10 Famous and Noteworthy College Commencement Speeches
Most college commencement speeches consist of bad jokes and bland advice, but there are a few that are made memorable by genuine wit and wisdom. Below are 10 noteworthy commencement speeches offering worldly advice from famous comedians, authors, politicians, entrepreneurs and even a prison inmate.
1. Winston Churchill (Harrow School)
Memorable quote: ‘Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.’
The commencement speech Winston Churchill gave to his old preparatory school in 1941 isn’t just famous because he’s Winston Churchill – it is also the shortest such speech on record. In fact, the above quote has been used by a whole slew of people who couldn’t come up with any other way to close their own commencement speeches.
2. Steve Jobs (Stanford University)
Memorable quote: ‘Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma–which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. 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.’
Apple co-founder and famed college dropout Steve Jobs gave a highly respected commencement speech to Stanford University students in 2005. He wore his trademark blue jeans and sandals and shared three of the most pivotal points in his life. Jobs also encouraged students to pursue their dreams and dodge the obstacles that hold them back. His speech closed with the sign-off quote from the final issue of The Whole Earth Catalog: ‘Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.’
3. Jon Stewart (College of William and Mary)
Memorable quote: ‘I’m sure my fellow doctoral graduates–who have spent so long toiling in academia, sinking into debt, sacrificing God knows how many years of what, in truth, is a piece of parchment that, in truth, has been so devalued by our instant gratification culture as to have been rendered meaningless–will join in congratulating me.’
One of the most humorous commencement speeches in recent years was the speech comedian Jon Stewart gave in 2004 at the College of William and Mary. He began by assuring the parents in the crowd that they would not hear any language that was not common at a Tourette’s convention or profanity seminar. The entire speech was peppered with jokes, but Stewart also dished out valuable advice to graduates near the end, telling them to ‘love what you do’ and ‘get good at it.’
4. Theodor Geisel (Lake Forest College)
Memorable quote: ‘As you partake of the world’s bill of fare, that’s darned good advice to follow. Do a lot of spitting out the hot air. And be careful what you swallow.’
In 1977, the beloved Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) was chosen as the commencement speaker for Lake Forest College. Both the students and faculty were surprised (yet pleased) when he stood up and recited an original poem called My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers in place of a traditional speech.
5. Mumia Abu-Jamal (Evergreen State College)
Memorable quote: ‘Out of the many here assembled, it is the heart of he or she that I seek who looks at a life of vapid materialism, of capitalist excess, and finds it simply intolerable. It may be one hundred of you, or fifty, or even ten, or even one of you who makes that choice. I am here to honor and applaud that choice and to warn you that, though the suffering may indeed be great, it is nothing to the joy of doing the right thing.’
In 1999, Mumia Abu-Jamal gave a controversial commencement speech to Evergreen State College via audiotape. The speech was controversial because Abu-Jamal was a death row inmate convicted of murdering a police officer. Students, law enforcement officers, the policeman’s widow, Congressman Tom DeLay and a number of others protested the school’s choice of speakers, but Abu-Jamal’s speech was delivered nevertheless. The 13-minute audiotape included comments on racial oppression and liberation as well as advice for graduating students.
6. Russell Baker (Connecticut College)
Memorable quote: ‘The best advice I can give anybody about going out into the world is this: Don’t do it. I have been out there. It is a mess.’
American columnist, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and political satirist Russell Baker amused Connecticut College students with his short, but memorable, commencement speech in 1995. The backbone of the speech was Baker’s list of ‘ten ways to avoid mucking up the world more than it already is.’ His advice included ‘sleep in the nude’ and ‘don’t take your gun to town.’
7. Will Ferrell (Harvard University)
Memorable quote: ‘After months of secret negotiations, several hundred secret ballots, and a weekend retreat with Vice President Dick Cheney in his secret mountain bunker, a Class Day speaker was chosen, and it was me. You obviously have made a grave error. But it’s too late now. So let’s just go with it.’
Love him or hate him, actor Will Ferrell is responsible for one of the funniest and most unorthodox speeches ever made at a Harvard commencement. The 2003 Class Day speech was full of jokes and included an uncanny George Bush impersonation.
8. Stephen Colbert (Knox College)
Memorable quote: ‘I have two last pieces of advice. First, being pre-approved for a credit card does not mean you have to apply for it. And lastly, the best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous.’
Stephen Colbert’s 2006 commencement speech at Knox College is one of the most oft-read speeches on the Internet. Colbert’s speech features his trademark humor and candid advice for college grads. He also shows off his ability to ask for a McDonald’s Happy Meal in five different languages.
9. David Foster Wallace (Kenyon College)
Memorable quote: ‘Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: 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.’
In 2005, a couple of years before his tragic suicide, influential postmodern author David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement speech at Kenyon College. Both witty and wise, the speech explored the value of a liberal arts education and offered some very practical advice on surviving the ins and outs of real life.
10. J.K. Rowling (Harvard University)
Memorable quote: ‘The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.’
J.K. Rowling may be one of the best-selling authors of all time, but before she published Harry Potter she was an unemployed single parent one step away from homelessness. In her poignant 2008 commencement speech at Harvard, Rowling shared the value of failure and the importance of imagination.
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