My Turn: Commencement Speaker Gains Education

Graduate of online university addresses crowd of 5,000-plus.

By Rebecca George, CC

“They’ll never pick me.” I repeated those words in my head as I wrote a commencement speech I never thought I would deliver. I had a lot to say, so I wrote it anyway. I was grateful to the University of Phoenix Online (administered out of Phoenix, Arizona) for the opportunity to earn my bachelor’s degree as an adult with a full-time job and a young family. It wasn’t easy. I worked hard, earned every grade and finally, finally, was finished! My target audience, the graduating class of 2006, was exactly like me. The speech was written for all of us. And guess what? They did pick me.

Panic set in.

One thing an online education does not prepare you for is public speaking. With an audience of 1,500 graduates plus 4,000 of their closest friends and family, I was jumping in with both feet. I was a nervous wreck.

I practiced and practiced. I recited my speech to my 4-year-old in the car, in the bathtub, wherever she would listen. She became my biggest fan. “Mommy, say your speech again!”

July 27, 2006, is a day etched into my memory. There I was, standing in U.S. Airways Center, home of the Phoenix Suns basketball team, performing a sound check. The stadium seats were high above me. The JumboTron hanging in the center of the cavernous arena flickered on and the screens displayed my 10-foot face on all sides. 

It’s Show Time!
The ceremony was ready to begin, so we all filed into the U.S. Airways Center toward our seats. Teetering in my heels, I tried not to fall down the stairs. I sat with my fellow graduates and watched the first two speakers, but I can’t remember what they said. My hands were sweaty and my mouth was dry.

Then it was my turn. I took the long walk to the stage, then clenched the lectern. The frog in my throat croaked my beautifully rehearsed speech to the towering crowd and the 200 faculty members who sat onstage behind me. Despite flaws that only I noticed, my message came through: “My fellow graduates, did you get the piece of paper, or did you get something more?”

Afterward, I found out how important that speech was. Graduates approached to tell me how much they loved it; they felt I was talking about their own personal journey and the challenges they overcame to be at this ceremony. In my address, I had thanked the faculty and the families for their unwavering support, and they appreciated my message too. I had connected with my audience. All the practice and anxiety generated by having to give this five-minute speech was worth it! I wouldn’t trade this scary experience for the world, and I would do it again...but not until after I joined Toastmasters.

Yup, you read that right. I did this crazy thing before I joined Toastmasters – and it’s the reason I joined. I knew I could write a great speech, but after going through this new and daunting experience, I realized I needed to develop the skills, and most of all, the confidence to deliver a great speech. A Toastmasters club had been meeting in my office building, right under my nose, and I hadn’t joined. I finally did join Cosmopolitans Toastmasters in Murray Hill, New Jersey, and started working through my Competent Communication manual.

Thanks to the Toastmasters program and the wonderful support I received from my club members, as well as the amazing leaders I have met in District 83, the frog moved out of my throat by speech Number 6, and I haven’t heard from him since. In fact, at my last division contest, I fell down the stairs twice and still placed in the top three winning speeches!

My advice to new Toastmasters trying to get over their nerves is to practice your speeches, and to speak as often as possible. By the time you finish your CC, you won’t worry about being nervous. Instead, you will focus on how to improve your presence.

Connect with your audience. They want you to succeed. Your negative mindset is the only barrier to overcome. 

Rebecca George, CC, is a member of Cosmopolitans Toastmasters in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Reach her at

Editor’s Note: Have you ever given a commencement speech? Let us know at