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Columbia College names impressive roster as commencement speakers

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, Chicago Crusader

Columbia College Chicago names roster of Emmy, Grammy® and Pulitzer Prize-winning artists as 2016 commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients.

Honorees include Columbia College alumnus and “Selma” Executive Producer Paul Garnes, Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actress Jane Lynch, Grammy Award-winning songwriter Diane Warren, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy K. Smith and National Museum of Mexican Art Founder and President Carlos Tortolero.

Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith

Each honoree will address students at one of five commencement ceremonies on May 14 and 15, 2016, at the Chicago Theatre. This year’s honorary degree recipients are: Columbia College alum and film producer Paul Garnes “Middle of Nowhere, Selma, Being Mary Jane, Queen Sugar;” Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning actress and former Chicagoan Jane Lynch; Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee and Grammy® Award recipient Diane Warren; Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet Tracy K. Smith and Carlos Tortolero, founder and president of Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art, the first Latino museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. More than 2,000 Columbia College graduate and undergraduate students are expected to matriculate this year and attend the May commencement ceremonies.

“Our honorary degree recipients are not only acclaimed artists and established creative leaders in their own right—they represent a version of success that is meaningful to our student body,” says Columbia College Chicago President and CEO Dr. Kwang-Wu Kim. “The diversity of experience and high level of artistic achievement among this year’s honorees reflects the core mission of Columbia College Chicago, which is for our graduates to author the culture of their times. We look to the Class of 2016 to follow their lead with high aspirations as they begin their professional careers.”

In order of commencement ceremony, Columbia College’s 2016 keynote speakers and honorary degree recipients are:

Tracy K. Smith will be honored at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 14. Smith is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Ordinary Light, a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Nonfiction and selected as a Notable Book by the New York Times and Washington Post, as well as three books of poetry.

At times political, whimsical and always meditative, Smith’s poetry speaks largely to the role of art and to the conception of what it means to be American, dealing with the “evolution and decline of the culture we belong to.” Her work also explores the dichotomy between the ordered world and the irrationality of the self, the importance of submitting oneself willingly to the “ongoing conflict” of life and surviving nonetheless—or as in Smith’s own words, “poetry is a way of stepping into the mess of experience.”

After her undergraduate work at Harvard, Smith earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University, and was a Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University from 1997 to 1999. She is the Director of Princeton University’s Creative Writing Program.

Diane Warren
Diane Warren

Diane Warren will be honored at 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 14. Warren is one of the most continuously prolific and successful contemporary songwriters of our time. She is the sole owner of her publishing company Realsongs.

An eight-time Oscar® nominee and Grammy® Award winner, Warren’s songs have been featured in more than 100 motion pictures, and she has written over 100 top ten Billboard songs.

In addition, Diane wrote the original song “You Will” for Oprah Winfrey, which serves as the anthem for the OWN network. The song is performed by Jennifer Hudson and Jennifer Nettles and debuted in March 2015.

Warren recently wrote the song “This Is For My Girls,” which features vocal performances from Kelly Clarkson, Chloe & Halle, Missy Elliott, Jadagrace, Lea Michele, Janelle Monáe, Kelly Rowland and Zendaya. Sales from the single benefit charities supporting young women’s education globally, including First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative.

Paul Garnes will be honored at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 15. Garnes has served as producer, line producer and/or production manager on films and television series for Disney, Dreamworks, HBO, ABC, NBC, BET, Sony/Screen Gems, Magnolia Films, and Paramount Pictures. A graduate of Chicago’s Columbia College, Garnes has worked as Vice President of Operations and Production for Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx’s Foxx/King Productions and Head of Production for Simmons-Lathan Media Group.

In 2006, Garnes was recruited by Tyler Perry and Reuben Cannon to join the Tyler Perry Company where he served as Vice President and Executive in Charge of Production until 2009, overseeing the creation of its multi-million-dollar studio and back lot. In addition to daily operations, Garnes supervised over 250 episodes of broadcast television while at the studio. In 2011, he produced filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s award-winning independent feature, “Middle of Nowhere,” which won Best Director honors at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and the Independent Spirit Awards’ John Cassavetes Award.

Jane Lynch
Jane Lynch

In 2014, Garnes was executive producer of the film “Selma,” a biopic directed by Ava DuVernay and distributed by Paramount Pictures, which chronicles a series of the three Selma marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. supporting the 1965 Civil Rights Voting Act. Selma was nominated for the 2015 Academy Award for Best Picture, and won a 2015 Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song.

In addition, Garnes continued his work as producer on the final season of BET’s hit series “The Game,” and the current season of Viacom/BET’s “Being Mary Jane.” Currently teaming back with DuVernay and Winfrey, he is producing the OWN/Warner Horizon series “Queen Sugar” that will air in the fall of 2016.

Carlos Tortolero will he honored at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 15. Tortolero is the Founder and President of the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA) in Chicago. The National Museum of Mexican Art is the first Latino museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. The Museum opened its doors in 1987.

The National Museum of Mexican Art has become a national model for its exhibits, performances, arts education programs, advocacy of cultural equity issues, and as a model for how museums need to change in today’s society.

About Columbia College Chicago:

Columbia College Chicago is a private, four-year urban institution offering a distinctive curriculum that blends creative arts, media, liberal arts and business for 9,000 students in more than 100 undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Dedicated to academic excellence and long-term career success, Columbia College Chicago creates a dynamic, challenging and collaborative space for students who experience the world through a creative lens. For more information, visit www.columedu.

For more information on the 2016 Columbia College Chicago commencement ceremonies, and for a copy of the commencement guide, visit

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