Words of wisdom from the 2017 graduation speeches
With speeches from the likes of Will Ferrell and Oprah Winfrey, these college graduates are being sent off in the best way possible.
Ferrell kept the mood light on May 12, breaking up his poignant commencement speech at his alma mater, the University of Southern California, with a fair share of laughs.
“I want the university to know that I do not take this prestigious honour lightly. I’ve already instructed my wife and my children, from this point on, they have to address me as Dr. Ferrell,” he joked.
On a more serious note, he spoke of his experiences trying to make it in comedy and encouraged perseverance.
“For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s okay. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.”
“Class of 2017, I just want you to know you will never be alone on whatever path you may choose. If you do have a moment where you feel a little down just think of the support you have from this great Trojan family and imagine me, literally picture my face, singing this song gently into your ear,” which he followed with his rendition of Whitey Houston’s I Will Always Love You.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, who waived the speaking fee rumoured to be around $40,000, spoke at Houston University’s commencement ceremony on May 12 and an air of humility and gratitude echoed throughout.
“At some point take a break from the celebration, away from Instagrams and Snapchats, and think about all the people who helped you,” he encouraged. “It’s important to recognise that at every step of the way, I had help. It’s important to acknowledge that. As soon as you understand that you are here because you had a lot of help, you realise you need to help others. Don’t just think about yourself.”
“We are not remembered by how much we’ve made but how much we’ve given.”
While acknowledging the importance of vision and touching on how proud he was of the students, Schwarzenegger concluded with “Hasta la vista, baby. I’ll be back,” and received a standing ovation.
Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, spoke to Virginia Tech’s graduating class on May 12 and captivated her audience with a decidedly different approach on the classic commencement speech.
With an overarching theme of resilience, she spoke of the loss of her husband two years ago, as well as a shooting that took place at the college a decade ago.
“The most important thing I learned is that we are not born with a certain amount of resilience. It is a muscle, and that means we can build it. We build resilience into ourselves. We build resilience into the people we love. And we build it together, as a community.”
“It is in our relationships with each other that we find our will to live, our capacity to love, and our ability to bring change into this world,” she continued. “This is your legacy, Class of 2017. You will carry it with you – that capacity for finding strength in yourselves and building strength in the people around you.”
Sandberg commented on the highs and lows of life and concluded by encouraging the graduates to “find gratitude for the gift of life itself and the opportunities it provides for meaning, for joy, and for love.”
In her farewell to the graduating class of Kent State University on May 13, Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer encouraged students to keep their “minds and hearts open to life’s endless and unforeseeable possibilities.”
Speaking on the topic of success, Spencer urged students to “ignore the silly 30-Under-30 list that the internet throws at you.” Adding, “if I had to read ‘25 Actresses Who Broke Through Before 25’ when I was first starting out, I tell you guys, I would have stayed in bed. Because I guarantee you that none of them looked like me. None of them.”
“Don’t let anyone define your generation for you,” she says. “Others are afraid of what they don’t know or can’t see, so think big, show up early, stay late and bust your asses. Excuse me for the profanity.”
In her final send-off she advised students to “keep moving forward, and don’t be frustrated when your path gets messy because it will get messy. You’ll fall and you’ll fail along the way. Wildly. Embrace the mess.”
On May 13, Janelle Monáe addressed the students of Dillard University and challenged them to choose freedom over fear and remember the power of grace and pride.
While reflecting back on the NASA physicist she played in Hidden Figures, she added, “what they believed in was that everybody should have the right to the American Dream. No matter who you love, no matter where you came from, no matter what you looked like, and no matter what god you served.”
Monáe sent students off with her three secrets to life: “No. 1, the importance of being gracious. No. 2, the importance of being proud. No. 3, the importance of choosing freedom over fear.”
In his address to the students of the University of Wisconsin-Madison on May 13, director and producer Steven Levitan spoke of the many bumps along the road to success.
“Now, gratefully, I’m introduced as the co-creator of Emmy-winning Modern Family and no one remembers I’m the idiot who failed nine times in a row.”
While touching on the changing times, he added, “now there’s so much you could do, it becomes paralysing. With the world at your fingertips, you always feel like you should be making something and putting it online, or amping your presence on LinkedIn, or keeping up with all the amazing things everyone’s doing on social media.”
Followed by an inevitable punch line, “plus, your phone’s always dying.”
Via a post on Instagram, Oprah Winfrey announced she would be speaking at a total of nine commencement ceremonies and kicked off the graduation season at Agnes Scott College on May 13.
The media mogul and philanthropist touched on the topic of compassion, stating, “I had to learn to feel with others, which is what it means to be compassionate. I feel with you. It means not only am I able to walk in your shoes, my heart beats with yours. I see myself in you.”
Most notably, Winfrey informed graduates of her key to success. “You’re nothing if you’re not the truth. I’ve made a living, I’ve made a life – I’ve made a fortune, really – all good! — from being true to myself. If I can leave you with any message today: the biggest reward is not financial benefits, though it’s really good, you can get a lot of great shoes! Those of you who have a lot of shoes know having a closet full of shoes doesn’t fill up your life. Living a life of substance can. Substance through your service.”
A number of the commencement ceremonies she will be speaking at — including Smith College on May 20 and Skidmore College on May 21 — will see students from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa graduating.
Winfrey spoke fondly of graduate Morgan Mpungose in her address to Smith College, adding that, “when you educate a girl, you are not just educating her. You are educating her to create opportunities.”
“It’s a big, bad world out there,” she confessed before encouraging students at Skidmore College to use their personality to “serve the calling of yourself.”
On May 20, Dame Helen Mirren sent the students of Tulane University off with many laughs and a list of things to remember.
She declared herself a feminist, spoke fondly of her connection to New Orleans and let the graduating class in on the meaning of the Mayan phrases “Inlakesh” tattooed on her left hand: “You are my other self. We are one. I am Another Yourself.”
“You will stumble and fall,” added the Academy Award winner. “You will experience both disaster and triumph, sometimes in the same day, but it’s really important to remember that like a hangover, neither triumphs nor disasters last forever.”
Mirren also shared a number of life rules which she tiled ”Helen’s Top Five Rules for a Happy Life”:
1. “You don’t need to rush to get married.”
2. “Just treat people like people… No matter what sex you are, or race, be a feminist.”
3. “Ignore anyone who judges the way you look, especially if he or she is some anonymous creep lurking on the Internet. And if you are that person lurking on the Internet — STOP IT, just stop it, go outside and DO something.”
4. “Don’t be afraid of fear… Throw caution to the winds, look fear straight-away in its ugly face, and barge forward.”
5. “Don’t overcomplicate things.”
Pharrell Williams delivered a passionate commencement speech to the graduating class of New York University on May 17 and inspired students to continue to create change.
He encouraged students to talk about their accomplishments, adding that they should “be humble, but not too humble. Don’t be invisible. Sidebar… The days of being an anonymous activist or participant are over.”
The standout moment of the entire address?
“As you find your ways to serve humanity, it gives me great comfort knowing this generation is the first that understands that we need to lift up our women. Imagine the possibilities when we remove imbalance from the ether. Imagine the possibilities when women are not held back.”
“Your generation is unravelling deeply entrenched laws, principles and misguided values that have held women back for far too long and therefore, have held us all back. The world you will live in will be better for it. This is the first generation that navigates the world with the security and confidence to treat women as equal. You are the first ever. Our country has never seen this before. It makes some people uncomfortable. But just imagine the possibilities.”
Hillary Clinton sent the students at Wellesley College off on May 26 with a number of references to the future of America and her former presidential opponent.
“You may have heard that things didn’t exactly go the way I planned but you know what? I’m doing okay,” she said, adding that, “Chardonnay helped a little, too.”
Clinton left the graduates with a strong sense of responsibility in shaping the future.
“Don’t be afraid of your ambition, of your dreams, or even your anger – those are powerful forces. But harness them to make a difference in the world. Stand up for truth and reason.”
“One of the things that gave me the most hope and joy after the election, when I really needed it, was meeting so many young people who told me that my defeat had not defeated them.”
Harvard’s graduating class were addressed by Mark Zuckerberg on May 25, who dropped out of the Ivy League college in his sophomore year yet just received an honorary degree.
“I’m honoured to be with you today because, let’s face it, you accomplished something I never could,” he began. “If I get through this speech, it’ll be the first time I actually finish something at Harvard.”
He spoke fondly of the college and recalled his first lecture, “Computer Science 121 with the incredible Harry Lewis.”
“I’m not here to give you the standard commencement about finding your purpose. We’re millennials. We’ll try to do that instinctively,” he continued.
“Instead, I’m here to tell you finding your purpose isn’t enough. The challenge for our generation is creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.”
As the season of commencement ceremonies continues, you can expect added gems of wisdom from the following speakers slated to present in the near future: At Knox College on June 4.