“I have a dream.”
“Four score and seven years ago.”
What if a commencement speech was not something to be endured, but to be treasured? And what if, instead of the same tired sentiments to “go forward and seize the day,” the 20-minute address dispensed a glimpse of humanity’s higher self?
Thankfully, some of those exist. But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. Many memorable speeches have a touch of the macabre that foreshadow the underbelly of adulthood.
After reading dozens of transcripts and viewing hours of footage, we’ve distilled 10 famous commencement speeches to their essence. Some speeches are memorable because of their time in history or because millions watched it online. Some were later published as books. At least one became a hit song. Here they are, in chronological order.
- President John F. Kennedy at American University, 1963
- Hillary Rodham at Wellesley, 1969
- Kurt Vonnegut’s Fictional Speech at MIT, 1997
- Maria Shriver at College of the Holy Cross, 1998
- Steve Jobs at Stanford, 2005
- David Foster Wallace at Kenyon, 2005
- Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon, 2008
- Neil Gaiman at the University of the Arts, 2012
- President Barack Obama at Morehouse, 2013
- Robert Smith at Morehouse College, 2019
10: President John F. Kennedy at American University, 1963
“Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
This commencement address had a higher purpose. Just months after the Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet Union, when nuclear war was still a real threat, President John. F. Kennedy used the occasion to deliver a peace-laced talk to the entire world. The speech, which took a month to craft, was written in secret because he feared Pentagon officials would oppose its conciliatory tone.
Kennedy asked Americans to consider their attitudes:
Kennedy then announced that he, Nikita Khrushchev and Britain’s Harold Macmillan would be entering talks about a comprehensive test ban treaty and that the U.S. wouldn’t conduct further nuclear tests as long as no other country did either [source: PBS].
Within days of the speech, a telephone hotline between Washington, D.C. and the Kremlin was established. And on Aug. 5, just two months after the speech, all three countries signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. It was the next best thing to total disarmament [sources: Clymer, JFK Library].
9: Hillary Rodham at Wellesley, 1969
“Every protest, every dissent, whether it’s an individual academic paper, Founder’s parking lot demonstration, is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age.”
It was her first big speech, but there would be many more to follow. At her graduation from Wellesley College in 1969, Hillary Rodham became the first student in the college’s history to deliver a commencement address. She was president of student government at the time.
Before beginning her prepared remarks, though, she criticized the event’s previous speaker, Sen. Edward Brooke. In his speech, he had urged graduates to reject “coercive protest,” which was a polite euphemism for near-riotous student demonstrations. It was an idea at which Rodham pointedly aimed when she took the podium. He was, it seemed to Rodham, too complacent. So she set aside her prepared speech and embarked on an elegantly efficient, impromptu response [source: Pinsky].
“What does it mean to hear that 13.3 percent of the people in this country are below the poverty line? That’s a percentage. We’re not interested in social reconstruction; it’s human reconstruction,” she said [source: Rodham].
Rodham got a standing ovation that lasted several minutes. And she was only getting started. As Hillary Clinton, she went on to scale great heights as first lady of the United States, a senator, secretary of state and a 2016 presidential candidate.
8: Kurt Vonnegut’s Fictional Speech at MIT, 1997
“Wear sunscreen … The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.”
So begins one of the most popular commencement addresses in recent history, which also included such gems as “Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements. Get to know your parents. Travel” [source: Schmich].
Famed American novelist Kurt Vonnegut sure had a way with words, didn’t he? Within days, the sage-but-simple advice he supposedly offered to Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates in June 1997 was racing across international borders via forwarded e-mails.
Except Vonnegut didn’t write the commencement address. Or share it from the podium during MIT’s graduation ceremony. In fact, MIT’s 1997 graduation speaker was actually Kofi Annan, then-secretary-general of the United Nations, who encouraged graduates to pursue multilateral diplomacy rather than save old love letters [source: MIT].
Turns out the commencement address wasn’t an address at all, but a satirical column penned by Mary Schmich that was published in the Chicago Tribune. “It was witty,” Vonnegut later said, “but it wasn’t my wittiness.” Of course, this didn’t stop the prose from becoming nearly as famous as its mistaken author [source: MIT].
Within a year, “Wear Sunscreen” had even been adapted into a hit single in Australia that rose to No. 1 in the U.K and No. 45 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 [source: Alvarez]. Schmich made a book out of it, too.
7: Maria Shriver at College of the Holy Cross, 1998
“Don’t expect anyone else to support you financially.”
When Maria Shriver, NBC news anchor and third-generation Kennedy, addressed 1998 graduates at College of the Holy Cross, her remarks received national attention. Shriver mentioned that she’d gotten a lot of advice on what she should say but decided to share her “top-ten list of things I wish someone had told me when I was sitting, like you, at my graduation.” (Among them: “Pinpoint your passion.” “No job is beneath you.” And, “Superwoman is dead” [source: Holy Cross].
Shriver backed up her advice with personal stories from her career and parenting adventures, and took a humorous approach to life’s toughest moments [source: Holy Cross].
The well-received speech formed the basis of “Ten Things I Wish I’d Known—Before I Went Out into the Real World,” a book that became an instant hit in the graduation gift category.
In 2012, Shriver followed up with a second powerful commencement speech, “The Power of the Pause.” Delivered at the University of Southern California on the occasion of her daughter’s graduation, Shriver asked the new grads to pause before making judgments or decisions.
6: Steve Jobs at Stanford, 2005
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
Even if you’re not a Mac, you should listen to Steve Jobs‘ understated commencement address at Stanford University in 2005.
Jobs, who quipped that the address was the closest he’d ever come to a college graduation, shared three stories that connected the dots of his life — and could possibly serve as a roadmap for others. He outlined his decision to drop out of college, how it had loosed a hunger for learning and eventually inspired the launch of Apple computers.
Next, Jobs chronicled being fired from the company he’d built and how the painful and embarrassing split had led to greater things, including NeXT (which Apple later purchased because of its proprietary technology).
But it was Jobs’ recollection of being diagnosed with cancer that really stood out. For one day, he lived with the prognosis that he had three to six months before a rare form of pancreatic cancer would take his life. Then a biopsy revealed he had a rarer form still, one that could be surgically removed. (Sadly, the cancer would return and Jobs died in 2011).
“Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking,” Jobs advised. “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” [source: Stanford Report].
5: David Foster Wallace at Kenyon, 2005
“There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
David Foster Wallace, author of “Infinite Jest,” delivered a timeless commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005. With touches of the macabre, the speech rang true, if not for graduates on the cusp of shiny new lives, then certainly for their parents.
“There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. Once such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration,” Wallace said, describing a resentful stop at a crowded grocery store after work for illustration.
While Wallace’s speech started as a downer, it ended on notes of transcendent grace, because he pointed out, you get to choose how you’ll respond to life’s frustrations and pettiness.
4: Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon, 2008
“It is not the things we do in life that we regret on our death bed. It is the things we do not. I’ve done a lot of really stupid things and none of them bother me.”
The keynote speaker at Carnegie Mellon University’s 2008 commencement ceremony was former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, but Randy Pausch’s surprise address stole the show. Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon professor, had months earlier delivered “The Last Lecture” after being diagnosed with a fast-moving pancreatic cancer. His memorable and moving message intended for his students went viral, sparked worldwide interest in his condition and later became a book.
In Pausch’s commencement speech, which was based on “The Last Lecture,” he spoke of his love for Carnegie Mellon. He delivered the address three months after doctors predicted he would be dead and detailed what he’d learned about living. In typically humorous fashion, he asked students to seek respect from their peers, to form loving relationships with the people they held most dear and to follow their passions.
“If there is anything I have learned in my life, you will not find that passion in things. And you will not find that passion in money.” Instead, he implored the audience to ground their passion in people [source: Carnegie Mellon].
3: Neil Gaiman at the University of the Arts, 2012
“When things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.”
Neil Gaiman, the U.K.-born author of “Coraline” and “American Gods” among other works of literature, didn’t go to college, let alone graduate from one. Instead, Gaiman, a self-described “feral child who was raised in libraries,” engineered his own education as a writer [source: Gaiman].
Gaiman cautioned graduates that life could — and would — go wrong, and therein lay the best experiences.
He also gave some very practical advice on staying employed:
Life, Gaiman noted, is about making good art, no matter the disappointments — or successes — along the way. It turns out his commencement address was good art, too. It was published in book form just one year later [source: The University of the Arts].
2: President Barack Obama at Morehouse, 2013
“My whole life, I’ve tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father was not for my mother and me.”
U.S. President Barack Obama had spoken at several commencements by the time he addressed the graduating class of Morehouse College in 2013. But this speech turned out to be his most personal – and controversial.
Obama touched on the historic role the historically black Morehouse College has played in higher education, but also spoke of his personal failings and his struggles with race. “Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down,” he said. “I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is there’s no longer any room for excuses” [source: The White House].
Obama also lamented that his father had not been present when he was growing up. “I want to break that cycle where a father is not at home — where a father is not helping to raise that son or daughter. I want to be a better father, a better husband, a better man.”
Afterward, some criticized the speech as condescending and ignoring the role of government in perpetuating policies that hindered African-Americans. But others applauded his “no excuses” stance and for being a more vocal role model to young black men [source: Huffington Post].
1: Robert Smith at Morehouse College, 2019
“This is my class – 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
While this speech might not have necessarily reached soaring heights in rhetoric, it more than made up for it in action. Billionaire investor Robert F. Smith made an extraordinarily generous gesture while speaking at Morehouse College’s 2019 commencement.
“We were excited to have Mr. Smith speaking,” senior Kamal Medlock told NPR. “But, you know, when you’re out there in the sun and you’ve been up since 5:30 in the morning, you’re kind of just ready to go home. So when he started his commencement speech, we did not know what to expect.”
Well they didn’t have long to wait. Once Smith had received his honorary degree, he mentioned that he was now part of the class of 2019 and he was going to “put a little fuel in [the] bus” of his fellow alums. He and his family were going to pay off all the student loans for the entire graduating class of 396 students. Cheers and shouts of joy greeted the announcement of this gift, which some estimates put in the range of $10 million [source: Klein]. “It’s just unbelievable. I’m speechless,” added Medlock.
Smith, considered the richest African-American in the U.S., is a philanthropist who normally keeps a low profile. He urged the class of 2019 to pay his gift forward. “We are enough to take care of our own community … and we will show it to each other though our actions, words and deeds,” he said.
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