Commencement Speeches: Words of Wisdom for the Graduating Class

As a new wave of graduates steps boldly into the future, we look toward the podium to the famous figures who have delivered memorable commencement speeches.
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Oprah Winfrey Agnes Scott College in 2017

Oprah Winfrey received an honorary degree and delivered the commencement speech at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia on May 13, 2017.

Two years before the official birth of our nationhood, Dr. Barnabas Binney, a surgeon in the Revolutionary War, addressed Rhode Island College’s (now Brown University) graduating class of 1774 with this advice: 

“America, hitherto the infant state of glorious freedom, on which surrounding nations, while still enslaved, gaze with envy and wonder…but does the enjoyment and security of her religious rights less merit her attention than her civil?”

Nearly 250 years, later, these messages still ring true. Freedom, civility, and love of our nation are common messages across hundreds of years of commencement speeches. Indeed, NPR’s list of The Best Commencement Speeches Ever is organized by themes that include: remember history, fight for equality, change the world, be kind, and work hard. 

Commencement is not only a time to connect with our nation’s past, it is also a time to revel in our current accomplishments. Young people and their families gather with their fellow classmates, mentors, and teachers to celebrate their achievements and mark a transition into new chapters in their lives. Their excitement is often boosted by additional festivities—including fireworks—with messages reminding them not to give up, seek balance in their lives while still making time to play and dream.

Advice From Our Leaders

One of the most widely quoted commencement addresses was delivered by Steve Jobs, CEO and co-founder of Apple, on June 12, 2005. He told the graduating class of Stanford University:

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” 

It was emotional, inspiring, and simple. In just 15 minutes, Steve Jobs reminded us to seek opportunities in life and live to the fullest. To do what we love, never settle, and never give up because life is too short:

“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.”  

Maya Angelou, author, poet, and activist, also offered timeless advice to the graduating class of Wellesley College in 1982 in perhaps one of her most inspirational speeches:

"You must encounter, confront life. Life loves the liver of it, ladies. It is for you to increase your virtues. There is that in the human spirit which will not be gunned down even by death ... Therein lies our chance toward nobleness — not nobility — but nobleness, the best of a human being is in that ability to overcome." 

She goes on to remind these graduates, “You are phenomenal. I believe that women are phenomenal. I know us to be."

A Presidential Affair

From academics, to activists, CEOs, movie stars, and to sitting presidents, hundreds of thousands of people come to commencements seeking advice and guidance from the best and brightest minds in our nation. Indeed, former President Barack Obama gave 24 commencement speeches during his presidency—just one more than former President George H.W. Bush who delivered 23 addresses in his four-year term. According to the American Presidency Project’s archive which has organized all of the Presidential commencement records since 1945, presidents have spoken at over 150 graduations of public and private universities across the United States.  

President Donald Trump delivered his very first commencement speech at the largest Christian university in the world, Liberty University, on May 13, 2017. 

Commencement Speeches Then and Now

Since Harvard University conferred its first degrees on September 23, 1642, commencements at American colleges have been a ceremonial occasion. Indeed, perhaps the first person to give an American university commencement address, Henry Dunster, the first President of Harvard, delivered his speech in Latin and provided the nine graduating scholars with a hand-penned “Booke of Arts” to commemorate their accomplishments.

Will Ferrell at 2017 University of Southern California Commencement

Will Ferrell delivers the commencement speech during the University Of Southern California on May 12, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.

Today and in the months to come, thousands of graduating students will flock to stadiums, arenas, gymnasiums, and convention centers to hear words of wisdom. In 2017, the most widely anticipated commencement speeches come from Hollywood stars, including Will Ferrell (University of Southern California on May 12) and Oprah Winfrey (Skidmore College on May 20), CEOs, including Facebook founder (and Harvard dropout) Mark Zuckerberg (Harvard University on May 25) and Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz (Arizona State University on May 8), politicians, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Wellesley College on May 26) and Senator Bernie Sanders (Brooklyn College on May 30) and even his holiness himself, the Dalai Lama (University of California, San Diego on June 17). As we usher a new wave of graduates into the future, we celebrate past victories and look forward toward new exciting opportunities through words of advice, encouragement and levity at commencement speeches across the globe.