Jacob Combs had his sights set on being a student orator before he was even accepted to Brown. He first heard about the centuries-old Commencement custom as a high school senior during an admissions interview and was intrigued. Four years later, Combs and his classmate Elyse VyVy Trinh will carry on the tradition, serving as 2011 senior orators for the University Commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 29, 2011.
While many other schools bring in dignitaries and celebrities as Commencement speakers, Brown's long-standing tradition is for two members of its graduating class to deliver orations. In Brown's early history, the entire graduating class participated, often delivering orations in Greek and Latin, according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana. This year's speakers were chosen by a committee of students, faculty, and administrators from a pool of 225 nominations. The committee reviewed speech abstracts this spring, listened to presentations by 10 finalists, and selected Trinh and Combs earlier this month.
“VyVy and Jacob were the ideal match of great subjects and great speakers and they were able to articulate their topics very powerfully,” said Karl Jacoby, professor of history and chair of the selection committee. “What they epitomize is that they can take a part of their Brown experience and move it way beyond that, into something personal and deeply humanistic."
In the midst of completing papers and finals, both students spent hours rehearsing with Barbara Tannenbaum, a lecturer in the Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies, who helped them fine-tune their speeches to add emphasis, gestures, and a bit of humor.
An English concentrator, Combs’ speech, “What I Learned from the Big Bad Woolf,” was inspired by a class he took with Ravit Reichman, associate professor of English, on Virginia Woolf. "It’s how one class changed the way I look at everything,” he said. "That’s what Brown does to us. It's what having an education does to us. I use that as the way of talking about Brown as an experience."
Combs grew up in Los Angeles as part of a close, diverse, multi-faith family. With passions in literature, theater, and music, he has worked in the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life, served as a Meiklejohn Peer Advisor, and is on the board of Brownbrokers, a group that produces original student-written musicals. Throughout his four years at Brown, Combs acted in both student-run and faculty-directed productions, has written two original “mini-musicals,” and has also worked as a director and musical director. In the future, he hopes to be a composer lyricist for theater.
Just as he imagined as a high school senior, Combs says serving as a Commencement orator is a very big honor. "When people congratulate me, it almost doesn't make sense, because i'm so thankful for it. It's amazing. The whole tradition of it is a bar that's been set that I need to meet."
The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Trinh says that her Brown experience helped her understand her personal history and roots more than she ever imagined. She is the second of four sisters in her family from Fremont, Calif., and a student in the Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME), Brown's distinctive eight-year academic program that flows directly from a bachelor’s degree into Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School. Trinh is a human biology concentrator who has focused her coursework on culture, gender, history, and race. She hopes to have a career in pediatrics or pediatric oncology.
Prior to declaring her biology concentration, Trinh says she was "steeped in humanities and up to my ears in literature and history," which eventually allowed her to find a greater connection to her hard science curriculum. "What I realized is that all of these theories and equations that are divorced from any cause, humanity, or social justice are totally meaningless," she said. "Empathy and altruism lead people to do their most meaningful work." Accordingly, Trinh's speech is titled "An Education in Altruism."
Trinh is passionate about giving back to her community, especially the Vietnamese and Vietnamese American communities around the world. At Brown, in addition to serving as a Minority Peer Counselor and being involved with the Vietnamese Students Association and Brown Asian Sisters Empowered, she helped co-found the Brown Immigrants Rights Coalition (BIRC). It is through BIRC that she met her dear friend, Tam Tran, a Brown University doctoral student and immigrant reform activist who was killed in a car accident last year. Trinh is dedicating her speech to Tran, who she says is one of the people who taught her the most at Brown.
"She really helped solidify in me that I believe in community above everything," said Trinh. "This is what I'm here to do and that's what I hope everyone is here to do. Tam helped me find that balance."
As their fellow classmates prepare to leave College Hill and go their separate ways, these two senior orators will coincidentally be spending the near future together. This summer, Combs and Trinh will both teach low-income, high-potential middle school students in the Breakthrough program in San Francisco, imparting their Brown lessons and experiences on future college students.