Sterling K. Brown ’98, the critically-acclaimed actor and Stanford alumnus who became the first African-American actor to win a Golden Globe for best actor in a TV drama, will be Stanford’s 127th Commencement speaker.
Brown has received several awards for his television work, including Emmy awards for his performance in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” in 2016 and the NBC series ‘‘This Is Us” in 2017. He made history the following year when he received a Golden Globe for his role in the latter series.
President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said he believes Brown will inspire the 2018 graduating class in his commencement speech on June 17.
“Brown is an eloquent role model for an entire generation, inspiring us with moving performances that not only bring life to each character, but also impart to the world a deeper understanding of our society,” Tessier-Lavigne said in an interview with Stanford News.
Tessier-Lavigne announced the decision Friday evening during a standing-audience event at CEMEX Auditorium, where Brown and his wife Ryan Michelle Bathe ’98 spoke about art and culture in conversation with Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam Jr., Sterling’s former professor.
Speaking to The Daily, Elam described Brown’s decision to choose the arts over economics as “a risk,” but he argued it sets an example for Stanford students to choose a major that reflects their passions.
“Students will choose majors not because they love a subject, but because that’s what they’re supposed to do or that’s what will get them a job,” Elam said. “He’s an example of choosing a major differently — [pursuing] something that you believe in, something that you want to work at and are committed to.”
While Brown was an undergraduate, Elam encouraged Brown to pursue acting after casting him in his first campus production, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” in November of 1994. A Daily review published at the time of the production praised Brown for a “perfect” performance that “[captured] the essence” of the character he portrayed.
“I’m thrilled that he stayed with [acting] and that the world has been able to see what I saw in that initial audition,” Elam said, adding that he was “ecstatic” when he discovered on Friday evening that Brown will give the commencement address.
Brown jettisoned his plans to major in economics and graduated from Stanford with a degree in drama. He earned an MFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2001. From then on, his acting career burgeoned with roles in films including “Righteous Kill,” “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” and, more recently, “Marshall,” for which he received an NAACP Image Award nomination in 2018.
After Brown and Bathe spoke at CEMEX Auditorium, they took to a more intimate stage at Pigott Theater to meet cast members of Stanford BLACKstage’s winter quarter production, “The Wiz.”
Director of “The Wiz” and student program coordinator at the Institute for Diversity in the Arts Janei Maynard said she was delighted Brown was chosen as this year’s commencement speaker. She invited him and Bathe to speak to her cast members about the possibility of pursuing and thriving in an arts career.
“[Brown] defines success as the ability to do what he loves, regardless of the paycheck, and that is something Stanford students rarely hear but need to hear more,” Maynard said.
Senior class presidents Ibrahim Bharmal ’18, Rachel Morrow ’18, Madilyn Ontiveros ’18 and Jack Seaton ’18 coordinated with Tessier-Lavigne’s office from the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year to create a shortlist of possible commencement speakers and decide on their preferred candidate.
Ultimately, the presidents reached a unanimous decision with the Office of the President to invite Brown to deliver the commencement address, because they believe he has distinguished himself as a groundbreaking actor.
“We were looking for someone who is a pioneer in his or her field,” Ontiveros said. For the class presidents, Brown — the first African-American recipient of some of America’s major entertainment awards — embodied that criterion.
To decide on the commencement speaker, the presidents considered candidates whom they thought would be inclusive and resonate well with their peers.
“The senior class presidents’ role is to try to help gauge the class climate and to help figure out what our classmates would want,” Ontiveros said.
“He proudly sees himself in the world as an African-American man,” Elam said, adding that this makes Brown a timely pick for the 2018 speech and an inspiration for audience members. “I think he can deliver a speech with a hopeful message.”
Ontiveros also said that activism on campus, as well as national and international events, factored into the presidents’ support for Brown.
“Throughout the process, we recognized the political climate that we are in, not only on campus with some of the events that have happened internally and that are specific to Stanford, but also the events that are happening as a whole in the U.S. and abroad,” Ontiveros said.
On Friday, Brown met with the senior class presidents to ask them about their class in preparation for writing his speech, according to Ontiveros.
In response, Ontiveros said, the presidents told Brown that the Class of 2018 has had a diverse set of experiences and that some class members had concerns about navigating the “real world” post-graduation, which they suggested he should address in his speech.
The senior class presidents were particularly impressed by Brown, Ontiveros noted, because he has maintained a meaningful relationship with the University while pursuing great success beyond Stanford.
“He has not forgotten about Stanford,” she said. “He had made references to Stanford a couple of times in some of [his] talks and speeches … and shown that Stanford is very close to his heart.”
In his acceptance speech for his 2016 Emmy Award, Brown thanked his “extended family at Stanford University,” and exclaimed “stand up, chocolate Cardinal in the house.”
Likewise, Elam believes Brown will deliver a memorable speech because he cares deeply about the University.
“He will bring a real and genuine love of Stanford … that will touch people,” Elam said. “Stanford has impacted his life, career and sense of who he is in the world.”
Contact Yasmin Samrai at ysamrai ‘at’ stanford.edu.