Jerrod Larson (PhD 2010, MS 2003) delivered the 2017 Commencement Address for the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering with a choose-your-own adventure style ending.
The text of Larson's 2017 address is below.
Graduates: I’m honored to be here in front of you. It’s an honor because I know firsthand what an accomplishment this is! (By the way, embrace this moment because it may be the first and only time you’re allowed to wear a robe in public.)
Before I get too far I’d like us to reflect for a minute on those people who supported you while you were in the program. Some of those people are here today and some are here only in spirit.
Some of you had parents who supported you. Their support may have meant enabling their child to travel across the country or in some cases, across the world to be here. Your graduation is a significant life event for those parents. For them it’s the final steps of an academic journey that started when you ventured into kindergarten. It may be hard to recognize how momentous this graduation is for those parents, but trust me, it is. Others of you had a different support structure: spouses, significant others, or children who had to tolerate your weekends committed to readings of Don Norman. Their support may have meant seeing less of you than they would have liked, watching you head off to Suzzallo Library when they would rather have you stay home. In our pursuit of our diplomas it's easy to miss what gets postponed in our loved ones’ lives.
On that note, forgive me as I relay a personal story: When I was in the program I remember lying on a couch in Venice, Italy reading journal articles. Now here’s the thing: this vacation was a romantic getaway with the woman who is now my wife, Jenny. (Sorry Jenny!) In retrospect I can see that part of my academic success was a result of Jenny’s remarkable tolerance and support. Many of you may have a similar story if you look deep enough.
So graduation is for you graduates to be sure, but it’s also for the people who have supported you.
Graduates, let’s offer a round of applause and thank you to those people who supported you, wherever they are.
Now I’d like to embarrass you, the graduates, for a minute. (This is where I impress your families about your accomplishment and why this is such an important milestone for you.) You’re graduating with a degree from the University of Washington, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Given how competitive admission is to the University, this accomplishment alone necessarily represents the culmination of many, many years of hard work. Moreover, you’re graduating from the Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering — one of the best programs of study in a rapidly growing and in-demand field. The Department is extremely selective. Let me use some data to reinforce my point. This past autumn the undergraduate program admitted 38 of 321 applications — that’s a 12% acceptance rate from a pool of already very accomplished University of Washington students. The undergrads in the audience today should feel proud of the hard work that brought them here.
Graduate students: now it’s time to embarrass you. The Master’s program offers admission to approximately 25% of applicants who apply each year, and the certificate program admits 30% of applicants. And this department sees graduate school applicants from some of the best universities and businesses across the country. You earned your special orange hood.
Ph.D. graduates? Well, you’re in incredibly rarified air too — fewer than 20% of applicants to the department’s Ph.D. program are offered admission. Again, the best graduate students in the country were vying for the admission you were granted.
So parents, family, loved ones supporting these graduates, I know I don’t need to remind you how impressive your graduate is, but I hope I was able to provide you with the context to make you all the more proud. Let’s have a round of applause for what these graduates have accomplished.
But alas graduates: you’ll still spend a good chunk of your future life at parties, on dates, or at family reunions explaining what you do and what “human centered design” is. That won’t magically vanish after graduation.
Now, let me break the fourth wall of my speech for a moment. When preparing this speech I thought, how can I innovate beyond the typical speech, how can I make it more user-centered? Well, I decided to let you, my audience, choose what you want for the remainder of the speech: The first ever user-centered graduation speech.
You’ve got a choice of how I proceed. Would you like a traditional, formal speech filled with advice that might help your parents understand what you do, or would you like an unconventional, somewhat risky, more informal speech?