Colorado College commencement
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It took staff hours to set up 5,100 chairs on Tuesday at Colorado College, in preparation for Sunday’s graduation ceremony. That’s 500 more chairs than usual. And there’s standing room for 800 more guests. Photo by Debbie Kelley

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Classes ended for the 2018-2019 school year Wednesday at Colorado College.

But the campus continues to sizzle with activity, in preparation for the arrival of a one-name celebrity many students can’t believe they get to meet: Oprah, this year’s commencement speaker.

Outside cement scrubbed, check. Building windows washed, check. Metal fencing erected, check. Plastic chairs set up: 5,100. Standing room overflow: 800 spaces.

Freshman Lauren Hough wasn’t lucky enough to score a coveted ticket to Sunday’s graduation, which begins at 8:30 a.m. on the campus north of downtown Colorado Springs.

But Hough did jump up on the stage that workers assembled this week and thought to herself, “I’m walking and standing in the same place Oprah will walk and stand.”

“She’s definitely a black feminist icon,” Hough said. “I think it’s awesome she’s coming to a place like this.”

Freshman Lia Musante also wishes she could attend the ceremony.

“It’d be cool to see her.”

Oprah Winfrey is big on social media, including Twitter, where Musante has followed her because she admires her work as an actress, activist and philanthropist.

That’s the reason Winfrey is imparting wisdom to the Class of 2019. A graduate of The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, in a South African village, Henley on Klip, will receive a bachelor’s degree from Colorado College on Sunday.

Winfrey started her school in 2007 as a gift to former President Nelson Mandela to provide education and care to underprivileged, traumatized girls and help them break the cycle of poverty.

Winfrey was in the audience for CC’s 2017 graduation for the same reason: to support one of her former students advancing in life.

When CC President Jill Tiefenthaler found out that Winfrey again would be in the audience this year, she invited her to speak, said campus spokeswoman Leslie Weddell.

Although the topic of Winfrey’s speech is unknown — her people told Weddell she was still writing it last week — it’s likely to fit with the Class of 2019 motto, as uttered by Black Panther Party activist Angela Davis: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”

Winfrey is appearing for free, like other CC commencement speakers including Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 1982, film producer and director Sydney Pollack in 1990 and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney in 1991.

Winfrey is the first nonalum to deliver the annual address since 2013, when Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, took the podium.

Invitees are those who will inspire students, Weddell said.

“We look for interesting people who have interesting things to say to our graduating class,” she said. “Speakers have come from a variety of fields; we’ve had politicians, journalists, authors and scientists, among others.”

Senior Johnathon Williams, a film major from Middlesex, Va., is an Oprah fan.

With tickets required and all the hubbub, “It’s going to have a different vibe,” he said of this year’s graduation. “It’ll be phenomenal to hear someone speak who’s given her life to other people and worked for change.

“I think the world needs that. There’s a lot of bad things going on right now.”

The event is not open to the public, and attendees must have a ticket. Graduating students were allotted eight tickets for family and friends.

That makes Winfrey’s appearance positive and negative, said CC senior Josh Lauer, of Colorado Springs.

“While it’s cool Oprah is coming to talk and definitely an honor to be a part of this graduating class, I have 15 family members who want to come, and only eight tickets,” he said. “It’s made getting tickets for everyone difficult.”

Weddell said the college is “trying to accommodate as many students as possible,” giving extra tickets to those who request it and asking students who don’t need eight to pass on their leftovers.

The event also will be live-streamed at www.coloradocollege.edu/live.

Lauer saw Oprah when she was in the audience two years ago. He was in the audience, too, watching his brother receive his degree.

As for this year, “I’ve no doubt it’ll be memorable.”

Changing the traditional day of graduation from its usual Monday to a Sunday was not done to accommodate Winfrey, Weddell said. That move had been planned for years, she said, to make it more convenient for guests.

Oprah’s arrival is not as big of a deal for some students. Jake Golbus, a senior political science major from Northbrook, Ill., hasn’t paid much attention to Oprah’s work.

“CC is trying to be a premier institution and compete with big schools,” he said. “I think this (Winfrey’s presence) is part of that.”

For senior Ethan Moore, who came to CC from Rochester, Minn., to earn a biochemistry degree, “It’s definitely the most famous person I’ve ever been in the presence of.”

Winfrey seems to speak to all generations.

“Not everybody gets to meet Oprah,” Moore said. But, he added, “I think my mom is more excited than I am.”

Some of the nearly 590 graduating seniors wonder if they’ll get to shake Winfrey’s hand, or hug her as their name is announced, cheers arise and they walk across the stage to have their degrees conferred.

That’s unknown.

Some have joked that perhaps Winfrey will give everyone in the audience a car, like she did on her television program in 2004, in what became known as “the most epic talk show moment ever.”

That’s not likely.

In keeping with tradition, Winfrey will receive an honorary degree from CC.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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