Past Baccalaureate and Commencement Speakers

2018 Commencement Speaker 

Jennifer Nettles

Jennifer NettlesAn admired and animated performer, Jennifer Nettles ’97 is a superstar entertainer on multiple platforms. ASCAP has honored her songwriting prowess with five awards in addition to earning both an Academy of Country Music Award and a Country Music Association Award for Song of the Year for “Stay.” The emotionally charged, platinum No. 1 hit also earned Nettles two Grammy Awards for Best Country Song and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group. As the first female artist to be the solo songwriter on an ACM Awards Song of the Year winner since 1972, Nettles was acknowledged with a Crystal Milestone Award. Leading with her powerhouse vocals and vivacious energy, Nettles released two critically acclaimed Big Machine Records’ albums—“Playing With Fire” and “To Celebrate Christmas”—in addition to performing in back-to-back headline tours in 2016 alone, followed by a run of holiday-themed dates. With Nettles as one half of the multi-platinum duo Sugarland alongside Kristian Bush, the duo recently released their first new music in seven years with “Still the Same,” setting the tone for their joint venture with Big Machine Records and UMG Nashville. Sugarland is back in the studio working on their new album and will embark on their headlining Still the Same 2018 Tour this summer.


As an actress, Nettles made her Broadway debut in 2015 as Roxy Hart in the Tony Award-winning, record-breaking musical “Chicago” and most recently starred as Donna in the Hollywood Bowl’s summer production of “Mamma Mia!” In 2016, in television, she reprised her role as Dolly Parton’s mom Avie Lee Parton in the Emmy-nominated holiday-themed sequel to the ratings success “Coat of Many Colors,” “Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love.”




2018 Baccalaureate Speaker

Rev. Julia Sierra Reyes 

The Rev. Julia Sierra Reyes ’08 is the rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Denver, Colorado. She is the first woman and person of color to serve as senior pastor in the church’s 128-year history. Prior to accepting the call to St. Luke’s, Reyes was the associate rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Savannah, Georgia, the first house of worship established in the state of Georgia.

Reyes holds degrees from Agnes Scott College and Harvard University. At Agnes Scott, where she majored in religion/social justice and Africana studies, she was encouraged and inspired by college faculty. Agnes Scott’s global consciousness led her to travel in Tanzania and South Africa, where she spent her junior year abroad studying at the University of Cape Town. She was awarded the Suzanne Goodman Elson Prize upon graduating in 2008.

Reyes earned her Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School, where she received the Williams Scholarship Fund and the prestigious Hopkins Shareholder Award, in recognition of her ministerial promise. In 2009, she was elected as student



2017 Commencement Speaker: Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey is a global media leader, philanthropist, producer and actress. She has created an unparalleled connection with people around the world, making her one of the most respected and admired people today. For 25 years, Winfrey was host of the award-winning talk show “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” As Chairman and CEO, she's guiding her successful cable network, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, is the founder of O, The Oprah Magazine and oversees Harpo Films.

Winfrey is an Academy Award-nominated actress for her role in “The Color Purple,” earned critical acclaim in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and produced and acted in the Academy Award-winning film “Selma.” Winfrey recently appeared in the HBO Films “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” and will portray “Mrs. Which” in Disney’s “Wrinkle in Time” film adaptation releasing April 2018.

In 2015, Winfrey joined the Weight Watchers board of directors. On January 3, 2017, her first cookbook “Food, Health and Happiness: 115 On Point Recipes for Great Meals and a Better Life” debuted as #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers List.

Winfrey is also one of the most active philanthropists in the world, donating over $20 million to the creation of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year, of which she has contributed more than $100 million to provide education to academically gifted girls from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In 2013, Winfrey was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Deborah Bial

Deborah Bial

2017 Baccalaureate Speaker: Deborah Bial

Deborah Bial is an expert in the field of higher education administration, college access and leadership development. Her extensive experience in facilitating dialogue related to issues of access, equity and diversity—and in guiding selective institutions of higher education towards improved admissions policy has gained her national recognition in the higher education community in the United States.

Bial is the president and founder of The Posse Foundation, a youth leadership development and college access organization that sends teams (Posses) of students from diverse backgrounds to selective colleges and universities. The Posse Foundation, a national 501(c)(3), is headquartered in New York City. In 2017, its annual budget of $23 million will support its operation in ten cities and leverage approximately $130 million in leadership scholarships from its 57 partner colleges and universities.

Since 1989, The Posse Foundation has identified close to 8,000 Posse Scholars. These young people have won more than $1 billion in leadership scholarships from Posse’s partner colleges and universities, are persisting and graduating at a rate of 90 percent and are active leaders both on their campuses and now in the workforce.

Bial has grown The Posse Foundation from a concept into one of the most comprehensive college success and scholarship programs in the United States. Today it supports programs in Atlanta, the Bay Area, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York City and Washington D.C.

In 2010, President Obama named Posse as one of ten nonprofits with which he would share his Nobel Peace Prize money.

Bial earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in education with a focus on higher education administration, planning and social policy from Harvard University. She completed her undergraduate degree at Brandeis University and has numerous honorary doctorates.

 In October 2007, Bial received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. 

2017 Baccalaureate Speaker:

Rev. Pam Driesell

Rev. Pam Driesell

The Rev. Pam Driesell became the fourth senior pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in October 2010. At Trinity, a large Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation located in Atlanta, her areas of focus include visionary leadership, preaching & worship, pastoral care and empowering excellence in education and mission. Prior to accepting the call to Trinity Church, Driesell led the organization of a new church in Oconee County, Georgia, chartering the congregation with 115 members after two years in the field. Driesell has served on numerous councils and commissions including serving as an advisory council member of the Princeton Institute for Youth Ministry. She is currently the moderator of the Tri-Presbytery New Church Development Commission.

Driesell earned her Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, where she was awarded the James T. Galloway Prize in Expository Preaching. She holds a Master of Liberal Studies from Hollins University and a Bachelor of Science with academic honors from James Madison University.

Alexis M. Herman

2016 Commencement Speaker: Alexis M. Herman

Born in Mobile, Alabama, Alexis M. Herman began her career working for Catholic Charities helping young out-of-school men and women find work in the Pascagoula, Mississippi, shipyard. At the age of 29, she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as director of the Women's Bureau of the Labor Department, making her the youngest person ever to hold that position. On May 1, 1997, Herman was sworn in as America's 23rd Secretary of Labor, becoming the first African American to lead the U.S. Department of Labor. During her tenure as a member of the president's Cabinet she also served as a valued member of the National Economic Council.

As Secretary of Labor, she focused on a prepared workforce, a secure workforce and quality workplaces. With that mandate in mind, she consolidated the department's wide array of skills-development programs into a simpler, more efficient system. She led the effort to institute a global child labor standard, moved people from welfare to work with dignity, and launched the most aggressive unemployed youth initiative since the 1970s. Under her tenure, unemployment in the country reached a 30-year low, and the nation witnessed the safest workplace record in the history of the Labor Department. Herman's actions as secretary were a reflection of her understanding of the needs of America's workers and the challenges they faced as this nation approached the 21st century.

Currently, Herman serves as chair and chief executive officer of New Ventures LLC. She has continued to lend her expertise and talent to a vast array of corporate enterprises and nonprofit organizations. A recipient of more than 20 honorary doctoral degrees from major colleges and universities around the country, Herman is a former trustee of the National Labor College George Meany Center. Presently, she chairs the Toyota Diversity Advisory Board. Herman is the lead director of Cummins Inc. and a member of the boards of directors of Entergy, MGM Resorts International and The Coca-Cola.

2016 Baccalaureate Speaker: James T. Laney

James T. Laney

James T. Laney is president emeritus of Emory University, former ambassador to South Korea and an ordained United Methodist minister. His association with Korea began in 1947, when he served there in the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps. He later taught at Yonsei University in Seoul and at Vanderbilt University before becoming dean of Emory's Candler School of Theology in 1969. In 1977, Laney was named president of Emory University, serving in that role for 16 years. Appointed as ambassador to South Korea from 1993 to 1997, he was instrumental in helping defuse the nuclear crisis with North Korea in 1994.

Laney has received medals for distinguished service from the United States and Korea, the Wilbur Cross Medal from Yale, the Emory Medal, and the General James Van Fleet award from the Korea Society. He holds undergraduate, divinity, doctoral and honorary degrees from Yale University. He and his wife, Berta, have five children and 16 grandchildren, including Emaline Laney '16, president of this year's graduating class.

Commencement Speakers 1996-2015

  • 2015: The Honorable Ambassador Andrew Young
  • 2014:   Luma Mufleh, Founder and Director, Fugees Family, Inc.
  • 2013:   Soledad O’Brien, CNN Special Correspondent
  • 2012:  Katherine Lawther Krill ‘77, President and CEO, ANN INC.
  • 2011:  Melanne Verveer, U.S Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues
  • 2010: Madeleine K. Albright, U.S. Secretary of State (1997-2001)
  • 2009: Helen Gayle, CEO of Care
  • 2008:  Shirley Franklin, Mayor, City of Atlanta
  • 2007:  Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, President, Spelman College
  • 2006: Elaine Chao, U.S. Secretary of Labor
  • 2005: Hilary Clinton, US Senator
  • 2004: Vicki Escarra, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer,  Delta Air Lines
  • 2003:  Ann Compton, ABC White House Correspondent
  • 2002:  Johnnetta Cole, President emerita of Spelman College
  • 2001:  Madame Jehan Sadat, First Lady of Egypt and wife to global peace maker, Anwar Sadat
  • 2000: Marsha Norman, playwright
  • 1999: Kurt Vonnegut, author
  • 1998:  Andrea Mitchell, NBC Foreign Affairs Correspondent
  • 1997:  Alice Walker, author
  • 1996:  The Honorable Nancy Landon Kassebaum, US Senator, Kansas