The 25 Best Commencement Speeches of All Time
Let’s face it. Sometimes, it takes a swift kick in the pants before you realize your full potential. Fortunately, higher education has taken notice of this reality. Each year, famous authors, politicians, business giants, actors and actresses, scientists, philanthropists, and Nobel Prize winners take the stage on graduation day. Their mission: motivate a generation of educated young people to champion progress and lift the world on its shoulders.
We’ve gathered the best, most influential commencement speeches for your consideration. Follow these trails of breadcrumbs, and rekindle the sort of hope that can take you to the greatest of heights.
25. Stephen Colbert – Northwestern University, 2011
Bringing the “Colbert Bump” to academia, Colbert shocked and charmed the Wildcats for a solid twenty minutes on, what he called, “the 25th anniversary of [his] graduating class” from which he “did not actually graduate”. Forever irreverent, Colbert urged his audience to recognize its own achievements. During an economic downturn, in a town which, Colbert claimed, is “riddled with brothels”, he suggested to students that “running a brothel might be the most reliable work out there.”
24. Joan Didion – University of California-Riverside, 1975
Her prose has bridged generational gaps, while her image has enjoyed a curious resurgence in recent years, as evidenced in leather jackets bearing her cartoon likeness. Way back in the seventies, when many hippies, beatniks, and flower children had ditched mainstream culture, Didion implored students to find their own paths. “I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it,” she said.
23. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Wellesley College, 2015
Success comes in many forms, and finding love is an important one. “Please love by giving and by taking. Give and be given,” Adichie told the Wellesley College class of 2015. However, she echoed the feminist values that have carried her to stardom. For example, she said, “Write television shows in which female strength is not depicted as remarkable but merely normal.”
22. Brian Williams – The George Washington University, 2012
Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of the GWU class of 2012, and I’m extremely biased in this choice for No. 22. Regardless, Williams’ speech on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was captivating. He noted mankind’s greatest achievements during his lifetime, such as the moon landing, and recounted his battle with “Potomac Fever”. Williams described his academic record as “a dark cloud”, while celebrating this momentous occasion in the lives of his audience. (Watch the video: if you squint, you might see me in the eighth row to Williams’ right.)
21. Billy Joel – Berklee College of Music, 1993
A musical icon in his own right, Joel asked the audience to accept their identities as musicians. “It is something you are, like tall or short or straight or gay. There is no choice, either you is or you ain’t,” he said. Joel also remarked on the plight of some musicians in establishing this identity. “We hear the same question: So when are you going to get a real job?” he said, “Beethoven heard it. John Lennon heard it. Milli Vanilli heard it. Bob Marley heard it. Janis Joplin heard it.”
20. Theodor ‘Dr. Seuss’ Geisel – Lake Forest College, 1977
To the dismay of his fans, while speaking to Lake Forest College graduates in 1977,
Theodor ‘Dr. Seuss’ Geisel did not make all of his sentences rhyme. He was, however, kind enough to craft a poem to encourage them in their future endeavors. The piece, called “Popovers”, Geisel ended by writing, “Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.”
19. Patricia McGowan Wald – Connecticut College, 1981
Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the White House called her, “one of the most respected appellate judges of her generation.” In her speech to her alma mater, Wald admitted that the soon-to-be graduates would be facing a difficult road, on which they would be forced to rethink national and personal goals. “I would be kidding if I told you I entirely envy you those years ahead. I don’t. They look like ‘hard times’ to me,” Wald said.
18. Gloria Steinem – Tufts University, 1987
Known for her strong will and advocacy of women’s rights, Steinem embodied the ideal of leadership. She was not, however, known for her patience; she sought to change society in the here-and-now. In that vein, she voiced the need for urgency as the 1987 class embarked on its quest for independence. “Whatever you want to do, do it now,” she said, “For life is time, and time is all there is.”
17. Sacha Baron Cohen – Harvard, 2004
Reportedly, the teleprompter read, “U iz clever and quite fly, if u don’t mind me sayin,” while Cohen acted out his shtick as Ali G. for his commencement speech in 2004. It might surprise some that a character known for his arrogance and ignorance would be chosen to speak at the most prestigious college in the United States. But Cohen delivered his message with flair, stating, “It is important never to forget where u all came from – becoz black, white, brown or pakistani we all comes from de same place.”
16. Ellen DeGeneres – Tulane, 2009
Her wacky antics on daytime television have lifted her to stardom. The 2009 graduates of Tulane University were treated to her wry wit and exuberance, as exhibited by her comment, “For many of you, today, success is being able to hold down 20 shots of tequila.” DeGeneres went on to deliver a heartfelt message to the 2009 class, stating, “Follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, and by all means you should follow that.”
15. Franklin D. Roosevelt – Oglethorpe University, 1932
He spent more time engaging in “fireside chats” than in commencement speeches. Nevertheless, Franklin D. Roosevelt took his rite of passage by speaking to the graduating class of 1932. “As you have viewed this world of which you are about to become a more active part, I have no doubt that you have been impressed by its chaos…” he said.
14. Condoleezza Rice – William and Mary, 2015
“Condi” Rice was the subject of extreme scrutiny during her time as the first female African-American Secretary of State. Years after residing at the forefront of foreign affairs during an unpopular war in Iraq, Rice shared her advice with the next generation of leaders. She “owned” the aspects of her identity that could have prevented her from finding success, stating, “Don’t let anyone define your passion for you because of your gender or the color of your skin.”
13. Terry Gross – Bryn Mawr College, 2014
It’s hard to believe Terry Gross doesn’t run out of things to say. As the voice of “Fresh Air” on National Public Radio, Gross has the ability to speak directly to millions of people on a daily basis. In 2014, she took a break from her duties as the voice of your work commute to deliver a more intimate address in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
12. Naomi Wolf, Scripps College, 1992
“Become goddesses of disobedience,” Wolf said. She made it clear during her speech and her career as a writer and activist that no woman should fear going against the grain. It’s not speaking your mind, Wolf suggested, that gets you into trouble, it’s being silent. “Only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking,” she said.
11. John F. Kennedy – American University, 1963
Arguably the greatest political orator of his generation, JFK didn’t limit his skills to his inaugural address or an audience of Berliners. American University students received a message of optimism typical of the 35th president. “So let us persevere,” Kennedy said, “Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable.”
10. Meryl Streep – Vassar College, 1983
A woman who has led a long and consistently successful career in show business, Streep can enthrall almost any audience. Of course, college graduates deserved to witness a classic performance. In 1983, Streep spoke at the graduation ceremony of her alma mater, and, in addition to brains, she advocated for spirit. “Conscience, that consciousness of quality, and the need to demand it can galvanize your energies, not just in your work, but in a rigorous exercise of mind and heart in every aspect of your life,” she said.
9. Cornel West – Wesleyan University, 1993
Never one to fear controversy, Cornel West brought his commanding voice to Wesleyan students for the 1993 commencement. A proponent of racial equality, he urged the students to cross cultural divides and to learn from the mistakes of their forebears. “My advice, my humble advice, to the Class of 1993 is to expand public conversation in this democracy by first having a deep and abiding sense of history,” West said.
8. Margaret Atwood – University of Toronto, 1983
Prior to her commencement speech in 1983, Atwood was already known as an iconoclast. She pushed the envelope of free speech and literature while touring alternate realties in her science fiction. In speaking to the crowd in Toronto, Atwood lectured on the double-edged swords of environmentalism, technology, and democracy. “What you are being ejected into today is a world that is both half empty and half full,” she famously said.
7. Ralph Waldo Emerson – Harvard University, 1838
“In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life.” A transcendentalist author and poet, Emerson knew how to imbue language with meaning and a sense of grandeur. Thus, he was perfectly suited to be a commencement speaker. At the oldest college in the United States, Emerson prepped America’s elite to lead a blossoming nation. The Crimson students were feted to a flourish of wisdom on coming of age. “Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn,” Emerson said.
6. Steve Jobs – Stanford University, 2005
“Truth be told, I never graduated from college,” Jobs said. Skipping a college degree didn’t exactly hold him back, as Jobs lived one of the most influential lives of the last fifty years. He turned the tech world upside-down with his disruptive advertising and innovative business practices. “Stay hungry. Stay foolish,” he said to the crowd at Stanford, “As you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.”
5. Michelle Obama – University of California-Merced, 2009
Always one to speak for the little guy, the First Lady of the United States acknowledged a pressing question: “Why did I choose the University of California-Merced to deliver my first commencement speech as First Lady?”. “You inspired me,” Obama said to the UC-Merced graduates. Coming to power in large part with the help of young Americans, Obama gave back to them with her stirring speech.
4. Toni Morrison – Wellesley College, 2004
Novelist, editor, professor—Morrison is an intellectual powerhouse, who came of age when women’s ideas were often neglected or ignored. “Over 500 elegantly educated women,” as Morrison described them, received a lesson on navigating youth in the 21st century. “You don’t have complete control over the narrative,” the Nobel-prize-winning author admitted to her audience, but they “could nevertheless create it.”
3. Neil Gaiman – University of the Arts, 2012
As someone whose livelihood depends on creativity, I can attest how important it is to “Make Good Art.” However, it’s a message that applies to anyone who strives to do his best work, even at the depths of despair. As a creator of comics, children’s stories, science fiction, and fantasy, Gaiman has taken his fans to places that exist only in his dreams. With his 2012 commencement speech, Gaiman focused his audience’s attention on the real world, and beyond.
2. J.K. Rowling – Harvard University, 2005
“I’m at the world’s largest Gryffindor Reunion,” Rowling pronounced. A financial success—her estimated worth is $1.2 billion (http://fortune.com/2016/11/24/jk-rowling-net-worth-harry-potter)—and an underdog—Rowling wrote the first draft of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a jobless single mother—Who better is there to capture the imagination of a group of young people than the most influential children’s author of the last 20 years?
“Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at wall,” Rowling said.
1. David Foster Wallace – Kenyon College, 2005
“This Is Water,” Wallace’s transformative speech, exemplifies what a commencement speech is all about: addressing fear, offering reassurance, and sparking inspiration. The speech went viral, and it has become a mantra for millenials who find themselves racked with self-doubt and in need of encouragement. Tragically, Wallace couldn’t escape his own depression, and a few years after delivering the speech, he took his own life. He lives on in his books, stories, and essays, and in his iconic message to the 2005 graduating class.