If your school can pull some strings, the ceremony might even be an occasion for you to hear an inspiring word or two from someone who’s been there, someone who has risen above unthinkable circumstances to be where they are today. Someone like…Oprah Winfrey, perhaps?
Here are some of the best examples of graduation speeches, equal parts because of the persons who delivered them and because of the substance they carry.
1. David Foster Wallace
In hindsight, David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to Kenyon College’s class of 2005 was prescient of his losing battle with suicide. (He succumbed at age 46.) His speech will always be remembered for its dark quality, for telling it like it isand not sugar-coating what lies ahead of graduates. “It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out," he said. In the end, he managed to turn his address into one of hope, exhorting graduates to practice equanimity:"Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."Such was his commencement speech that it was immortalized in a book, This is Water.
2. J.K. Rowling
Harvard University’s Class of 2008may not have transcendent experiences like the students of Hogwarts, but they had the pleasure of having Joanne Kathleen bring magic to their graduation ceremony. Like her books, Rowling’s speech proved to be a modern classic. While most other graduation speeches were obsessed with success, hers was in complete awe of failure, or as she described it, “rock bottom…the solid foundation on which I built my life." (JK had been a single mother on welfare before hitting it big with Harry Potter.) She does caution, however, that poverty is “romanticized only by fools.” It is only the conquest of poverty that is something on which to pride oneself.
3. Oprah Winfrey
When you think of Oprah, you think sage advice; that’s why she’s sought after in graduation ceremonies. Like fellow billionaire JK Rowling, Oprah enthused about the roundabout importance of failure. “If you’re constantly pushing yourself higher and higher, the law of averages predicts that you will at some point fall. And when you do, I want you to remember this...failure is just life trying to move us in another direction,” she told Harvard graduates in 2013. She also told them to “fulfil the highest, most truthful expression of (themselves) as a human being,” a rehash of her message to graduates at Spellman College in 2005.
4. John F. Kennedy
"I speak of peaceas the necessary, rational end of rational men," JFK uttered these words before American University Batch ’63. The call to pacifism is made all the more resonant by the fact that JFK delivered it in the midst of the Cold War andthree years after the Bay of Pigs Invasion. "Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts…For peace is a process, a way of solving problems," he said.His assassination occurred five months after this speech.
Bono has made a name for himself beyond music with his humanitarian contributions. To the University of Pennsylvania’s graduating class of 2004, he fired this memorable question: “What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of Pennsylvania?"
6. Steve Jobs
It seems like the height of paradox for a college dropout to be addressing graduates, but that’s just what happened at Stanford University’s 2005 commencement exercises. Here is no ordinary college dropout, after all; it’s the founder of Apple no less. In a universally circulated speech, Steve Jobs talked about his lack of regrets on dropping out of college. To him, it was all part of a grand design: “It was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later. Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future." His famous parting words: "Stay hungry, stay foolish."
7. Conan O'Brien
This Harvard alum returned to his alma mater in 2000 to make a graduation speech that in, true O’Brien fashion, waxed nostalgic about his own graduation in 1985, when he supposedly asked himself: "Am I really graduating a virgin?" In 2011, he addressed the graduates of Dartmouth, and told them to anticipate failure with open arms. "Today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come,” he said. “The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality."
8. Ellen DeGeneres
Ellen addressed 2009 graduates of Louisiana’s Tulane University as saying:“For me, the most important thing is to live your life with integrity and not to give into peer pressure—to try to be something that you're not—to live your life as an honest and compassionate person, to contribute in some way." By staying true to herself, Ellen has emerged as one of America’s most beloved hosts.
A binding thread
In all these speeches, lengthy as they are, you can trace a binding thread. All of them, in a way or the other, touched on the idea of failure, disappointment, and mistake as catalysts toward success. As you could only imagine, these people have stared down behemoth setbacks. Oprah grew up wearing flour sacks in rural Mississippi. Steve was kicked out of the company he founded. Ellen was sacked for being lesbian. JK would trawl baby stores for free diapers. Yet they have parlayed those difficulties into wins that reverberate through the planet. With such exemplary stories, these individuals could only hope their words don’t fall on deaf ears.