10 Great College Commencement Speeches
Share this Article
Each spring, college students face one final hurdle, one last lecture standing between them and freedom: the commencement speech. Speakers range from the world-famous to the virtually unknown. Some require an exorbitant fee for their appearance, often in addition to an honorary degree. But most charge nothing and are happy for the opportunity to share whatever pearls of life-tempered wisdom they might have.
The majority of commencement addresses are utterly forgettable, offering familiar refrains and failing to reach beyond well-worn platitudes. But every now and then a speech excites, inspires, and sticks in the minds of graduates long after the ceremony concludes. It's usually because of the quality or stature of the speaker, the circumstances under which the speech is delivered, or the power of the message — or all of the above. Some speeches may not seem memorable in the moment but become so over time.
Choosing the "best" college commencement speeches is like choosing the best colors: It's largely subjective. Here, though, are 10 notable examples that deserve our attention, along with some honorable and special mentions.
Chadwick Boseman, Howard University, 2018
Actor Chadwick Boseman spoke at his alma mater just two years before his untimely death. He praised student protesters and encouraged graduates to find a purpose, not just a job.
Favorite quote: "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."
Abby Wambach, Barnard College, 2018
An Olympic and World Cup soccer champion, Wambach challenged graduates at this women's college not to be Little Red Riding Hood, head down and fearfully staying on the path, but to be the wolf.
Favorite quote: "Women are feared as a threat to our system — and we will also be our society's salvation. Our landscape is overrun with archaic ways of thinking about women, about people of color, about the 'other,' about the rich and the poor, about the powerful and the powerless — and these ways of thinking are destroying us. We are the ones we've been waiting for."
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wellesley College, 2015
The Nigerian-born author and MacArthur Fellowship winner spoke about gender injustice at this women's college.
Favorite quote: "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. And the world is such a gloriously multifaceted, diverse place that there are people in the world who will like you, the real you, as you are."
Shonda Rhimes, Dartmouth College, 2014
Rhimes, a television producer and showrunner, returned to her alma mater to offer thoughts on the differences between dreaming and doing.
Favorite quote: "Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It's hard work that makes things happen. It's hard work that creates change."
George Saunders, Syracuse University, 2013
In an address on "failures of kindness," the writer and Syracuse professor exhorted students to treat others with kindness while pursuing life goals.
Favorite quote: "Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) — but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness."
Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane University, 2009
While peppered with her trademark humor ("commencement," broken down, means "common cement") DeGeneres' speech had a serious message about courage and loss, referencing her decision come out on national television and the aftermath.
Favorite quote: "Really, when I look back on it, I wouldn't change a thing. I mean, it was so important for me to lose everything because I found out what the most important thing is, is to be true to yourself. Ultimately, that's what's gotten me to this place. I don't live in fear, I'm free; I have no secrets and I know I'll always be OK because no matter what, I know who I am."
Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005
Apple's co-founder was confronting his own mortality when he delivered this famous speech about making sense of life and death.
Favorite quote: "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."
David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005
The prolific author, who would take his own life three years later, delivered a speech titled "This is Water," an exploration of the true value of a liberal arts education.
Favorite quote: "The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: 'This is water.'"
Bono, University of Pennsylvania, 2004
U2's lead singer began his talk by saying, "My name is Bono, and I am a rock star." He then discussed the challenges facing Africa and reflected on each individual's potential to change the world.
Favorite quote: "Sing the melody line you hear in your own head. Remember, you don't owe anybody any explanations, you don't owe your parents any explanations, you don't owe your professors any explanations. You know, I used to think the future was solid or fixed, something you inherited like an old building that you move into when the previous generation moves out or gets chased out. But it's not. The future is not fixed. It's fluid."
John F. Kennedy, American University, 1963
Just months before his assassination, President Kennedy spoke about world peace against the backdrop of the Cold War and the burgeoning arms race.
Favorite quote: "I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children. Not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women. Not merely peace in our time but peace for all time."
- Barack Obama, Howard University, 2016
"Change is the effort of committed citizens who hitch their wagons to something bigger than themselves and fight for it every single day."
- Peter Dinklage, Bennington College, 2012
"Raise the rest of your life to meet you. Don't search for defining moments because they will never come."
- Jane Lynch, Smith College, 2012
"Don't have a plan. Plans are for wusses. If my life went according to my plan, I would never ever have the life I have today."
- Stephen Colbert, Northwestern University, 2011
"No more winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others and hopefully find those who love and serve you in return."
Various Speakers, Colleges and High Schools Nationwide, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic robbed the class of 2020 of its graduation ceremonies, along with all the festivities throughout the spring leading up to that momentous occasion. To help graduates celebrate virtually, numerous celebrities, politicians, business leaders, musicians, and sports stars offered words of congratulations and inspiration via online commencement "events."
Robert Smith, Morehouse College, 2019
Billionaire investor Robert Smith shocked the audience by announcing his intent to pay off the student loan debt of the graduating class. That gesture resulted in a $34 million donation.
George Marshall, Harvard University, 1947
Not especially memorable for its poetry, Secretary of State George Marshall's speech at Harvard introduced the European Recovery Program, a comprehensive effort to rebuild Europe after World War II. It became known as the Marshall Plan.