NEW BRUNSWICK — When the Rutgers University Class of 2016 held its commencement ceremony last year, they set the bar pretty high for speakers when President Barack Obama helped the students end their time at the state school.

A group from the Class of 2017 is hoping to have a memorable, less political, and maybe slightly more fun time at their ceremony as they work to recruit comedian Ellen DeGeneres for their ceremony. But time may not be on the side of the Class of 2017, leaving hope that she could be an option for next year's graduating class.

DeGeneres, who was the star of her own sitcom in the 1990s, has since made a name for herself as the host of a talk show since 2003, and as the master of ceremonies at many of the major award shows. In 1997, before many students in this year's class were even alive or old enough to watch primetime television, she made history for coming out as a lesbian on television.

At the heart of the effort is a Facebook page, which senior Kayla Brantley hopes will be the first step in bringing DeGeneres to Rutgers.

"I was studying abroad last spring and one of my friends posted in a Facebook group after last year's graduation and was like 'Yeah, Ellen for commencement 2017' and it got a whole bunch of likes on the Facebook page, so I just kind of rolled with it."

Brantley said to get DeGeneres to do the address would be a major accomplishment for the class.

"To me, she's more than just a pop culture person, she's really a role model," she said. "Obama's speech was so great last year and it was really inspiring."

At a recent rally, students showed their support for the effort, and also made signs showing why they believed she would be a good person to have speak at the May ceremony.

Unlike the political tone, she said the message and tone would be very different and good for her classmates to hear.

"I feel like Ellen would come in and take the politics out of it. Her whole message is to be kind, so no matter what your views are, everybody should be kind no matter they believe in or what they think."

While this would be her first major appearance on the Rutgers campus, DeGeneres said she was "devastated" by the suicide of Tyler Clementi in 2010. Clementi's death made headlines when it was revealed that the potential cause of his suicide was secret video of him and a male lover.

One factor that may be working against the group is time. The nomination process for Rutgers usually ends in April of the prior year. Brantley said she started her work on this effort in earnest in September.

Rutgers spokesman Karen Smith said the decision on picking a speaker is a multi-step process that starts with nominations from the school community at least 18 months before the annual ceremony. A committee then reviews the nominees for speakers and honorary degrees and passes that on to student and faculty representatives on the Board of Governors, before the Board has the final say.

Smith said those nominations for this year are expected to be presented to the Board next month, and that DeGeneres will not be on the list. "While we understand there has been a growing interest in Ellen DeGeneres being the speaker, Ms. DeGeneres was not nominated during the formal process last year and therefore cannot be selected as the 2017 commencement speaker.

While this year is seemingly out, Smith added, "She can, however, be nominated to be the 2018 commencement speaker. The University is continuing to accept those nominations."

Although the odds are against them, Brantley said they are determined to continue to pursue their goal of bringing DeGeneres to their school. "We're going to push and we're going push and we're going to try for 2017 and hopefully make enough noise so that our voices can be heard."

A late change to the Rutgers commencement speaker isn't new, as Brantley pointed out a student petition convinced the school to not have former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as the speaker for the class of 2014.

She said social media has been a key factor in helping to move their work forward. "It's really just about getting the word out, and making it go viral," she said.

Information has been sent to representatives of DeGeneres, but there is no word yet if that is making progress. Brantley said they have also not heard back from the school.

"Before it was kind of yeah, this is my idea, this is what we're going to do, and they kind of brushed it off. Now it's like, no, we're doing it." A petition being circulated to bring her to campus has close to 1500 signatures so far.

While having DeGeneres at the ceremony would be the ideal conclusion to her time at Rutgers, Brantley said it would be enough just to have their work acknowledged by her.

"Just for her to recognize what we've been doing and appreciate it, if she can't come to the actual graduation if she does say something on behalf of Rutgers, or sends us some inspiring message that will suffice."

With just a few months left at the school Brantley said she is hopeful to have her work be the successful culmination of her time there before entering the real world.

"I feel like it would really just bring together my whole college career because even going after this and getting everybody for the video, it was kind of me reaching out to everybody that I've ever met in my four years here, and being like hey, do you want to be a part of this?" she said. "We got a whole of people together from all clubs and organizations, different walks of life, so it really just kind of showcases how diverse Rutgers is and how far my personal reach and the people around me, our reach is."

And while DeGeneres never had a commencement ceremony of her own, dropping out of college after one semester, she did make headlines at Tulane University in 2006 wearing a bathrobe. If Brantley and her classmates have their way, DeGeneres will join them in their scarlet robes for their memorable ceremony.

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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com

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