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Graduating seniors plan to use their unique ‘songs’ to make a difference

Commencement speaker Renée Fleming invokes students to find their voice

EVANSTON - Opera star Renée Fleming delivered the commencement address to 6,151  Northwestern University graduates this morning (June 22) at Ryan Field. 

The leading lady of Broadway, the Metropolitan Opera -- and even the Super Bowl -- fittingly delivered her message with musical accompaniment from composer and alumnus Doug Peck (’03) and students from Northwestern’s gospel choir.

“As a singer, any achievement I have comes from my voice,” Fleming said. “So the most valuable gift I can offer you is a voice lesson.”

She urged each graduate to shape the world using their unique voice and named examples of Northwestern alumni whose distinctive voices helped change American culture and their communities, including disability rights advocate Shirley Ryan whose generosity helped fund the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, the number one rehabilitation hospital in the country. “That’s a Northwestern voice in action,” Fleming said.

She also asked the graduates to look around and identify “Who are your backup singers?”

Citing loneliness as the number one health risk for youth, Fleming stressed the importance of reaching out for support if fear ever kept them on the sidelines. She shared her experience in persevering against performance anxiety so great that she required the support of a therapist and her voice teacher who “literally pushed me on stage so I wouldn’t stop.”

Among the students selected to perform alongside Fleming were School of Communication graduates Robert Cunningham, Mariah Lorraine Copeland, Christopher Flaim, Mary Godby, Chamaya Moody and Allie Woodson, who shared their thoughts about performing with the world-famous soprano, and their desire to use their own voices in the world.

On their master class with Renée Fleming

Chamaya Moody:
“Performing with Renée feels like an honor, and the fact that I’m doing it with my friends and that we’re performing on a stage together, for probably the last time, is pretty special.”

Robert Cunningham:
“Representing my class feels surreal. To back her up with her address to us and use our voice with her is really special. Her raw talent and vulnerability in her performance invigorates us to do really well too.”

Mariah Lorraine Copeland:
“What I admire about Renée besides her being an amazing performer, is that she really used her time with us to help us figure out what is most important to us. She taught us that now is not the end of something but a very exciting beginning.”

On using their voice

Mary Godby:
“After graduation I plan to teach. I’ll use my voice to teach and to guide. And to sing and to be myself and give what I have to the world.” 

Allie Woodson:
“After graduation I’ll use my voice to empower and strengthen the younger generation. Seeing kids all around the nation rise up against unjust rules and laws is something that really inspires me, and I want to do everything I can to empower them and tell them to continue to fight.”

Christopher Flaim:
“Northwestern has taught me to trust myself fully in many ways, intellectually, spiritually. I leave here knowing myself much better, and knowing what I am capable of or what I can bring to the table, or to the world in general and a good tool set to do so. I will use my voice to spread joy.”

Fleming and the choir closed the commencement address with a call and response to the assembled graduates, families, faculty and staff.

 “Do you have a voice?”


“Congratulations Northwestern class of 2018, you’ve got it, now get out there and sing.”

Fleming also received a Northwestern honorary doctor of arts degree presented by Bienen School of Music Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery.