Above: Helen Turner Hill, CEO of Explore Charleston, and Nigel Redden, general director of Spoleto Festival USA, are among five commencement speakers for the Class of 2021.
Students come to the College of Charleston to be tested, but the pandemic took that concept to new heights, and we’re not even talking about all the COVID-19 nasal swabs they had to endure.
Fortunately, two of the speakers for Spring 2021 Commencement come from two industries that were the hardest hit – tourism and performing arts – so they know a thing or two about being tested, too. In all, there will be five commencement speakers, one for each of the College’s five ceremonies for the Class of 2021.
Helen Turner Hill, the CEO of Explore Charleston (the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau), will be the featured speaker for the commencement ceremony at 2 p.m. on Thursday, May 6, at the College of Charleston Patriots Point Soccer Stadium, where graduates can bring four guests (those in Cistern Yard allow for only two guests to watch from a satellite location).
“I’m excited for the students at Patriots because it’s so hard to limit who comes to your graduation, especially for these young people who are graduating in this most unprecedented time,” says Hill, who plans to speak from the perspective of the city and its 350 years of history. “I’m sharing with the graduates the wisdom that Charleston would share if Charleston could talk.
“Probably the biggest piece of advice Charleston could offer is to be curious, which is one of the most attractive characteristics that anybody can have,” she adds. “One of the reasons that Charleston has been so successful is she has always been curious. She celebrates her past, but she’s really always looking forward. Being curious allows you to embrace the unknown because curiosity can win over fear every time.”
Nigel Redden, the general director of Spoleto Festival USA, will speak to the School of Business at 9 a.m. on Saturday, May 8, in the Cistern Yard, which some might find odd. Shouldn’t he be talking to the School of the Arts? Well, they don’t call it show business for nothing.
“I’m actually rather flattered to be talking at the School of Business,” he says. “One of the things that often is assumed about the nonprofit world is that it really isn’t a business, that it’s simply a passion. But actually, the nonprofit world is filled with businesses. We have to be businesses, and these graduates from the School of Business have an advantage over me when I started out because I did not know much about the actual nuts and bolts of business.
“But the one thing that I think the nonprofit world has, which I think is worth the graduates considering is that we not only are a business, but we’re a passion as well,” he adds. “Finding a passion makes life so much more interesting. They can actually take advantage of all the skills that they’ve learned. I think the pandemic has made people realize that life is fragile. We are lucky to be alive, and we should do something with that life.”
Redden began his career with Spoleto in 1969 after his freshman year at Yale, where he majored in history. The son of a foreign-service officer, Redden was fluent in Italian, having spent most of his teenage years growing up in Rome. The festival in Italy was in need of an interpreter, which he did every summer until 1973 before quickly climbing the art director ranks. By age 25, he was the director of the Performing Arts Program at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and then became the director of the dance program at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. He returned to Spoleto in 1986, becoming the general manager in Charleston while also serving as the American manager of the Italian festival. He left after about four years to run the Lincoln Center Festival in New York City, and then had the unique opportunity of running both the Lincoln Center Festival and Spoleto USA at the same time until 2017.
“Not all that many people get that kind of privilege,” he says. “I was very lucky to be able to do them both. What I love most is being able to put on stage things that I believe in, while also being able to explore works of art that I know relatively little about. It’s a constant opportunity to learn, which is also something that is really priceless.”
Hill, who grew up in Charleston, has been with Explore Charleston pretty much since graduating from Clemson University in 1985 with a degree in parks, recreation and tourism management. When she started with the Charleston CVB, there were five employees; today there are 54, representing 800-member businesses and ten municipal governments in the tri-county region.
Over Hill’s 35 years with the nonprofit, Charleston’s tourism profile has gone from regional to international, with 2020-21 being by far the hardest year ever for tourism in the city, which is another good lesson she’ll impart.
“It’s also important to stand up when facing hardships, which this class knows a lot about,” she says. “People are going to be talking about the Class of 2021 for years to come.”