As we approach graduation season, celebrities and public figures are invited to share their parting wisdom with college graduates. From imparting themes of diversity to learning how to approach post-grad life, commencement speakers are welcomed into schools as a gift to graduates intended to encourage, enlighten, and empower them. Here are five of the best celebrity commencement speeches.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama delivered her last commencement speech as First Lady in 2016 at City College of New York (CCNY.) In her speech, she addresses equality, immigration, and culture and how they all belong in America.
Obama references past attendees of CCNY, including Ira Gershwin, a lyricist and the son of two Russian-Jewish immigrants, Andrew Grove, a Hungarian immigrant who escaped Nazism and became the CEO of Intel, Jonas Salk, the son of Polish immigrants who discovered a vaccine for polio, and Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants who became Secretary of State and a four-star general.
Citing four exceptional current students with backgrounds in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Albania, Obama proclaims the differences we all share is what makes us become smarter and more creative. She goes on to say that the infusions of new cultures and ideas have “created the matchless alchemy of our melting pot and helped us build the strongest, most vibrant, most prosperous nation on the planet.”
In having this discourse around diversity, Obama also acknowledges the other sides of things – individuals who see diversity as a threat, as something to fear, and as something to challenge. She shares her experiences in traveling the world and seeing what inequality does to nations and protests the indignities she’s seen firsthand.
Obama goes further, calling on the graduates to use their educational wealth to uplift and help others who aren’t granted the same schooling. Obama ends her speech by lifting the 2016 graduates of CCNY up, saying:
“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.”
Talk show host, actress, producer, author, and inspiration to many, Oprah Winfrey delivered the 2013 Harvard University commencement speech. Winfrey largely focused on what she refers to as an internal GPS, saying a moral and emotional one is the “key to life.”
Winfrey also discusses the fear of failure and how everyone experiences it, even though she says there’s no real such thing as failure. Our sense of failure to her is “life trying to move us in another direction.” In the same vein, she expresses that no matter how deeply you’ve succeeded, everyone will stumble because they are constantly pushing and raising the bar. Relating these ideas back to the internal GPS, Winfrey says the key to “failure,” and mistakes is to learn from them because they are there to teach you.
Winfrey calls on the students to not only work to better their own lives but to better their neighbors’ lives and the life of the country. She addresses the students’ entire generation, saying, “Your generation is charged with this task of breaking through what the body politic has thus far made impervious to change.”
In the last few moments of her speech, Oprah proudly asserts that the students will find success and happiness if they have one true goal: “To fulfill the highest, most truthful expression of yourself as a human being.”
Her final remarks return once again to the internal GPS, as she discloses that although everyone has doubts and questions, if you listen to yourself, you will be okay; if you listen to that internal GPS, “You will be happy, you will be successful, and you will make a difference in the world.”
Record-breaking playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda delivered the 2016 University of Pennsylvania commencement speech, discussing his own battles as well as the ones the graduates will have to overcome.
After Miranda apologizes for leaving the city of Philadelphia out of the renowned musical he wrote, Hamilton, he tells two personal stories from his twenties that he’s never publicly shared. One involves Miranda breaking up with his long-term, long-distance girlfriend and the self-growth that came with it, and the other about rejecting an offer from a producer who wanted to change a character’s story in Miranda’s musical, In The Heights.
Miranda’s stories detail life experiences in which things were uncertain and thrilling at the same time. He tells the graduates this and cites all of the things life brings as you venture out into the real world.
Miranda says, “The stories you are about to live are the ones you will be telling your children and grandchildren and therapists. They are the temp gigs and internships before you find your passion. They are the cities you live in before the opportunity of a lifetime pops up halfway across the world.”
Everyone’s story is essential, Miranda believes — even the sad and ambiguous ones. As Miranda makes this claim, he adds:
“In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system. A story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again, immigrants get the job done.”
Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison used her time as the 2004 Wellesley College commencement speaker to share her unique take on giving advice, which seems an almost pessimistic view of the future.
Morrison tells the graduates that the future is not theirs for the taking and is not what you make of it. The future is instead “what other people make of it, how other people will participate in it and impinge on your experience of it.”
Aware of the starkness of the truth she speaks, Morrison says she wants to speak on the responsibilities that lie on the graduates. It is the graduates’ responsibility to improve and maybe even rescue a world that Morrison sees as hurt, as a world that’s already been “beaten and scoured and gasping for breath.”
Morrison acknowledges the heaviness of the responsibility she’s put on the graduates, saying we should all take care of the world. That we should all love it, and refrain from hurting it any further, something we all have the capacity to do.
Despite the speech being viewed as potentially pessimistic, Morrison ends her speech on a positive note. Morrison says, “So, from my point of view, which is that of a storyteller, I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art.”
Best known for the Marvel movie “The Black Panther,” Chadwick Boseman used empowering and affirmative language in his 2018 Howard University commencement speech.
After sharing some of his experiences as a student of Howard University, Boseman acknowledges the various struggles students experience: some of which are academic, others traumatic, some financial, some social, and some physical. Addressing the physical hill on campus, as well as the metaphorical one, Boseman says, “Throughout ancient times, institutions of learning have been built on top of hills to convey that great struggle is required to achieve degrees of enlightenment. Each of you had your own unique difficulties with the hill.”
Boseman recognizes that after experiencing strife or challenges, one may feel disoriented or dizzy, but when things start to settle, “your mind opens up to the tranquility of triumph.” He urges the graduates to cherish the moment even though big decisions are coming their way.
Addressing the adversity students have faced, Boseman takes a moment to speak to the impressiveness of the students taking over Howard’s “A Building” and making demands to better their education and time at the school. Boseman recounts engaging in a similar type of protest when he attended Howard but acknowledges that his class wasn’t as successful as that of 2018.
Boseman closes his speech by addressing the idea of purpose, saying, “As you commence to your paths, press on with pride and press on with purpose.”