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Jonathan Capehart selected as 2023 Commencement Speaker

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Carleton alum Jonathan Capehart ’89 has been selected as the commencement speaker for the Class of 2023. Capehart joins a series of politically involved Carleton alums selected as commencement speakers, the most recent being Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter ’75 in 2022. 

“Giddy is the word I’m going to use,” Capehart said in an interview when asked how he was feeling about giving the commencement address. “I’m excited…and really honored…This is a huge honor for any institution to bestow on someone. But when it’s your alma mater, and it’s a place you care about deeply — I am thrilled to be coming back to campus in this way.” 

Capehart returned to the subject of how much he cares about Carleton multiple times in the interview, saying in a discussion of his first time arriving at Carleton that he “immediately felt at home” and that “that feeling stayed with him through the four years of college and the year as assistant to the president.”

Since graduating from Carleton, Capehart has thought about what it means to be a Carleton student and how he finds it “difficult sometimes to even articulate to people what it is about Carleton that is so special. We know it’s special. Right? But we can’t explain why.”

Now a columnist for the Washington Post and host of “The Sunday Show With Jonathan Capehart” on MSNBC, Capehart believes that “just about every important thing that’s happened in my life I can trace back to my decision to go to Carleton.”

“I worked in the Carletonian, I worked in KRLX, all preparing for what I thought would be a career in journalism,” said Capehart. “Then… there were lots of layoffs at NBC. So, my year after graduation, I was assistant to the president of the college.”

As part of that one year fellowship, Capehart met various members of the Board of Trustees, including  Garrick Utley ’61, anchor of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” and Tom Morgan ’49, president of WNYC, a public radio station in New York. In one of those interactions, Garrick asked Capehart what he was planning to do after he left Carleton, to which Capehart told him he was looking for a job in television. 

“Garrick was six-foot-seven, and so he looks down at me and he goes, ‘Well, good luck!’” Capehart recalled. Morgan overheard the conversation, and later offered him a job as an executive assistant for external affairs at WNYC. Given this start to a now very successful career, Capehart commented on what graduating students should keep in mind as they leave Carleton.

“Great, you’re graduating, congratulations! You’ve worked really hard for that diploma and to leave this special place, but you must understand this: The moment you leave that campus, you have to understand that you don’t know anything. The sooner you understand that and know that, the easier things will be. It will be easier to deal with disappointments, with failures, because they’re going to happen.” 

This June won’t represent Capehart’s first time back since his graduation. He told the Carletonian that he has visited a few times already, including speaking at opening convocation in 2013, where he spoke on that same theme of learning how to handle failure after graduation.

A Carletonian article describing his convocation address quoted part of that convocation speech: “My goal today is to get you to see the power and importance of having a dream, a north star if you will. I hope you’ll embrace the need to take risks, and the lessons learned from failure.”

According to that article, students found his speech “entertaining and inspirational.” J.D. Slaugh ’17 was quoted as saying: “It showed what a Carleton student could go and achieve.”

Speaking at convocation was an emotional experience for Capehart, according to the Carletonian: “Returning to speak at his alma mater brought back a rush of tearful nostalgia. ‘I’m going to try not to cry,’ Capehart said, after pulling out his phone to photograph the audience. Soon after, he produced a handkerchief, and cried.”

Students, too, found his speech emotional, according to that article: “‘It was one of the best convos that I have ever seen and I cried when he cried,’ said Emily Pence ’15.”

Capehart described his experience speaking at convocation as “pretty spectacular,” mentioning that it also “went by quickly.” “[The Carletonian will] have to ask me afterwards whether it rises to what it was like when I did convocation,” said Capehart to the Carletonian. “That was pretty spectacular. And it went by so quickly.”

Convocation will take place on Saturday, Jun. 10, 2023 on the Bald Spot. 

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About the Contributor
Becky Reinhold
Becky Reinhold, Editor in Chief
I'm a junior Philosophy major, and I can usually be found in the basement of Anderson or wandering around Northfield. I like thunderstorms and writing articles around 2am. Becky was previously Managing Editor, Viewpoint Editor, and Design Editor.

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    Cam TilleyFeb 21, 2023 at 1:01 pm

    Thrilled to hear Jonathan Capehart was selected to speak at our granddaughter’s Commencement – Class of 2023! An outstanding journalist and an amazing human being!