There are two things that distinguish the commencement address from most other oratory: the speaker’s passion and the audience’s hunger.
By the time they’ve graduated, most college students have completed years of grueling book learning and are eager to hear a more practical lesson about the real world into which they’re entering. As for the speeches themselves, the best ones bear an unmistakable been-there-done-that quality to them, as the speaker flashes back to when she or he was in the very same place as the graduates in the audience: excited — and, yes, a bit frightened — to embark on that thing they call life.
It is no accident that Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s current bestselling book, “Lean In,” has its roots in her 2011 commencement address at Barnard, when she implored the women in the audience to reshape the cultural conversation — in business and life — “to make sure women’s voice are heard and heeded.” That message landed loud and clear.
It was no doubt inspiring to the 2009 graduating class at Tulane, when Ellen DeGeneres reaffirmed how being true to oneself is often the surest path to success.
And what graduate in their right mind wouldn’t heed the words of the commencement speaker at last month’s Ohio State University graduation? “What we have witnessed from your generation,” the speaker said, “is that perennial, quintessentially American value of optimism; a sense of community, a sense of service.” There was good reason for the graduates to be all ears: the speaker was once a community organizer himself, and then rose to the presidency.
Will this year’s commencement addresses stand the test of time? Will Harvard graduates take Oprah Winfrey’s message to heart — that “there is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction” — and forge a shining path of their own? Will Westminster College grads heed actor Robert Redford’s call to “take this education, grab those reins and run with them?” Only time will tell.
But for now, here are some of the more memorable commencement speeches from this year, as well as years past. And to all of this year’s graduates, congratulations and the very best of luck!