The Worst Commencement Speaker

Well this is awkward.

Connecticut College, the small liberal arts school in New London, Connecticut, last year featured a student speaker at graduation. He was Peter St. John, tour guide, Senior Admission Fellow, and fellow in the school’s career guidance program,
Conn College used St. John’s face in promotional materials. The school posted the video of his speech on its website.

And then the school took the video down.

Yea, about that. The Connecticut College newspaper, the College Voice revealed on Monday that it looked like St. John plagiarized most of his speech from author Barbara Kingsolver’s 2008 commencement address to Duke University. According to the article by Ben Gitkind and Lilah Raptopoulos, Kingsolver said:

The hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities, and hang on. If you run out of hope at the end of the day, to rise in the morning and put it on again with your shoes. Hope is the only reason you won’t give in, burn what’s left of the ship and go down with it. The ship of your natural life and your children’s only shot. You have to love that so earnestly – you, who were born into the Age of Irony. Imagine getting caught with your Optimism hanging out. It feels so risky.

Risky, indeed. A year later St. John said:

The hardest part will be to convince ourselves of the possibilities, and hang on. If you run out of hope at the end of the day, you must rise in the morning and put it on again with your shoes. Hope is the only reason we won’t give in, burn what’s left of the ship and go down with it. You have to love that so earnestly – you, who were born into the Age of Irony.

Imagine getting caught with your optimism hanging out in today’s day and age. It feels so risky.

According to a piece by David Collins in Connecticut newspaper The Day St. John maintains he didn’t just, you know, Google the speech:

St. John claims he and a friend from another college were both working on commencement speeches, and when the friend lost his chance to give his he passed along his notes.

Connecticut College discovered the plagiarism when an official received an anonymous email following the event.

Connecticut College then took the highly unusual step of hauling St. John, who had moved to Brooklyn and now works at a marketing firm in New York, before the judicial board. There isn’t much the judicial board could do. He may have plagiarized the speech but he earned his diploma. His alma mater apparently banned him from coming to campus or participating in alumni functions for a few years. “I fucked up,” said St. John. “I did.”

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer