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Articles / Campus Life / 10 Great Commencement Speeches

10 Great Commencement Speeches

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Written by Sam Jaquez | May 20, 2022
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Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

Graduation season has arrived, and with it an influx of commencement speeches. Over the years, many accomplished authors, artists, inventors, and other great professionals have delivered famous graduation commencement speeches at universities around the country. While graduation speeches may be notorious for their length and sometimes their monotony, inspiring speeches are often given as well. Great speeches are those that garner attention and leave a lasting impression. From Bill Gates to Oprah and Taylor Swift – here are ten great commencement speeches that inspire, encourage, and uplift.

Mary Schmich: hypothetical commencement speech, 1997

In 1997, columnist and 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Schmich published an essay in the Chicago Tribune that acted as a hypothetical commencement speech – a list of advice for living a happy life. The speech was later adapted into a spoken-word remix and music video by Baz Luhrmann and addressed to the Class of ’99.

"Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth. But trust me on the sunscreen."

Toni Morrison: Wellesley College, 2004

Toni Morrison was a novelist, essayist, children’s writer, and professor. Her most notable works include her first novel, The Bluest Eye; and Song of Solomon. In 1993, Morrison became the first Black woman to receive a Noble Prize for Literature.

“Of course, you’re general, but you’re also specific. A citizen and a person, and the person you are is like nobody else on the planet. Nobody has the exact memory that you have. What is now known is not all what you are capable of knowing. You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative (no author does, I can tell you), you could nevertheless create it.”

David Foster Wallace: Kenyon College, 2005

David Foster Wallace was a novelist and author of short stories and essays. He is most notably known for his novel Infinite Jest which was released in 1996. In 2005 Wallace provided the commencement address at Kenyon College and the speech is ranked by Time magazine as one of the top 10 commencement speeches of all time.

"If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down."

Steve Jobs: Stanford University, 2005

Steve Jobs was an entrepreneur, inventor, designer, and the co-founder of Apple Inc. In his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, Jobs encouraged the graduates to find meaning in their lives by pursuing personal interests. The best way to live your life, he encouraged, is to “love what you do.”

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose ... There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Bill Gates: Harvard University, 2007

Bill Gates is an entrepreneur, software developer, philanthropist, and the co-founder of Microsoft. A former Harvard student, Gates expressed extreme gratitude for the opportunity to receive an honorary doctorate 32 years after dropping out to start Microsoft stating, “Dad, I always told you I’d come back and get my degree.”

“In line with the promise of this age, I want to exhort each of the graduates here to take on an issue, a complex problem, a deep inequity and become a specialist on it. If you make it the focus of your career that would be phenomenal. But you don’t have to do that to make an impact. For a few hours every week you can use the growing power of the internet to get informed, find others with the same interests, see the barriers and find ways to cut through them. Don’t let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on big inequities.”

Neil Gaiman: University of the Arts, 2012

Neil Gaiman is English author of fiction, short stories, comics, films, and more. In 2012, Gaiman provided the commencement speech at the University of the Arts. In the speech, which has since been published into a book titled Make Good Art, Gaiman encourages artists to break rules, make mistakes, and to make good art.

“Remember whatever discipline you’re in, whether you’re a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a singer, a designer, whatever you do, you have one thing that’s unique. You have the ability to make art. And for me and for so many of the people I’ve known that’s been a lifesaver, the ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones. Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong.

I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you make mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art. I’m serious.”

Oprah Winfrey: Harvard University, 2013

Oprah Winfrey has achieved great success as a tv host, producer, author, actor and media executive. But in her 2013 commencement speech at Harvard, Winfrey spoke about failure. She shared personal experiences about the highs and lows of success, imparting advice on perseverance and the importance of pushing through failure.

“It doesn't matter how far you might rise. At some point you are bound to stumble because if you're constantly doing what we do, raising the bar. If you're constantly pushing yourself higher, higher the law of averages not to mention the Myth of Icarus predicts that you will at some point fall. And when you do I want you to know this, remember this: there is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

Michelle Obama: The City College of New York, 2016

Michelle Obama, attorney, author, and former first lady of the United States, gave the 2016 commencement speech at The City College of New York. In her last commencement speech as first lady, Mrs. Obama highlighted the importance of community, family, legacy, and perseverance.

“And, graduates, it’s the story that I witness every single day when I wake up in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters –- two beautiful, black young women -– head off to school -- (applause) -- waving goodbye to their father, the President of the United States, the son of a man from Kenya who came here to American -- to America for the same reasons as many of you: To get an education and improve his prospects in life.

So, graduates, while I think it’s fair to say that our Founding Fathers never could have imagined this day, all of you are very much the fruits of their vision. Their legacy is very much your legacy and your inheritance. And don’t let anybody tell you differently. You are the living, breathing proof that the American Dream endures in our time. It’s you.

So I want you all to go out there. Be great. Build great lives for yourselves. Enjoy the liberties that you have in this great country. Pursue your own version of happiness. And please, please, always, always do your part to help others do the same.”

Chadwick Boseman: Howard University, 2018

Chadwick Boseman was an actor and playwright most commonly known for his role as T’Challa in the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies including Black Panther (2018). A graduate of Howard University, Boseman returned to the university to give the 2018 commencement speech in which he emphasized the importance of challenging the system, breaking boundaries, and finding your purpose.

“Graduating class, hear me well on this day. This day, when you have reached the hill top and you are deciding on next jobs, next steps, careers, further education, you would rather find purpose than a job or career. Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose. When I dared to challenge the system that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes or talents, when I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me, the path to my destiny.”

Taylor Swift: New York University, 2022

Taylor Swift is a singer, songwriter, and recorder producer known for her chart-topping musical hits. Swift has won 11 Grammy Awards, an Emmy Award, and more for her musical achievements over the years. She was awarded an honorary fine arts doctorate by NYU in May of 2022.

“Now you leave the structure and framework of school and chart your own path. Every choice you make leads to the next choice which leads to the next, and I know it’s hard to know sometimes which path to take. There will be times in life when you need to stand up for yourself. Times when the right thing is to back down and apologize. Times when the right thing is to fight, times when the right thing is to turn and run. Times to hold on with all you have and times to let go with grace. Sometimes the right thing to do is to throw out the old schools of thought in the name of progress and reform. Sometimes the right thing to do is to listen to the wisdom of those who have come before us. How will you know what the right choice is in these crucial moments? You won’t.

How do I give advice to this many people about their life choices? I won’t.

Scary news is: You’re on your own now.

Cool news is: You’re on your own now.”

Written by

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Sam Jaquez

Sam is a freelance writer, a blogger, and a bookmark collector. She studied at the University of Massachusetts Boston where she earned a degree in English. Sam has written articles about productivity, college, film & tv, and science.

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