Speakers at college graduation are often notable alumni or individuals distinguished in their field.
The commencement speaker for the Community College of Philadelphia’s Saturday graduation is both — a graduate and a White House staff member.
White House social secretary Deesha Dyer will stand up in front of more than 2,000 graduates of the college to say she’s just like them.
The West Philly native graduated from the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, then went on to the University of Cincinnati. But financial reasons forced her to drop out in her freshman year.
At 29, Dyer enrolled in the Community College of Philadelphia while also holding down a job. She credits the school with helping her succeed.
“Community college got me here, sitting in this seat here at the White House. So it’s something that I urge everyone to do,” she said in a CCP video. “If you have doubts at all, you can look at me and look at other community college students that are here at the White House. There’s several of us. There’s more in the administration and more that work here in Washington.”
She finished her associate’s degree in women’s studies while in Washington, D.C., completing her final classes online.
Dyer was selected to speak at the community college’s 50th commencement because of her relatability, said Kristina Henk, CCP’s director of marketing.
“It’s highlighting someone who’s made it to the top, but someone who these graduating students can look at and see as a peer and fellow alumni as well,” she said.
‘Don’t give up’
Dyer’s advice to students is to keep going and not give up, a strategy that’s worked for her.
Dyer has worked full time at the White House for six years. At 31, she started as an intern in the Office of Scheduling and Advance in 2009 and was hired full time a year later. During her time in that department, she traveled with the Obamas, working on press, lodging and site logistics.
After working in the White House Social Office for three years, she was promoted to special assistant to the president and White House social secretary last year. She plans and coordinates social events hosted by the Obamas, such as dinners, and opens the White House to the public.
“Whether helping flawlessly execute state dinners, or going the extra mile to open the White House to people who never dreamed they would walk through these doors, Deesha has worked tirelessly to truly make the White House the ‘People’s House,'” said Michelle Obama in a 2015 statement released by the White House when Dyer was promoted.
Dyer hopes her story will also encourage White House visitors.
“They see people like me, regular people working here, and that means a lot because to me that gives them inspiration, motivation that perhaps they need at the time to get through whatever they’re going through to go back to school,” she said in CCP’s video.
Traveling ‘path to possibilities’
Henk believes everyone will enjoy Dyer’s story.
“When we announced Deesha as the commencement speaker, I think that it was probably one of the most universally agreed upon speakers that we’ve ever had,” Henk said. “Deesha’s story is a story that everyone as this college and beyond wants to hear.”
Dyer will receive her diploma from her alma mater this weekend. She wasn’t able to attend her own graduation ceremony four years ago because she was traveling with the president.
Dyer embodies the college’s tag line, “the path to possibilities,” according to Henk.
“She will be an inspiration and an aspirational speaker for the students because it’s someone who started where they started,” she said. “It’s someone who went down the path that they went down and then made it to the White House.”
This weekend’s commencement is part of the school’s 50th anniversary.