The Most Notable Commencement Speeches of 2024

From President Joe Biden to Jerry Seinfeld, 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.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer 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 columnist for The Chronicle ...
Updated on June 12, 2024
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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, athletes, journalists, and other prominent A-listers, some of whom encountered student protests over the Israel-Hamas war.

Here's a sampling of inspiring speakers and their words of wisdom for the class of 2024.

Jerry Seinfeld, Duke University

Amid some student walkouts, the comedian and actor, who has publicly supported Israel, steered clear of political statements, instead encouraging graduates to pursue fascination rather than passion, to prioritize hard work and relationships, and, of course, to maintain a healthy sense of humor.

Favorite Quote: "The slightly uncomfortable feeling of awkward humor is OK. It's not something you need to fix. I totally admire the ambitions of your generation to create a more just and inclusive society. I think it is also wonderful that you care so much about not hurting other people's feelings in the million and one ways we all do that in every second of every day. It's lovely to want to fix those things.

"But, what I need to tell you as a comedian is do not lose your sense of humor. You can have no idea at this point in your life how much you are going to need it to get through. Not enough of life makes sense for you to be able to survive it without humor."

President Joe Biden, Morehouse College

In a wide-ranging speech met with some student protests, President Biden talked about his ascension into politics, the personal tragedies he's faced, the war in Gaza, and the promise of democracy.

Favorite Quote: "It's natural to wonder if the democracy you hear about actually works for you. What is democracy if Black men are being killed in the street? What is democracy if a trail of broken promises still leaves Black communities behind? What is democracy if you have to be 10 times better than anyone else to get a fair shot?

"And most of all, what does it mean, as we've heard before, to be a Black man who loves his country even if it doesn't love him back in equal measure?"

Jennifer Coolidge, Washington University in St. Louis

The actress recounted her story of breaking into show business, travails and all, and encouraged students to embrace weirdness, to love who they are, and to "dare to be what you really want to be."

Favorite Quote: "You don't have to leave here today and ... have it all figured out. I didn't, and ... maybe the delays sort of helped me in some way. Maybe I'm actually truer to myself because I had so many things that were disappointing. And enduring them somehow ... is sort of like you're invisibly training for something really cool."

Rainn Wilson, Weber State University

After discussing his struggles with depression, loneliness, and anxiety, the actor and author offered graduates a five-point "meaning of life" philosophy: Gather a bouquet of virtues, be other-centered, cultivate relationships ("live like it's Dungeons & Dragons"), devote yourself to love, and keep hope alive.

Favorite Quote: "When we pass away ... we don't take with us our Teslas or our Xboxes. At the very end of our lives, if, in fact, we are all spiritual beings having a human experience, we take with us only one thing: that bouquet of internal character qualities we've nurtured, gathered, and exercised over the course of our lives."

David Grann, Boston University

The writer entertained graduates with his tale of searching for the elusive giant squid off the coast of New Zealand, an adventure that ultimately failed to produce the desired result but succeeded in setting him on the journalistic path he continues to follow.

Favorite Quote: "Often, the most rewarding moments of our quest are the ones born of seeming setbacks, the ones that opened our eyes to new possibilities and led to triumphant ends we could not fathom."

Thasunda Brown Duckett, Howard University

The CEO of TIAA, a Fortune 500 financial services company, discussed the importance of courage — relaying her story of overcoming humble roots through hard work and perseverance — and encouraged graduates to keep looking forward.

Favorite Quote: "Think back to something you all probably learned in driver's ed: Don't dwell too long on that rearview mirror. Use it to take a quick glance backward to ensure you can get to your destination safely. But I want you to think about it and be reminded [that] the windshield is a lot wider than the rearview mirror."

Pat Sajak, Hillsdale College

The longtime "Wheel of Fortune" host spoke about his own circuitous educational journey, the challenges of being a celebrity, the people he's met on the show, and the importance of regaining civility in society and public discourse.

Favorite Quote: "There does seem to be a growth in animosity between and among individuals. It's not enough to disagree; you also have to disparage. Every issue has competing camps. If you're not with us, you're against us. Your views make you unworthy of my friendship.

"There's a coarseness that has taken hold in our exchanges with each other, a coarseness that is not only excused but is also celebrated."

Maria Ressa, Harvard University

The Filipino and American journalist, co-founder of Rappler, and Nobel Peace Prize winner spoke about the challenges facing today's media, the societal fracturing and disinformation resulting from social media and artificial intelligence, and the importance of preserving democracy against the threat of fascists and tyrants.

Favorite Quote: "Without facts, you can't have truth. Without truth, you can't have trust. Without these three, we have no shared reality, no rule of law, no democracy. We can't begin to solve existential problems like climate change. This outrage economy built on our data, microtargeting us, transformed our world, rewarding the worst of humanity. Online violence is real-world violence."

Carol Spahn, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

The Peace Corps Director exhorted students to nurture the "deeply personal, curious, human connections" we are wired for and to "find meaning and pursue progress through connection."

Favorite Quote: "Technology has driven tremendous progress – and for that I am grateful – but we must take intentional action to ensure that it doesn't continue to push us apart, drive us further into our own bubbles and echo chambers, a place where we can hide behind the safety of a screen, where we don't risk that glorious awkwardness that comes from the chance encounter with a stranger or an uncomfortable silence."

Brad Meltzer, University of Michigan

The novelist and children's book author enumerated four ways graduates can use magic to shape their lives: make the best version of you appear, make your fear disappear, make two things switch places to find empathy, and transform who you are today into the person you'll be in the future.

Favorite Quote: "The most sophisticated and intelligent people I know are the ones willing to challenge their thinking and admit there's more to learn. Life will absolutely not be what you think it will be. It will be hard and wonderful and messy and rewarding, with more versions of you than you think possible. The only immutable fact is you should never be immutable. Keep transforming learning and never think you know it all."

John Legend, Loyola Marymount University

The musician, actor, and producer offered a wide-ranging exploration of pandemic survival, global conflicts, the threat of autocracy, the importance of listening to each other, and the power of "agape," a "transcendent kind of love that is intrinsic to the human heart."

Favorite Quote: "We engage with complexity by recognizing that in a multiracial, multiethnic, pluralist democracy, we are going to disagree. That's inevitable. The noise and the mess are features, not bugs. At the same time, though, diversity and difference need not be synonymous with intractable division. Even when we disagree, we have no choice but to find ways to tolerate each other, to respect each other, to live with each other."

Roger Federer, Dartmouth College

Stepping onto a college campus for only the second time, the legendary tennis champion demonstrated the correct forehand grip while telling graduates that "effortless" is a myth, that hard work pays dividends, that grit is often more important than talent, and that giving back contributes to a fulfilling life.

Favorite Quote: "Yes, talent matters. I'm not going to stand here and tell you it doesn't. But talent has a broad definition. Most of the time, it's not about having a gift; it's about having grit. When you're playing a point, it has to be the most important thing in the world, and it is. But when it's behind you, it's behind you. This mindset is really crucial because it frees you to fully commit to the next point, and the next point after that, with intensity, clarity, and focus. The truth is, whatever game you play in life, sometimes you're going to lose a point, a match, a season, a job. It's a rollercoaster with many ups and downs, and it's natural when you're down to doubt yourself and to feel sorry for yourself. And, by the way, your opponents have self-doubt, too. Don't ever forget that. But negative energy is wasted energy."

Kendrick Lamar, Compton College

The Grammy and Pulitzer-winning rapper, a Compton native, surprised graduates with an impromptu commencement appearance. Fresh off his celebrated feud with Drake, Lamar discussed his appreciation for Compton as a breeding ground for creative talent and told graduates to take pride in their degrees and accomplishments.

Favorite Quote: "Some people tell us … this generation doesn't have what it takes. Gen Z, we talk about it all day – they try to pull us down and say we don't know what we're doing. They're wrong, though. You know why? Because not only do y'all have what it takes, but y'all have something even bigger. Y'all have the heart, y'all have the courage to be independent thinkers…. Y'all can go out here and … express your thoughts and say it with conviction and passion and stand on it and be unapologetic about it."