Commencement Speaker

Jackie Joyner-Kersee Named 2023 Commencement Speaker

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Six-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee will serve as the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s commencement speaker Saturday, May 13, at 9:30 a.m. in Memorial Stadium.

Competing in four different Olympic games in track and field, Joyner-Kersee is the first woman to win back-to-back gold medals in the heptathlon and the first woman to break 7,000 points in the heptathlon – a world record still standing today. She also is the first African American woman to win an Olympic medal in the long jump. ESPN named her one of the 50 Great Athletes of All Time, and she was named Female Athlete of the 20th Century by Sports Illustrated.

“We always want our students’ last formal experience at Illinois to feature a speaker who not only helps them to fully embrace the joy of the moment, but also inspires them to make a difference in their future lives and careers,” Chancellor Robert Jones said. “I can think of no one with a life story that better embodies those ideals than our 2023 speaker, Jackie Joyner-Kersee.”

Joyner-Kersee grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, and attended UCLA, where she competed in track and field and basketball, and graduated in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in history. After her Olympic success, she founded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation, which supports youth and families in her hometown and across the U.S. Established in 1988, the foundation focuses on community development by providing resources and programming on leadership, education and athletics. Joyner-Kersee said her motivation to pursue community outreach began when she was in college. 

“As a freshman in college, I was met with a lot of challenges and hardships. I started thinking, ‘Where do the young people go?’ Growing up, I came through a community center that had an impact on my life. It stayed with me,” she said. “It was always my dream to go back home. When I started my foundation, I didn’t do it for popularity. I did it because I felt there was a need there. It was a way to pay it forward before I even knew what paying it forward meant.”

Joyner-Kersee’s philanthropic efforts with children’s education, health and nutrition eventually led the JJK Foundation to partner with the university in 2019. The foundation works with the College of ACES and onsite University of Illinois Extension staff to provide youth with programming and engagement around metropolitan food systems, agriculture, STEM, entrepreneurship, leadership and college readiness. Joyner-Kersee said the Illinois connection makes it especially meaningful to speak at the universitywide commencement.

“It’s always an honor when the request comes. But having a relationship with the university and Chancellor Jones made it even more special,” she said. “I’m always looking for ways to give my time to help others through their own dreams and aspirations to be the best in whatever field they choose.”

Joyner-Kersee said her commencement address will focus on the importance of believing in yourself.

“You can turn a doubter into a believer as long as you believe,” she said. “But that belief must start with you. Always be willing to put in the work. The job is never done, no matter how successful others say that you are. Always have the hunger. Always be willing and open to challenge yourself. Know that there is only one you. That one you is unique. Allow yourself to spread that uniqueness while helping and supporting others.”

Jones will preside over the universitywide ceremony where graduates will be recognized by college. Louis Liay, a former executive director of the University of Illinois Alumni Association, and Ares Rosakis, the Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, will receive honorary degrees.

The speeches from previous Commencement speakers can be found in the Past Speakers archive.