to go to a new city and starting my adventure from scratch,” he said. “Where that takes me and what that means, I don’t know and frankly I don’t think I want to know. It just makes it more exciting.”
Michelle Eberhart, a senior double-majoring in human development and English, will speak at the professional schools ceremony at noon on Sunday.
Speaking at commencement wasn’t something she planned early on, she said, but when she saw the opportunity she jumped at it.
“I was at Starbucks procrastinating and I said, ‘I’m going to try it and see what happens,’” she said. “I enjoy writing and want to pursue a career within the writing spectrum so why not?”
Eberhart plans to work as a personal trainer before applying to jobs in social media and public relations.
She said her time at Binghamton has taught her independence.
“When I came in as a freshman I thought I knew everything,” she said. “Then Binghamton came, and I realized I knew not nearly as much as I thought I did. I’ve been able to develop as a person and learn skills that I’ll be able to take with me forever.”
Eberhart plans to focus her speech on social media because of its relevance to today’s generation and her interest in the subject.
She wants to send a message that stresses the importance of interacting in person, rather than just communicating through a phone.
“I want to make sure people appreciate everything going on around here at Binghamton because our time here went by in a blink of an eye,” she said.
Jennifer Tomas will be the graduate commencement speaker at Saturday’s ceremony at 5 p.m. She has just completed her doctorate in American history.
She plans to teach two courses at Binghamton next year and then proceed to look for other jobs and publish some articles from her dissertation.
Tomas was nominated by her department chair to speak and was asked to submit a speech. She said she felt surprised when she was chosen and is grateful for the education she received at BU.
“I didn’t ask for this,” she said. “I am going to talk a little about my own experience at Binghamton and also about the value of a public university education and where I think that fits in American society.”
Tomas received her undergraduate degree at Wells College and entered Binghamton’s doctoral program in 2005.
Throughout her time at Binghamton, Tomas has completed a 500-page dissertation and hopes to mentor graduate students in a similar position one day.
Her time at the University has reshaped her conception of someone who could be a research scholar as well as a teacher and educator, she said.
“There are so many role models within the history department,” she said. “I came into this changed idea of who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.”