A commencement speech is given to graduating students, typically by a notable figure, at the ceremony marking their graduation from a school, college or university. It is usually an inspirational and uplifting address that touches on life lessons and encourages graduates to look ahead to the future. The speaker usually offers wisdom and advice, discussing courage, hard work, perseverance, and success. The speaker may also offer heartfelt encouragement to the graduates and their families.
A commencement speech is an important milestone in a student’s life. It is an opportunity to reflect on the past years spent at school and prepare for future endeavors.
In the United States, an estimated 3.2 million commencement ceremonies occur yearly, most occurring at colleges and universities. It is one of the most popular ceremonies of a student’s academic career, as it marks the end of one journey and the beginning of another.
An example of 18 influential commencement speeches held in the United States, along with their significance and impact on the students who attended are listed below:
- Steve Jobs at Stanford University (2005): Steve Jobs’ speech was important to students as it emphasized the importance of following one’s passion, embracing failure, and taking risks. His personal stories resonated with graduates, inspiring them to pursue their dreams and create a meaningful impact.
- J.K. Rowling at Harvard University (2008): J.K. Rowling’s speech held great significance for students as she shared her own experiences of failure and perseverance. Her message of embracing imagination, empathy, and the power of resilience struck a chord with graduates, encouraging them to overcome challenges and find purpose in their lives. #jkrowling
- Oprah Winfrey at Stanford University (2008): Oprah Winfrey’s speech was important to students as she emphasized the importance of finding one’s purpose and making a difference in the world. Her journey from adversity to success resonated deeply, inspiring graduates to embrace their own unique path and create positive change. #oprahwinfrey
- Barack Obama at Howard University (2016): Barack Obama’s commencement speech at Howard University was significant to students, particularly from the African American community. His address highlighted the challenges faced by minority communities and urged graduates to use their education to contribute to society and bring about social progress. #barackobama
- Sheryl Sandberg at Harvard University (2014): Sheryl Sandberg’s speech resonated with students, especially women in the audience, as she addressed issues of gender equality, leadership, and career advancement. Her message of empowerment and breaking down barriers in the workplace inspired graduates to pursue their ambitions and overcome gender biases. #sherylsandberg
- Michelle Obama at Tuskegee University (2015): Michelle Obama’s speech resonated with students, particularly those from marginalized communities, as she shared her own experiences and addressed the challenges faced by African Americans. Her message of resilience, self-worth, and embracing one’s identity offered empowerment and motivation to graduates.
- Maya Angelou at Spelman College (1982): Maya Angelou’s speech was important to students, particularly women of color, as she emphasized the power of education, self-confidence, and resilience. Her empowering words encouraged graduates to overcome adversity and make a difference in their communities.
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the University of California, Berkeley of California, Berkeley (2006): Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s speech resonated with students, particularly those interested in law and social justice. Her address focused on the importance of equality, the rule of law, and the pursuit of justice, inspiring graduates to fight for equal rights and make a difference in society.
- Madeleine Albright at Mount Holyoke College (1997): Madeleine Albright’s speech held significance for students, especially women pursuing careers in politics and diplomacy. Her address emphasized the importance of education, global engagement, and the role of women in shaping the world’s future.
- Denzel Washington at the University of Pennsylvania (2011): Denzel Washington’s speech resonated with students as he shared personal anecdotes and emphasized the significance of hard work, perseverance, and maintaining a strong work ethic. His words inspired graduates to pursue excellence and remain committed to their goals. #denzelwashington
- Toni Morrison at Barnard College (1979): Toni Morrison’s speech was important to students, particularly women, as she emphasized the power of literature, storytelling, and the role of women in shaping society. Her address encouraged graduates to use their voices and narratives to challenge societal norms and create positive change.
- Michelle Obama at The City College of New York (2016): Michelle Obama’s speech resonated with students as she addressed race, inequality, and education issues. Her address emphasized the significance of diversity, empathy, and the power of education in shaping a better future. Her words encouraged graduates to make a positive impact in their communities. #michelleobama
- Tim Cook at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2017): Tim Cook’s speech held significance for students interested in technology and business. His address focused on the importance of privacy, ethics, and the responsibilities of technology companies. His words inspired graduates to use technology as a force for good and prioritize societal well-being. #timcook
These commencement speeches had a lasting impact on the students who attended. They offered wisdom, inspiration, and guidance, encouraging graduates to pursue their passions, embrace challenges, make a positive impact, and contribute to a better world.
Having seen the commencement addresses listed above, however, my favorites were notable ones that didn’t get as much attention as those listed above but were equally important because of the wisdom imparted to the students (and families) in attendance. Here are my top 5:
- Shonda Rhimes, the acclaimed television producer, screenwriter, and creator of hit shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” delivered a powerful and memorable commencement speech at Dartmouth College in 2014. Her address captivated the audience with its authenticity, wit, and insightful messages. During her speech, Rhimes shared her personal journey and reflected on the importance of embracing fear and pursuing one’s passions. She candidly spoke about her own struggles with self-doubt and the transformative moment when she decided to say “yes” to opportunities that scared her. Rhimes emphasized the significance of stepping outside one’s comfort zone and taking risks, as those are often the moments that lead to personal growth and success. One of the most resonant themes of Rhimes’ speech was her discussion of the value of hard work. She stressed that talent alone is not enough; it is the effort, discipline, and persistence that truly make a difference. Rhimes highlighted the need to embrace the challenges and setbacks that come along the way, as they provide valuable learning experiences and contribute to the overall journey of self-discovery and achievement. #shondarhimes
- Viola Davis the renowned American actress and advocate, delivered a powerful commencement speech at Barnard College in 2019. Her address captivated the audience with its authenticity, vulnerability, and empowering messages. During her speech, Davis shared her personal journey and reflected on the challenges she faced as a woman of color in the entertainment industry. She candidly discussed the intersectionality of gender and race, shedding light on the existing systemic barriers and inequalities. Davis emphasized the importance of embracing one’s identity and using it as a source of strength and empowerment. One of the central themes of Davis’ speech was the power of embracing imperfection and vulnerability. She encouraged the graduates to shed the pressure of perfectionism and to be unapologetically authentic in their lives. Davis shared her own experiences of self-doubt and the liberating realization that true strength lies in acknowledging and embracing vulnerability. Davis also spoke passionately about advocating for equal representation and inclusion. She underscored the importance of breaking down barriers and creating spaces where all voices are heard and valued. Davis urged the graduates to use their education and privilege to pave the way for others and to fight against injustice. #violadavis
- Admiral William H. McRaven, a highly decorated retired Navy SEAL and former U.S. Special Operations Command commander delivered a memorable commencement address at the The University of Texas at Austin in 2014. His “Make Your Bed” speech resonated with the audience and has since gained widespread recognition for its profound messages of resilience, perseverance, and the power of small actions. Admiral McRaven began his address by recounting his experiences during Navy SEAL training, specifically highlighting the first task of the day—making your bed. He emphasized the importance of this seemingly mundane task as a symbol of discipline, attention to detail, and the ability to accomplish the little things in life. He stressed that even in the face of adversity, starting the day with a completed task sets the tone for productivity and a sense of achievement. Throughout his speech, Admiral McRaven shared various anecdotes and lessons he learned during his military career. He recounted stories of the SEALs’ demanding training and the importance of teamwork, highlighting the idea that no one achieves greatness alone. He urged the graduates to embrace the power of collaboration, emphasizing that their success would be tied to their ability to work together with others.
- Fred Rogers, the beloved television personality known for his iconic show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” delivered a heartwarming and inspirational commencement speech at Dartmouth College in 2002. His address captivated the audience with its warmth, kindness, and timeless messages of empathy and compassion. During his speech, Fred Rogers reflected on the importance of human connection and the power of love in positively impacting the world. He encouraged the graduates to embrace kindness and to approach every interaction with empathy and understanding. One of the central themes of Rogers’ speech was the value of taking time for reflection and self-care. He emphasized the importance of slowing down, being present in the moment, and cultivating inner peace. Rogers believed that by taking care of oneself, individuals can better care for others and contribute to a more compassionate society. Rogers also touched upon the significance of learning from mistakes and embracing vulnerability. He encouraged the graduates to accept their imperfections and to view them as opportunities for growth and learning. His message of self-acceptance and self-compassion resonated deeply with the audience, inspiring them to approach life with grace and understanding.
- Stephen Colbert, the celebrated comedian, writer, and television host, delivered a memorable commencement speech at Knox College in 2006. Known for his satirical persona on “The Colbert Report,” Colbert’s address at Knox College showcased his wit, humor, and thought-provoking insights. During his speech, Colbert entertained the audience with his trademark comedic style while imparting wisdom. He seamlessly blended humor with deeper reflections on life, purpose, and embracing the unknown. Colbert encouraged the graduates to embrace uncertainty and take risks, reminding them that the path to success is rarely straight and predictable. One of the central themes of Colbert’s address was the importance of finding one’s passion and pursuing it wholeheartedly. He encouraged the graduates to follow their dreams, even if it meant encountering setbacks or challenges. #stephencolbert
- Need some inspiration or want to hear some positive messages of hope? One of the best places to catch a great commencement address is on C-SPAN. You can see some of the speeches that have taken place here.
And for all of my favorite commencement speeches and TED talks, you can find them (and links to several of the speeches listed above on my blog at letsjustthink.com/inspire
Life is short, we have work to do – let’s get to it!
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