The Most Notable Commencement Speeches of 2023

World leaders and Hollywood stars headline this year's crop of commencement speakers addressing graduates across America's campuses.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Updated on October 4, 2023
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Each year, BestColleges features a roundup of the most noteworthy university commencement speeches. This year's roster of speakers includes entertainers, politicians, business leaders, social activists, and other prominent A-listers.

Here's a sampling of inspiring speakers and their words of wisdom for the class of 2023.

Note: This list will be updated throughout the commencement season.

Oprah Winfrey, Tennessee State University

The media giant and philanthropist returned to her alma mater to encourage graduates while reminding them that "there is more than enough wrong to keep you busy trying to make things right for the rest of your natural life."

Favorite Quote: "When you tap into what it's trying to tell you, when you can get yourself quiet enough to listen, I mean, really listen, you can begin to distill the still, small voice, which is always representing the truth of you from the noise of the world. And you can start to recognize when it comes your way. You can learn to make distinctions, to connect, to dig a little deeper. You'll be able to find your own voice within the still, small voice."

Tom Hanks, Harvard University

Presented with a Harvard-emblazoned volleyball, the Oscar-winning actor and filmmaker invoked superheroes, telling graduates to fight for justice in the face of "agents of intolerance and braying incompetence."

Favorite Quote: "For every graduating class, there is a choice to be made. It's the same option for all grown-ups who have to decide to be one of three types of Americans: those who embrace liberty and freedom for all, those who won't, or those who are indifferent. Only the first do the work of creating a more perfect union. A nation indivisible. The others get in the way."

President Joe Biden, Howard University

The president spoke at the famous HBCU, the alma mater of his vice president, Kamala Harris. He addressed the threats of white supremacy, political extremism, and the power of democracy. Some students used the occasion to make statements about the treatment of Black Americans.

Favorite Quote: "The soul of America is what makes us unique among all nations. We're the only country founded on an idea — not geography, not religion, not ethnicity, but an idea. The sacred proposition, rooted in Scripture and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that we're all created equal in the image of God and deserve to be treated equally throughout our lives. While we've never fully lived up to that promise, we never before fully walked away from it."

Juan Manuel Santos, University of Notre Dame

The former Colombian president and Nobel Peace Prize winner spoke about the threat of nuclear war, artificial intelligence, environmental risks, and, of course, Fighting Irish football.

Favorite Quote: "When progress is based on exclusion, it is fragile and will ultimately disappear. However, when progress is based on inclusion, when we understand that everyone's life is as valuable as our own, then that progress is lasting and real."

Sterling K. Brown, Washington University in St. Louis

The actor and St. Louis native exhorted graduates to let their internal voices chart their paths and not follow the "external voices of expectancy."

Favorite Quote: "For me, the goal of higher education is the same overriding goal I have for my life. And that is to become the next best version of myself. And you're the only one who can know what that is — if you give yourself the time and the space to listen to what is already inside of you."

Martin Sheen, Loyola Marymount University

The longtime actor, accustomed to delivering speeches as President Bartlet on "The West Wing," told graduates to "go about the world bringing justice, healing, and mercy" and recounted his time as a 66-year-old student at the National University of Ireland.

Favorite Quote: "We are living at a time, in a culture, where truth is fair game, where arrogance is ignorance matured, where the aim of the big lie is not universal acceptance — the aim of the big lie is personal indifference. Yet despite the constant static of dishonest rhetoric and false claims that assault the senses and distort reality, we are drawn to the 'angel of truth' that soars above the fray with an unobstructed view so that when we speak truth to power, we can articulate the truth and identify the power."

Patrick Gelsinger, Carnegie Mellon University

The CEO of Intel offered thoughts on how technology affects nearly all aspects of everyday life, how artificial intelligence is "profoundly shaping how we experience the world," and how graduates can help ensure that technology ultimately benefits humanity.

Favorite Quote: "As we embark on the next phase of this wonderful journey of life, you are the superheroes who will embrace these superpowers as the basis for innovations we cannot even begin to imagine yet. Join me in shaping them as a force for good, improving the lives of every single human on the planet through the magic of silicon and digitization. When technology is a force for good, it truly is magic."

Nicole Hockley, Trinity College

The co-founder and CEO of the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation told fellow Trinity graduates her story of how her son's murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School caused her to jettison a corporate career and channel her "sadness, anger, and love into preventing others from sharing my experience."

Favorite Quote: "Whether your life transitions from one positive experience to the next or has seemingly endless, unsurmountable challenges at every turn, you will find a way through. But please remember, you don't have to take it all on yourself. Find those with similar purpose, those who share your passion, those who inspire you, who make you laugh out loud, who help you push past your fear and challenge you to think, to dream, and to be brave and bold."

Patton Oswalt, William & Mary

Speaking at his alma mater, the actor and comedian warned graduates their generation must "fight for every scrap of your humanity and dignity" and advised them to "work hard so that you can buy yourself the time to wander easy."

Favorite Quote: "You do not have a choice to be anything but extraordinary. […] It's been truly amazing to see how your generation has rebelled against every bad habit of mine and every generation that came before me. […] You've rejected that whole 24/7 no days off grind, you have rejected apathy, you've rejected ignoring your mental health because you have to muscle through no matter what, you've rejected alienation and cruelty, you've rejected not trying to include everyone and you've rejected not looking out for each other. And those are hard things to reject, because accepting them sometimes makes life way easier […] but it's also way less colorful, it's way less complicated, way less nourishing and way less memorable."

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Johns Hopkins University

The Ukrainian president surprised graduates with an unannounced address via live video stream, focusing his remarks on the value of time, the ideals of freedom, and his country's war with Russia.

Favorite Quote: "I'm certain you, as your forefathers, will continue to lead the free world, and this century will be our century, a century where freedom, innovation, and democratic values reign, a century where tyrannies that repress their own and seek to enslave their neighbors will vanish from us once and for all."

Mark Rober, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The former NASA engineer who founded CrunchLabs and produces YouTube videos exploring popular science told MIT students to embrace naive optimism, frame their failures to learn from them, and foster their relationships before he launched a drone affixed to a mortarboard high above the sea of graduates.

Favorite Quote: "Life is like trying to cross a big flowing river with lots of rocks and boulders strewn about. If you want to cross the river, you have to start on the bank and look at the first several rocks in front of you. You can wiggle them with your toe and scan a few boulders out. But at some point, you've just got to pick one and jump, because the river is dynamic and always changing."

John McEnroe, Stanford University

The tennis legend told graduates at his alma mater to be their own best advocates, to not be disillusioned by failure or burdened by perfection, to embrace change, and to take their best shots.

Favorite Quote: "In sports, you often hear the phrase, 'winning is everything,' but in reality, it's not. The questions you have to answer are, Am I getting better as a person? And is what I'm doing bringing me and the ones around me happiness?"