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Inspirational Commencement Speeches: 1936 to 2022

Messengers of the Era

Right away, commencement speakers face a dramatic challenge: addressing the attitudinal transformation of their audience over these last few years.

As our future becomes increasingly dark, many students feel that we their parents and grandparents, have fostered almost irredeemable catastrophes; we have failed environmentally, politically, socially, morally, and spiritually. Even our air and water are threatened. Not to mention we still stockpile weapons that could destroy life on Earth in minutes.

In fact, graduates face the harshest reality of any generation in history, more sobering than even the darkest days of World Wars I and II. Though this assaulted human dignity, kindness, and common sense, it did not directly threaten the habitability of Earth itself.

Clarion calls for environmental sanity from as far back as Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold have proven real and prescient. As we lose bees, we destroy the cycle of life. As we heat glaciers, we flood our cities. As we burn coal, we breathe toxins.  

Writer Toni Morrison was among the first commencement speakers to directly address the possibility of a diminishing rather than an expanding future. At Wellesley College in 2004, she stated: 

“…I’m not going to talk anymore about the future; because I’m hesitant to describe or predict; because I’m not even certain that it exists. That is to say, I’m not certain that somehow, perhaps, a burgeoning ménage a trois of political interests, corporate interests, and military interests will not prevail and literally annihilate an inhabitable, humane future.”

Environmentalist Paul Hawken followed suit in 2009 at the University of Portland:

“You are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on Earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken.”

Professor E. O. Wilson in May 2011 at the University of North Carolina added: 

“… this is the time we either will settle down as a species or completely wreck the planet.”

Now, in this approaching year, we confront nothing less than a planetary reckoning, the world finally waking to our crises. In fact, many forefront nonprofits like the International Rescue Committee (aiding refugees in crisis) and Ashoka (supporting systemic social change) work at nothing less than sustaining humanity’s viable existence on Earth.

So to the commencement speakers of 2023, please consider that you are the messengers of this era. Since so many speeches now find traction on the Internet, your audience has expanded exponentially, making it even less worthy to depend on the simplicity of bromides and platitudes.

Students worldwide are of course eager to know how to lead transformative change in these next few crucial years of human evolution. You have a unique opportunity to help them analyze and clarify the challenges ahead.

~ Tony Balis


Though some of these speeches listed below were given decades ago, they are as relevant and important, perhaps increasingly so, as more current ones. Please read them with an open heart, celebrating our constant commencements into tomorrow and finding ways to take action firmly within the context of progress for all humankind.

In fact, to set the tone here’s a terrific short video (from The Daily Good in 2017) by folks from all over the world that happily highlights the opportunity of moving from darkness to light.


Pinned Speech

Jacinda Ardern, Harvard University, 2022

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addresses the need to recognize and call out corruption within democracies, to de-platform breeding grounds for political biases in media, and to prioritize dialogue between opposing groups without uplifting voices of destructive hate. She ends with a call for kindness.


oprah

Oprah Winfrey, The Annenberg School of Communications, 2018

Oprah Winfrey has become an influential and respected talk show host, author, philanthropist, actress, and media personality committed to civil and human rights. In this speech, Oprah calls on the graduates to battle bias and misinformation in the media by challenging promoted narratives and lifting up voices whose stories go unheard.

Matt Damon

Matt Damon, MIT, 2016

Matt Damon speaks in his hometown at the site of the setting of “Goodwill Hunting” – the movie that catapulted him into the spotlight. Damon asks graduates to see and experience the world beyond them, keep the big picture in mind, and make use of their skills by picking an important and timely problem to solve.

Donovan Livingston

Donovan Livingston, Harvard University, 2016

2016 graduate Donovan Livingston presents a poem titled “Lift Off” to fellow future educators that recognizes and elegantly rails against the racism and tokenism he and Black Americans throughout history have faced in the education system. His poem develops into a celebration of individuality and potential to challenge inequality.

Michelle Obama, Tuskegee Institute, 2015

First Lady Michelle speaks at a historically Black university, tracing the achievements of Tuskegee graduates and praising their resilience in the face of racism. The popular First Lady uses her experiences as a Black woman in the public eye to emphasize how one must drown out the noise of judgment and embrace one’s calling.

Jim Carrey, Maharishi University of Management, 2014

Jim Carrey is an actor and comedian of tremendous range and intellect with a deep well of spirituality. True to his reputation as a comedian, Carrey keeps the audience laughing while simultaneously delivering a story of seeing his father fail through fear, a reflection on his uncertainty of identity, and a spiritual message of trust and manifestation.

Billy Kenoi, Hawai’i Pacific University, 2014

Billy Kenoi (1968-2021) was the beloved mayor of Hawai’i County from 2008-2016. He speaks about the drive and hard work that it takes to accomplish the achievement of graduating from university. Additionally, Kenoi preaches the value of giving back this knowledge and living the principle of aloha as they go out into the world.

Tim Minchin, University of Western Australia, 2013

Tim Minchin, an Australian alum of UWA, has won worldwide acclaim as a composer, lyricist, comedian, actor, and writer. Minchin opens his speech with a declaration of the meaninglessness of life, followed by nine tidbits of advice leading to a message to aim to fill this meaningless life instead of wasting time searching for a nonexistent higher purpose.

George Saunders, Syracuse University, 2013

George Saunders is a professor at Syracuse and an American writer of short stories, essays, novellas, and children’s books. His work has been lauded for his compassionate and humorous stories of moral dilemmas and humanity. These values shine in his speech centered on striving for kindness and embracing the challenge of that ambition.

Neil Gaiman, University of the Arts, 2012

Neil Gaiman is an English award-winning author and graphic novelist, who writes for all ages and without genre constraints – though many of his fans are fantasy and science fiction lovers. This speech urges these artists to boldly practice their craft and take the time to fully enjoy their creative processes.

Barack Obama, Barnard College, 2012

President Obama was a 1983 graduate of Columbia College, Barnard’s big brother, later serving as the U.S. president for two terms, 2008-2016. In this speech, Obama addresses the all-women’s-college crowd of graduates from his perspective of a father to two girls and as a public servant invested in a future of more women in positions of leadership and invention.

Stephen Colbert, Northwestern University, 2011

Stephen Colbert, alum of Northwestern University, is an American comedian and political commentator. In delivering this speech 25 years after leaving NU, he contrasts the culture of the 80s to the early 2010s and – using himself as an example – tells the graduates that it is okay to change one’s dream and improvise through life.

Dr. E. O. Wilson, University of North Carolina, 2011

Dr. Wilson, the late Harvard professor, connected people to nature with his work in many environmentally-related fields. Dr. Wilson speaks to the future scientists, medical professionals, and lawyers in the crowd as he calls for solutions to climate change – leaving out students of other disciplines and what their contributions to this issue could be.

Meryl Streep, Barnard College, 2010

Meryl Streep is a highly-regarded, talented American actress who has worked in theatre, television, and film. Here she addresses the all-women’s school of Barnard with a personal story of pretending for male validation until she realized she could be herself in the company of women. Her message is one of relatability rather than one of advice.

Barbara Kingsolver, Duke University, 2008

Barbara Kingsolver – author of contemporary fiction, poet, and activist – writes stories about human resilience in harsh conditions. Here, she delivers a message of retaining hope in the face of massive environmental issues with poetic and ardent language.

Bill Gates, Harvard University, 2007

Alice Greenwald, Sarah Lawrence, 2007

Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

David Foster Wallace, Kenyon, 2005

Toni Morrison, Wellesley, 2004

Bono, University of Pennsylvania, 2004

Wally Lamb, Connecticut College, 2003

Martha Nussbaum, Georgetown University, 2003

Lewis Lapham, St. John’s College, 2003

Fred Rogers, Dartmouth College, 2002

Vaclav Havel, Harvard University, 1995

William Zinsser, Wesleyan University, 1998

Meg Greenfield, Williams College, 1987

Gloria Steinem, Tufts University, 1987

Margaret Atwood, University of Toronto, 1983

Ursula K. Le Guin, Mills College, 1983

Alan Alda, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, 1979

William H. Gass, Washington University, 1979

John F. Kennedy, American University, 1963

Robert Frost, Sarah Lawrence College, 1956

George C. Marshall, Harvard University, 1947

William Allen White, Northwestern University, 1936