Gowns and tassels and clusters of broadly grinning family, clogging the arteries of your favorite restaurant’s waiting area. It can only mean one thing: graduation season is upon us! Ah, the electric optimism that bounds toward us, unbridled, at this time of year. Whether this is your year, your year is yet to come, or the days of tossing flattop caps in the air have long been put behind you, the feelings of pride, hope, and accomplishment that commencements evoke are infectious.

If you’re in that latter group and you know anyone graduating this year, now is the time to pull her aside and lend her the benefit of your experience. As you might recall, embarking on the unknown is an act of great vulnerability. For many graduates, any advice at al l would be welcomed and cherished.

Do you remember any of the advice you were given, upon exiting high school or college? Has it proven invaluable over the years? Have you passed it on to others? What has your post-graduation life taught you that might be beneficial for an inexperienced young person to know? While you’re thinking about that and (hopefully) leaving a reminiscent comment, here are a few commencement addresses I’ve come to enjoy. Feel free to post your own–or to recall your own commencement. Who spoke? Did their words strike a chord?

1. Denzel Washington, 2011 UPenn

This one takes awhile to get going, but it’s worthwhile for its honesty, its humor, and its vulnerability. Denzel uses his nervousness to support his points: you will fail, possibly often–but that doesn’t mean you should “have something to fall back on.” Instead, he asserts, you should fall forward. Know what you’re heading toward. Forward motion is particularly meaningful right now; it’s a concept around which Obama is basing his reelection campaign. And it’s something we can all stand to focus on, not a back-up plan, but an embrace of unabashed risk.

2. Oprah Winfrey, 2008 Stanford University

This would be a sweet and poi gnant speech for any number of reasons, but one of the coolest is that it was given the year Gayle King’s daughter, Kirby Bumpus, was a member of the graduating class. It opens with a lot of lighthearted ribbing, since Kirby had banned Oprah from campus for the entire course of her college career. For Oprah this speech is a bit of payback. She uses the familiar “three lessons” approach and, like Denzel, she draws heavily on personal experience to discuss failure and finding happiness.

3. Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford University

Since Jobs’ passing last year, this speech has become the stuff of legend. But it’s always been amazing, for its stories about Jobs’ adoption as an infant, his meteoric rise after dropping out of college, and his earlier brush with the pancreatic cancer that would eventually take his life. For one reason or another, I find a way to show this to my students every year.

4. Ellen DeGeneres, 2009 Tulane University

5. Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, 2011 Northern Michigan University

I could listen to Dr. Cole ‘s voice every day. It’s lilting and lyrical and wise. And I’m in love with her commitment to commentary on her work as director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and how it reaffirms the notion that we are all equal members of one human race. Her speech, on bigotry and discrimination, can be considered revolutionary at an institution with a 91.1 percent white student body. “Bigotry,” she reminds them, “is not carried on the chromosomes. It. is. leeeearned.” She’s awesome. Full stop.

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7 Comments

  1. michaboa

    David Foster Wallace’s ‘ This is Water’ is also a great commencement speech. Conan O’Brien’s Dartmouth speech was also very good.

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    • +1 on Conan’s Speech. I also watched bits of Tom Hanks speech to Yale U. (dont recall the year)

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    • Dalili

      David Foster Wallace’s speech is by far my favorite commencement speech.

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  2. I. am so frickin’ jealous. Of the fact that Obama is speaking RIGHT now at my alma mater, Barnard College of Columbia University, for the 2012 Commencement.

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  3. Trish

    President Obama’s speech at the University of Michigan in 2010 was the best graduation speech of all time. Google it! Prepare to be inspired.

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  4. Good post. I did not know about Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole’s speech.
    I like to be surprised and listen to speeches by people I’ve not heard of before. This quote for example is from Jerry Zucker’s speech at Univ of Madison:
    “It doesn’t matter that your dream came true if you spent your whole life sleeping.”

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  5. Arrogant Michigan Alum.

    How do you use “Hail to the Conquering” term and not refer to a Michigan commencement address? Lol.. No but seriously.

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