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Obama speechwriter’s Last Lecture inspires students around the world

Alumnus and visiting professor Cody Keenan delivered advice and guidance to the Class of 2020 one last time before Commencement

Cody Keenan
Cody Keenan was selected by students from among more than 40 nominees.

Northwestern alumnus and Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences visiting professor Cody Keenan addressed the Class of 2020 Monday in the Northwestern Alumni Association’s Last Lecture, telling them “you earned this moment.”

The tradition of the Last Lecture allows a student-selected professor to deliver their own advice and guidance to the senior class one last time before Commencement. Held at the Cubby Bear in Chicago for more than 10 years, this year’s Last Lecture was held virtually giving students the opportunity to attend from around the world.

This year, Keenan was selected by students from more than 40 nominations, said Associate Director of Student Engagement for the Northwestern Alumni Association Suresh Mudragada. Keenan is a professional speechwriter who has written or edited more than 2,000 speeches for his boss, President Barack Obama. Of those many speeches, Keenan’s said the most memorable one goes back to March 2015 when Obama spoke in Selma, Alabama, marking 50 years since "Bloody Sunday" in 1965 when thousands of Americans were brutally assaulted on a march to the state capital in support of voting rights for African Americans.

Mudragada said around 200 students attended the Last Lecture virtually, with many more watching the video of the lecture after the live event. 

In his speech for this year’s graduating class, Keenan shared insights from his time at the White House and beyond, including the “Top 10 things I wish I knew when I was your age,” ranging from career help to relationship advice. 

Keenan also shared his hope for where this year’s graduates will take the country and the world as leaders of change in their various fields.  

“Open the floodgates, overwhelm us, run us out of town,” Keenan said. “Don’t look for reasons to hope, don’t look for other people to make you hopeful, be those people, create those reasons. Be icons of idealism, be rock gods of activism. Be the new vanguard of anti-cynicism, because there is already another generation coming up behind you that’s growing up even faster than you did, because they had to.”

After delivering the speech, Keenan said he’s never gotten so much feedback on anything he’s written and delivered. He said he woke up the morning after the lecture to emails from students inspired by his guidance and vision for what the graduating class will accomplish. 

“It may be a tough time to graduate,” Keenan said, closing his lecture. “But it is an incredible time to change the world. What an adventure that’s going to be. Class of 2020, class dismissed.”

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