As graduation quickly approaches for the class of 2019, students across the country are preparing to hear from some of the most inspirational celebrities and premier commencement speakers at their upcoming graduation ceremonies.
While students wait for their big day and to hear from some of the biggest names in entertainment and education, we are reflecting back on some of our favorite commencement speeches of all time and anticipating the exciting 2019 commencement speakers.
Best Commencement Speeches of All Time
Amy Poehler, Harvard University 2011
Famous comedian and Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler, who is one of the best comedians to entertain an audience, combined her dry wit with genuine life lessons during her address at Harvard. After the jokes, Poehler had one main message: you cannot go through life alone. She stressed the importance of collaboration and finding friends that challenge and inspire you. After all, we depend on each other for so much, and when you are down you should ask for help, and when you are strong you should help others.
Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth College 2011
In a hilarious commencement address to Dartmouth’s graduation class, Conan O’Brien jokes how he’s not so different from the graduating class. He says he approached writing his commencement address the same way the students would approach an important term paper: he started it the night before, drank a few Red Bulls, snorted some Adderall and played some Call of Duty — it’s no wonder he was named one of the top 40 most powerful names in comedy. He tells the graduates about his experience after leaving NBC and feeling as if he was starting over, but explains that it was one of the most fulfilling times in his life. O’Brien champions our failures as something that helps shape who we are and that makes us unique.
Jim Carrey, Maharishi University of Management 2014
Jim Carrey’s commencement address combines humor and wisdom. The Maharishi University of Management uses meditation and consciousness-based education, and Carrey manages to intertwine his humor with experiences the students have had throughout their time in school, such as meditating between classes and sleeping facing north. He advocates that the students shouldn’t fear failure, saying that plenty of people choose the safe path and still fail, so you might as well risk failure and pursue the path you love.
Hasan Minhaj, Davis High School 2015
Comedian Hasan Minhaj returned to his high school, where he had previously been bullied, to talk about his experiences at high school and how they shaped his life and led him to where he is today. He talks about when he tried out for the basketball team in high school, and how another student at tryouts bullied him. Though he didn’t make the cut for the basketball team, he explains how failure helped encourage him to keep working on his stand-up, and eventually was hired as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His inspirational message to students encourages them to keep trying and working towards their dreams.
John Green, Kenyon College 2016
John Green, author of bestselling young adult books such as The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns, returned to his alma mater in 2016 to deliver the commencement address. In his humorous speech, he tells new graduates of Kenyon College that rather than having learned how to think through their liberal arts education, what they’ve really learned to do is listen. He tells them that in the next few years, they can expect to be a nobody, but that it’s actually a good thing, because then, when they’re a somebody, they “won’t be a jerk.”
Sheryl Sandberg, University of California, Berkeley 2016
Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, delivered the keynote address at the 2016 UC Berkeley graduation ceremony. A powerful leader and renowned feminist, she speaks not on what she has learned in life, but in death. Sandberg lost her husband unexpectedly in 2015, a loss that changed her in profound ways. In this moving speech she reminds us that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the surface, choose joy and meaning, and breathe again.
Kumail Nanjiani, Grinnell College 2017
Comedian Kumail Nanjiani returns to his alma mater almost 16 years to the day after his own graduation. With his own humorous twist, Nanjiani describes his experience of moving from Pakistan to attend Grinnell College and where he’s gone in life since then. He tells the crowd how as a student living in a new country, his time at Grinnell helped make the United States feel like home. As the students prepare to face the uncertainty that comes with graduation, Nanjiani tells them how he dealt with that same uncertainty. Though parts of his message highlighted the bravery and aspirations of immigrant students and their families, in typical comedian fashion, Nanjiani had one more piece of advice: “Have sex with an immigrant. We’re going through a tough time right now, and it would just be really great for morale.”
Will Ferrell, University of Southern California 2017
In 2017, the comedic actor Will Ferrell returned to his alma mater, the University of Southern California, to deliver the 134th commencement address. Having graduated in 1990 with a degree in Sports Information, Ferrell recalls his unplanned path to success. While he has achieved widespread fame and fortune from Saturday Night Live and various movies, he stresses that it wasn’t always easy, but that was okay. He advises students who are still finding their purpose to “Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dart board, don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.”
Abby Wambach, Barnard College 2018
Abby Wambach, author of “Wolfpack: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game” and former star of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, was the commencement speaker at Barnard in 2018. Wambach, who is also a pay equity and LGBTQ rights activist, was one of the most inspiring 2018 commencement speakers.
Wambach addressed the all-women university’s new graduates, saying that women are feared as a threat to the system, but that women will also be what ultimately saves it. She advised women to make failure the fuel that propels them to success, champion each other and amplify the voices of women and minorities.
Chadwick Boseman, Howard University 2018
Chadwick Boseman, movie star and Howard University alum, delivered the 2018 commencement address while also being awarded an honorary doctorate from the university. Boseman’s fame skyrocketed earlier that year after staring in the Oscar-nominated film Black Panther alongside Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan.
Mindy Kaling, Dartmouth College 2018
Mindy Kaling shared her witty humor and uplifting words with the Dartmouth Class of 2018 graduates by telling them, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, but especially not yourself.“ As a Dartmouth graduate herself, Kaling connected to the audience by sharing personal stories of her experiences and success, while of course making the audience constantly erupt in laughter. Kaling spoke about how she experienced self-doubt, but also about how she conquered it and went on to be an outstanding leader in comedy, acting and female empowerment.
Top 5 Commencement Speakers You Won’t Want to Miss in 2019
- Angela Merkel will be the fourth German chancellor to speak at a Harvard commencement ceremony, but, unlike the others, she is able to speak about being Germany’s first female chancellor and current issues students may face going out into the world.
- Dr. Michio Kaku, one of the most popular university speakers of 2018, will be delivering High Point University’s Commencement address on May 11th. Kaku, a futurist and physicist, will continue the university’s tradition of bringing world-renowned innovators.
- Ken Jeong, who released his first stand-up comedy special on Netflix just a few months ago, will be bringing his energy and charisma from the screen to the stage for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro commencement ceremony.
- Senator Kristen Gillibrand, a candidate for the 2020 presidential election, will serve as New England College’s commencement speaker. She will also be receiving an
honorary degree from the Board of Trustees in recognition of her career achievements and professional success.
Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, will be giving two commencement speeches this year at both Stanford University and Tulane University. As one of the most popular university speakers, Cook has also given addresses at George Washington, MIT and Duke University.