Double alumna will share story about the importance of ‘welcoming.’
By Ruth Steinhardt
Angela Sako was just 14, a recently arrived immigrant from Albania by way of Italy who spoke little English, when her father died unexpectedly. The grief was so intense that “I wondered if I could ever be lifted,” she said.
But with the help of friends and family, Ms. Sako said, she emerged from that darkness to earn a full-ride scholarship to the George Washington University. She went on to earn two degrees from GW: a B.A. in international affairs, in 2015, and a master’s in public policy, expected in May.
And on May 21 Ms. Sako will stand on the National Mall before her family and thousands of others, sharing her story as the George Washington University’s 2017 Commencement student speaker.
“I’m just so surprised,” Ms. Sako said, still looking stunned Friday afternoon minutes after Vice President for External Relations Lorraine Voles announced her as the winner of the annual student speaker competition. “This is a wonderful opportunity. I owe a lot to GW, and I’m just glad to have the opportunity to say thank you, but also I hope maybe my story or my experience will be encouraging to some of the other grads.”
Ms. Voles, who was one of five judges for the competition, said the decision was difficult because the nine finalists were “an outstanding group of speakers."
“We all thought that Angela had a very compelling and a very moving story, and we thought it would touch not only her fellow students but also others on the Mall.”
Besides Ms. Voles, the other judges were Adrienne Hancock, associate professor of speech and hearing science; Steven Roberts, J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro professor of media and public affairs; Michael Tapscott, director of the Multicultural Student Services Center; and Ayanna Thompson, professor of English.
Ms. Sako and several judges grew visibly tearful as she delivered her speech, which focused on the life-changing possibilities of welcoming and being welcomed. George Washington President Steven Knapp was among those who welcomed her, Ms. Sako said—both in 2011, when he awarded her a full-ride Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholarship, and again in 2015 when she received a Presidential Administrative Fellowship.
“Such is the power of ‘welcoming’: Through it, a simple immigrant girl was given access to a boundless future,” said Ms. Sako.
She also praised her fellow graduates for “saying ‘welcome’ to uncertainty, challenges, new friends and growth.”
The idea of welcoming, Ms. Sako said, came to her as she was making a list—“I’m a list person,” she said—of themes that had run through her GW journey.
“Every time something great has happened, I think it has come from you yourself being welcoming to the unknown and not being afraid to say, ‘Hey, I’ll try it,’” she said. “But it’s also from other people seeing something in you that perhaps you don’t even see in yourself and saying, ‘Sure, you can come along as well.’”
The Commencement student speaker competition, a GW tradition since 1992, selects a graduating senior or graduate student to represent the graduating class. This year, 61 students submitted materials, which included a biography and a video of their speech. Based on the content and delivery of their speeches, 10 finalists were selected. Nine participated in the live audition round on Friday.