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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Student speaker at Commencement an Iraq war veteran

Though many graduating seniors spent their four years at GW studying international affairs, Iraq war veteran Catherine O’Connor learned from firsthand experience.

O’Connor, a senior, will be the student speaker at Commencement this year. She returned from Iraq in Jan. 2006 after beginning her tour of duty two years ago.

This is the 14th year that a student has spoken at Commencement. Student Commencement speakers are chosen annually by a panel of University administrators who select a student from each school. O’Connor won this year for the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

“All the candidates were wonderful, but O’Connor really jumped out for the judges,” said Jill Kasle, the University marshal and a judge. She added that O’Connor was chosen because of her background and unique experiences overseas.

O’Connor said she enlisted in the Marine Forces Reserve before attending GW and was called up for service after her sophomore year. She added that she was inspired to join the military after Sept. 11 because she had many friends and family who were working in New York City at the time.

“It feels so clich? saying that the whole world changed that day, but it made the way you look at this place different,” O’Connor said.

After a year of military training, O’Connor spent seven months on the Al Asad airbase in western Iraq as a data networking systems specialist. Her primary job was to keep the base’s computer networks operational.

She said that life in Iraq was “96 percent boring, 4 percent really scary.” Though she was targeted several times by mortars, she said she was not targeted nearly as frequently as transportation and infantry units.

“It was a cool thing to do and I am glad I did it, but it was less like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and more like ‘Jarhead,'” O’Connor said.

For her upcoming speech at Commencement, O’Connor said she tried to combine her views of life both inside and outside of GW.

“I tried to make it something that other students would relate to,” O’Connor said. “At the same time I think there is something to be learned from time not spent at GW.”

Tracy Schario, director of Media Relations, was one of the judges that selected O’Connor as the speaker. She said that O’Connor’s audition speech was very compelling.

“(The speech) was very personable, yet very applicable to the diversity of graduates and parents and guests,” Schario said.

Schario has judged the student speaker competition for the past three years, and said a student speaker is a valuable addition to any graduation.

Jeffrey Burson, a close friend of O’Connor, said he has confidence she will present a very moving speech. Burson received his Ph.D in history from GW last August and will walk at this year’s Commencement.

“She’s very good at taking a lot of complicated experiences and distilling it in a very meaningful way,” Burson said. “I suspect a lot of (the speech) will have to do with … not being afraid to make a difference now that you are done with your college degree,” he added.

After she graduates, O’Connor said she plans to work fulltime as a public policy analyst for Akin Gump, a Washington law firm, though she is still in the Army Reserve.

Though O’Connor has had an atypical college experience, she said the greatest challenge for most GW students will be leaving Foggy Bottom.

“For the most part, we all go to Gelman, we all go to J Street, we all go to McFadden’s on Thursdays,” O’Connor said of GW students. “There’s a lot to be said for the GW experience, but as soon as we leave here it’s not going to be the same.”

Updated on May 15: It was erroneously reported that O’Connor was enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve. She is in the Marine Forces Reserve.

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