The annual blitz of commencement speeches is upon us. Steel yourself for pithy aphorisms, sage advice, and a dose of imposter syndrome from some of the greatest (or most famous) minds available to the US college system.
Graduation speeches, delivered to classes either by a student or an invited guest, are not a uniquely American tradition. But nowhere has the practice lodged itself in popular culture quite like the US. Every year the oratorial arms race escalates, with universities one-upping each other, often announcing bookings many months in advance. If a speaker can touch on the zeitgeist, even better. Arguably the most famous doctor in the world right now, Dr. Anthony Fauci, will deliver speeches at no less than four colleges this month alone.
With some speeches delivered to new graduates in person and others virtually, this year, like the one before, will be a little different than usual. Either way, who is invited can be as important as what they say, with the caliber of the speaker often viewed as a reflection on the universities themselves.
“Students expect somebody who is reasonably famous and who will inspire them in some way,” says Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, a publication that covers commencement season each year. “It’s been that way for a long time … (celebrity speeches) cost money, but a lot of students feel it’s their commencement – they’ve earned it.”
“Some people really make an industry out of it and give five or six speeches a year,” he adds.
When you boil it all down, most speeches follow a tried and tested formula. A satirical guide published in the New York Times in 1970 shows how little things have changed (key beats to hit include an opening joke, thanking the parents, and obligatory references to Socrates, crossroads and life’s inevitable disappointments).
“Most students don’t want a speaker who goes on for too long,” says Jaschik. “(As speaker) you want to make a point (and) move on.”
But make no mistake, students want a speaker, he adds, with universities “under a lot of pressure from students to have an in-person commencement,” despite the pandemic.
After all, some speeches can be lifechanging. In 2019, Morehouse College commencer and billionaire investor Robert Smith pledged to pay off the student loan debt of his audience of over 400 graduates, donating $34 million to the historically Black college in Atlanta, Georgia.
Even if you don’t stand to financially gain from a commencement speech, many are still worth absorbing. As this year’s speeches get underway, CNN highlights some of the most memorable from years past.
Chadwick Boseman, Howard University, 2018
When actor and humanitarian Chadwick Boseman tragically passed away last year at the age of 43 due to colon cancer, he was commemorated by friends and family as a global icon and inspiring symbol of Black power. In his 2018 commencement speech to graduates he demonstrated his wisdom and grace by emphasizing the importance of finding a purpose, and being able to speak up and support others as well as yourself.
“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.”
“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.”
Gloria Steinem, Tufts University, 1987
Steinem’s paternal grandmother was chairwoman of the educational committee of the National Woman Suffrage Association and a delegate to the 1908 International Council of Women, and her granddaughter went on to become one of the vanguards of feminism. In 1987 Steinem gave a candid and impassioned speech offering powerful pieces of wisdom she wished she’d known when graduating from college.
“If you have to choose character or intelligence – in a friend or in a candidate – choose character. Intelligence without character is dangerous, but character without intelligence only slows down a good result.”
“Whatever you want to do, do it now. For life is time, and time is all there is.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wellesley College, 2015
Accomplished author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been recognized for her erudite and provocative writing throughout her career. Her 2015 commencement speech was no less rousing, as she encouraged graduates to live truthfully and not to be afraid of existing in their fullest capacity.
“That degree, and the experience of being here, is a privilege. Don’t let it blind you too often. Sometimes you will need to push it aside in order to see clearly.”
“Do not twist yourself into shapes to please. Don’t do it. If someone likes that version of you, that version of you that is false and holds back, then they actually just like that twisted shape, and not you.”
Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005
Remembered as the cofounder of Apple and a charismatic trailblazer of the tech industry, Steve Jobs is synonymous with the digital revolution of the 80s. Jobs told graduates during his 2005 commencement speech that the key to success is finding what you love, and loving 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.”
Barack Obama, Howard University, 2016
He will be remembered throughout history for becoming the first Black president of the US, but Barack Obama is also widely recognized as one of the best speechmakers in politics. When he made the commencement address to Howard University toward the end of his two-term presidency, he emphasized the importance of delivering change through action.
“Change is the effort of committed citizens who hitch their wagons to something bigger than themselves and fight for it every single day.”
“Change requires more than just speaking out – it requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.”