Skip to content

Randy Barbato ’82 Gifts a Ticket of Chance: Commencement 2024

  • A student holds up their diploma and cheers to the crowd
  • Randy Barbato speaks at a lectern
  • A sea of Emerson graduating students
  • A student holds up an envelope after finding a lottery ticket taped to the bottom of their seat.
  • A student smiles while holding up an envelope with a lottery ticket in it
  • Student commencement speaker Joe Nalieth
  • A student raises her hands and yells in triumph
  • Jay Bernhardt shakes a student's hand who just received her diploma
  • A student raises their hands on the stage after receiving a diploma
  • A woman holds up her diploma joyfully
  • A student shakes someone's hand while receiving their diploma
  • Jae Williams embraces himself after receiving an award
  • Photo from behind students looking at their mortar boards
  • A view of the arena from the front
  • Students sit and listen to speakers
  • A sea of Emerson students sit
  • Two students smile at the camear
  • Several students stand up in the back row

Emmy Award-winning director, producer and writer Randy Barbato ’82, the co-creator of  MTV’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, began his address at Emerson’s 144th Commencement exercises by calling his 92-year-old father, and putting him on hold to listen to his son’s self-deprecating, hilarious, and inspiring speech at Boston University’s Agganis Arena on May 12. 

Barbato’s father had missed his son’s Emerson commencement ceremony in 1982 because of illness, which prompted the live call.

It was one of many heartwarming and humorous moments during the address in which Barbato also recalled that on the day he was invited to be speaker, his 248-day Wordle streak ended. 

“It was a dark day. I thought it was some type of omen. I thought ‘Wordle Loser Addresses Class of 2024,” said the co-founder of the World of Wonder entertainment company, creator of Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing and several documentaries. 

But with failures comes successes. “Losing is the new winning,” said Barbato. 

Sharing his journey, Barbato said no pitch of his company was greenlit right away. They got, “you guys are crazy” or “we’d never do that” or just stares. 

“If you can’t sell a good idea – sell a good time. No is the beginning of yes,” said Barbato.

Barbato joked that he’s not going to lecture graduating students about social media, or how TikTok is the downfall of Western civilization. He preferred to encourage their creativity, and boldness.

“I do want you to take the time to discover yourself in the world. Trust the timing in your life. Things will not turn out how you planned,” said Barbato. “RuPaul says, ‘Good luck and don’t f**k it up…’ I say it’s OK to f**k it up…over and over again. It’s experiences that create the opportunities. It’s the experiences that build your endurance and connections with another and remind you to refine your confidence.”

Barbato later explained that in his family, they celebrate special occasions by giving lottery tickets. He then instructed the graduating seniors to reach under their seat for an envelope taped there.

After grabbing the lottery tickets, students waved them cheerfully in the air as the audience hooted.

“Maybe someone will win a prize. Probably most of you will lose. But that’s OK. But that’s because losing is the new winning. Good luck!” said Barbato.

Earlier in the ceremony, Grand Marshal and Assistant Professor of Journalism Mike Brown kicked off Emerson College’s 2024 commencement ceremony with gusto – bestowing a missing element to the students’ academic experience.

“You didn’t have a high school graduation. You’re going to have a graduation today!”

Soon-to-be alums, alumni, faculty, staff, and audience members cheered.

Honorary Degree Recipients

Ronee Penoi, Interim Executive Director of Office of the Arts, presented Barbato with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

“You have said that the first time you ever met a drag queen—a dormmate at Emerson, no less—you were captivated. Little did you know that, years later, you would create a wildly successful television show focused on the joy and artistry of drag. And that it would launch your career,” said Penoi.

Penoi spoke about Barbato’s earlier projects, a disco-pop-rock duo that he and his creative business partner Fenton Bailey formed – The Fabulous Pop Tarts. 

“While the band didn’t make it, your can-do attitude and creative spirit persevered, and you channeled your energy into telling authentic, compelling stories of people considered to be outsiders,” said Penoi. 

Penoi championed Barbato’s assessment of his time at Emerson. 

“You’ve said that: ‘Emerson created an environment that made me realize I could pursue my passion or dream without editing myself, without being anyone other than who I am.’”

After receiving a Doctor of Humane Letters degree, Board of Trustee Douglas Holloway ‘68, said Emersonians have the responsibility to continue uplifting voices that have been marginalized.

“Emerson shapes storytelling, and are visionaries that have instilled in us that our words matter. That our stories have the capacity to change lives and that our art can bridge divides,” said Holloway. “…you are the architects of tomorrow. Your words will and have ignited change.”

The College’s third honorary degree recipient was Al Jaffe ‘68. 

For more than 28 years at ESPN, Jaffe was known as “The Kingmaker” while hiring and negotiating contracts for numerous sports television personalities, said Executive Director of Emerson Polling and Associate Professor Spencer Kimball who spoke about Jaffe.

Kimball shared that Jaffe went on to help create Emerson’s Sports Communication program, and in 2016, Emerson launched the Al Jaffe Speaker Series, where he brought influential sports industry figures to speak with students.

Honoring Mother’s Day, Jaffe said there couldn’t be a better gift than seeing a child graduate. 

“If only my mother were alive to see this. ‘Yeah, he’s humane. He hardly sends me letters. I hardly hear from him’,” joked Jaffe. “It’s every Jewish mother’s dream to have a son become a doctor. Mom, you finally got your wish.”

Jaffe told the story of how he ended up at Emerson after his father passed away in the spring before his first year. Thankfully, he received scholarships. 

“As a freshman I was determined to work harder than anyone else…I promised myself I’d give back and now 60 years later I still donate scholarships and give time and energy to Emerson. Emerson is a school that gave me a chance. A school that I love.” 

‘Take a Breath with Me’

“Can I ask y’all to take a breath with me? Like a really deep, primal sigh. Like a Theatre & Performance BFA breath, really engage that diaphragm,” said senior class commencement speaker Joe Nalieth ‘24. “May we breathe in the collective weight of our experience these last four years: the communities we’ve built, the memories we’ve made, and the beautiful projects we brought to life.” 

Nalieth remarked the most valuable lesson he learned at Emerson is that chaos is constant. They experienced a pandemic trapped in Zoom, and life may feel more like Survivor than Succession. He said the chaos showed them how they can build extraordinary art during stressful times.

And now Nalieth said he and his fellow alums are now part of the vaunted Emerson Mafia.

“The Mafia is our secret weapon now. We can beat the LinkedIn algorithm. We’re in this together, ready to support each other with opportunities, connections, and the kind of camaraderie that only Emersonians can share.”

Emerson College President Dr. Jay Bernhardt kept his remarks brief.

“Please give yourself a hand for all you’ve been through. For all the mothers. Give them a hand,” said Bernhardt. “We can’t wait to see all the amazing things that you do because you’re Emersonians. We’re all so proud of you, all you’ve accomplished, and all you will accomplish. Congratulations to the class of 2024!”

2024 Teaching Awards

The Helaine and Stanley Miller Award for Outstanding Teacher:

Scott Pinkney, MA ’11

Professor, Department of Performing Arts, School of the Arts

The Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching:

Ellie Beargeon, MA

Affiliated Faculty, Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary of the Arts

The Alumni Award for Teaching Innovation:

Jae M. Williams, BA ‘08, ma ‘16, EdD

Executive-in-Residence, Department of Marketing Communication, School of Communication

Conferring of Emeritus Status

Ben Brooks, MFA, Senior Writer-in-Residence; Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing;

Sarah Hickler, MFA, Associate Professor, Department of Performing Arts;

Roger House, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Journalism;

Gian Lombardo, MA, Senior Publisher-in-Residence, Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing

Scott Pinkney, MA ’11, Professor, Department of Performing Arts

Michael Selig, PhD, Former Associate Professor, Department of Visual and Media Arts

James Sheldon, MS, Associate Professor, Department of Visual and Media Arts

(Visited 915 times, 1 visits today)