Hallie Ryan ('20): On Being Valedictorian in the Age of COVID-19

Friday, May 15, 2020

Hallie Ryan ('20): On Being Valedictorian in the Age of COVID-19
By Raven Yamamoto

Hallie Ryan is not an actress by any stretch of the imagination. A humble, quiet biology major from Shawnee, Kansas, she spends her days studying for finals, making homemade gnocchi, and calling her mom “a few too many times a day.” She’s an introvert in every sense of the word, with the willpower to turn down going out with friends to stay in and do homework. So, when she was selected to be valedictorian and given a theater professor as a coach for a speech that would be given in front of thousands on graduation day, Hallie felt like she was out of her depth. The prospect of standing on that stage with the sun as her spotlight and the eyes of hundreds of LMU family members on her was daunting but exciting. The task would be miles out of her comfort zone, but she would do it out of the love she had for the people she had grown with for the past four formative years of her life.

But May 8th came and went and Hallie didn’t speak. There wasn’t a stage or a podium for her to stand at. There wasn’t a sun shining on her and her classmates. Not even a single family member was in attendance.

After LMU moved to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the future of graduation floated in limbo for weeks. The little hope that the senior class had of returning to the Bluff for their big day shattered with a single university-wide email. 

Just a month before the date everyone had marked in their calendars years in advance, President Timothy Snyder announced the postponement of this year’s commencement.

“After careful reflection, we have decided to postpone the Class of 2020 commencement ceremonies to a time when we can be together—on the Bluff with loved ones, with our faculty, and with our staff—so that our entire community can gather to honor, gloriously, our graduates with the splendor that they deserve,” he wrote.

Snyder was adamant in emphasizing that the virtual celebrations the University was planning would not be a substitute for the class of 2020’s big day.

“They will not replace the forthcoming commencement ceremonies,” he continued. “Rather, they give us a head start in honoring our graduates.”

Hallie expected the university’s decision—after all, she is an aspiring doctor. She knows a bit about diseases. It didn’t come as a surprise to watch students be evacuated from campus or to be told that there was no guarantee that she would still be giving her speech, though the news came just months before she was set to give it. 

“At graduation, being in that space and that atmosphere, it’s the perfect time to say how much people mean to you and that was really what hit me the hardest about all this,” Hallie said. “I haven’t cried yet, but I feel the tears welling day by day.”

The same could be said for other student speakers for intercultural commencement ceremonies. Senior Fatima Beck was chosen as the student speaker for Lavender Graduation, LMU’s send-off for their LGBTQIA+ students, and will no longer be giving their speech in person either. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Lavender Graduation and the 25th anniversary of LMU’s Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA).

“I was definitely disappointed learning that we wouldn’t have the celebration in person, ” they said. “I was so excited for the opportunity and to be able to represent the queer community and represent my class, particularly in a space where we could all accompany and hug each other.”

Knowing she would most likely only speak at the postponed graduation, the school wanted to offer Hallie the opportunity to give a speech to the incoming class of 2024 as consolation. They were planning for a virtual Preview Day already, filming videos with words of wisdom and welcome for their newly accepted Lions, and Hallie agreed to participate. Before campus closed shortly after spring break, she was put in front of a camera with a teleprompter programmed with a speech she had written to show first-years that there was a place waiting for them on the Bluff.

“I’m not the kind of person to just sit in front of the camera and be the star of the show,” Hallie said. “I’m quiet. I don’t like being the center of attention in any way and I definitely take more of a behind-the-scenes role in a lot of things.” 

The selection process of an LMU valedictorian starts with many candidates. Any senior on track to graduate with a minimum 3.7 GPA was invited to audition for the role. Candidates were asked to write the speech they would give at graduation if selected, staying within a 3-4 minute time limit. The university wants to know exactly what they’re approving in their selection, looking for something that stretches beyond the lukewarm “Follow your dreams!” trope that many fall into.

The strongest of the stack move on to deliver their speech to a committee of staff and students from all over campus. The performance with the most potential to move people’s hearts and bring tears to their eyes walks away with the title. 

Despite running overtime by a minute and thirty seconds, Hallie got the call a week later that she was the university’s pick.

“It was really funny because I was in a meeting with my research mentor before I got the call and she had asked me ‘Have you heard anything yet? Do you know when you’re gonna hear something?’ and then ten minutes later I got the call,” Hallie said. “My mind was reeling.”

Hallie’s speech still stands at 4 minutes and 45 seconds after revisions, but she is adamant about preserving its integrity even if she goes slightly over time. 

“I think if they like the message of my speech it has to stay at the length that it is,” she said. “You can’t really change my story that much.” 

Other than some minor edits, the university had a very “hands-off” approach. The school’s distance was surprising to her, free of any grooming or leash-tugging. Their only two requirements were that she not disclose her new title before their official announcement and that she meet with theater professor Dr. Kevin Wetmore for coaching on how to give her speech.

The two would have normally met in person, but because of social distancing Dr. Wetmore met Hallie through his iPad, where they began preparing for the big day, despite not knowing when it would come. 

“Theater is the illusion of the first time, we do something over and over and over again to make it seem like we’ve never done it before [and] that it’s occurring naturally in the moment,” Dr. Wetmore said. “We don’t want the speech to get stale because you’ve rehearsed it so many times [that] you just pound it out like a machine gun.”

Dr. Wetmore had Hallie run through her speech in different styles and practice vocal exercises to enhance her speaking abilities. Some of it was to loosen her up, and some was to break down the elements of her speech down to the gestures she makes.

Dr. Wetmore has had valedictorians sent his way for the past five years to rehearse and fine-tune their delivery, but Hallie made an impression on him with her genuine tone.

“What really struck me not knowing her at all is how much you get to know her through the speech,” he said. “Not just what she values and what she likes but her as a person.”

Hallie never saw herself as valedictorian. It wasn’t something she set out to do nor a title she had been working toward since she set foot on the Bluff. She never planned on applying to begin with, but as reminders to complete the application piled on, she felt moved to submit something two days before the deadline.

She didn’t tell her family she would be applying, not wanting to give them too much hope in case she wasn’t chosen. It came as a complete surprise to them when Hallie broke the news to her mom as soon as she was notified. The two shared tears of joy through the phone.

“It was very emotional and she still doesn’t know that she’s in my speech,” she said, eyes glassy at the memory. “I’m hoping that I get to give it at the postponed graduation so that she can be in the crowd and cry [while] I tell everyone how great my mom is.”

While she was always a student first, Hallie’s impact is seen in her extracurriculars. From her volunteer work with kids at Richstone Family Center, to being a member of the Belles Service Organization, to having four jobs on campus, Hallie’s passion for LMU is felt by her classmates whose lives she entered intentionally.


“I hope that people remember me as someone who cared at the end of the day,” she said. “I just want people to know that I was there for them and I supported them even if I didn’t know how to express it and couldn’t use my words to say it.”

Even with the pandemic putting everything on pause, Hallie is still optimistic for the future. While she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to deliver her speech, she’s found peace in the silver lining that at least her whole family would get to be there when she does. Should graduation have gone as planned, her mother wouldn’t have been there to see it because Hallie and her older brother shared a graduation date. Hallie’s mother would have gone to support her brother in Arkansas, and her father would have come to Los Angeles.

“If it happened the way it was supposed to happen, she would have seen it [in] a video and not in person,” she explained. “Hopefully now we don’t graduate on the same day and she can come see it in person.”

What disappoints her most about the circumstances is how she won’t be able to give her farewell to her class sooner—when they need it most.

“Everything is ending so separately but graduation is supposed to be the way that everything wraps up altogether at once,” she said. “I think for this class, especially, it seems like our college experience is just going to be unfinished and incomplete. There’s not really an ending to it.”

While she’s happy to still give her speech at the postponed graduation when a date is set, she worries that her words will have lost their impact by then. 

“The things that I’m saying in my speech are definitely things that sort of conclude and wrap up our four years and I wanted to leave people with [them] as they were just graduating and just about to start jobs,” she said. “I don’t think the words that I’ve prepared will be exactly the same for people.”

Without giving too much away about her speech, she gave a thesis of what we might hear when she finally does take that stage, standing at the podium with her class behind her.

“It’s about both recognizing the people in the communities that invested in us to allow us to reach this stage and this moment in our lives—and in turn challenging all of us to go and do the same,” Hallie said. “To go and invest ourselves in what we care about and always remember that.”

Now, more than ever, the class of 2020 needs someone to believe in: someone that has always believed in them. She’s never been the loudest person in the room, but she’s the best listener by far. She goes unnoticed in a crowd, but never in the hearts of people she has touched. She is someone who perfectly embodies the resilience of her class. Even when the world feels like it’s ending Hallie can say “everything will be okay,” and you’ll believe her. 

Hallie Ryan is not an actress by any stretch of the imagination. But an actress isn’t what we need— not right now.

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