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IU Bloomington's first-ever student commencement speakers reflect on graduation day

Delivering a speech to thousands of your peers, their families and an array of esteemed professors and scholars is one thing.

Directly following words from the a legendary producer and the most-nominated Grammy artist of all time is another.

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Graduating Indiana University senior Jack McCarthy addresses 2010 IU graduates. This was the first year IU Bloomington selected student speakers for its undergraduate commencement ceremonies.

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"I was nervous enough to address my class," said recent Indiana University graduate Jack McCarthy. "Then I thought, 'I have to go right after Quincy Jones!'"

McCarthy and another 2010 graduate, Natsuki Atagi, were selected as the first student commencement speakers at Indiana University Bloomington after lengthy deliberation by a committee composed of the dean of students, the vice provost for undergraduate education, the dean of the Hutton Honors College and the director of the Hutton Honors College extracurricular activities.

McCarthy, a business major from Indianapolis, spoke at the morning ceremony May 8. Atagi, a psychology major from California, addressed a packed Assembly Hall in the afternoon.

Greg Buse, a project specialist at the Office of the Provost who chaired the selection committee, said sifting through the pool of potential speakers wasn't easy. Academic success, university involvement and speech outlines were all considered.

"There were more than 20 applicants, all of whom were highly-qualified," he said. "All were students who have excelled in the classroom and who have been active participants or leaders in student organizations. Ultimately, the committee thought that Jack and Natsuki met all the criteria, while at the same time being representative members of the Class of 2010," he said.

McCarthy and Atagi applied for the opportunity in February and were asked to interview mid-March.

Then, the two received a special phone call after their final spring break.

Ten versions and multiple soy lattes

"When Provost Hanson called me, all I could say was 'thank you so much' over and over again," Atagi said. "I was just jumping around my apartment saying 'thank you so much.'"

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Natsuki Atagi drew inspiration for her speech from French philosopher Michel Foucault. She emphasized to fellow 2010 IU graduates that it's okay not to know what comes next.

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Once the shock abated, Atagi said she began penning drafts of her speech. Ten versions and multiple soy lattes later, she composed a five-minute masterpiece.

"Over the past year, many of my senior friends have been freaking out about what they're going to do next," she said. "I wanted words of comfort. I wanted to stress that it's okay not to know."

Atagi said she drew inspiration from French philosopher Michel Foucault, who authored The History of Sexuality --the first work she read in her first IU class. And though she said the book was difficult to comprehend at 9 a.m. the fall of her freshman year, Foucault's sentiments followed her behind the podium at graduation.

"Something he said in an interview really speaks to me," she said. "'What is true in writing and love is true also in life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don't know where it will end.'"

When Atagi spoke, she said she could see the professor from that first class. Emotion overwhelmed her as she exited the stage to genuine applause.

"It was just ecstatic," she said. "Being able to spot people I knew in the crowd and seeing their reactions was amazing."

Write, crumple, trash, repeat

McCarthy said he experienced a similar anxiety-filled speech-writing process: write, crumple paper, trash, repeat.

But the end result was worth it, he said.

"I joked that I Google-searched 'commencement speech,'" he said. "But I kind of actually did that. At first I didn't know where to start!"

McCarthy worked on his 5-minute segment from mid-March to finals week. He said he focused on three main points.

"The first thing is to look for direction in unexpected places," he said. "Continue the learning process after college, and stay engaged with IU as you go forward."

McCarthy said once he vanquished stomach butterflies, speaking was an adrenaline rush.

"It was a huge honor," he said. "So many of my peers had amazing college careers. It was exciting to represent my class, and I hope my message reached them."

--By University Communications arts intern Danielle Paquette

This story was originally published May 20, 2010.