Jun   2012



Best Commencement Speeches of 2012

Senior Assistant Editor, Wintergreen Orchard House

It's June, and at high schools and colleges across America, stages have been walked, caps have been thrown skyward, and hopeful graduates are embarking on the next phase of their lives. In and amongst all the pomp and circumstance of graduation season were the hundreds of commencement speeches delivered by sagacious politicians, actors, journalists, and other public figures.

When I graduated from college, the commencement speech was given by a humorless district attorney whose services were enlisted when the intended speaker—someone better suited to address a gaggle of liberal arts majors—canceled at the last minute. If you asked me today, I couldn't for all the money in the world summon to my memory a single word of the D.A.'s mundane speech.

Not all graduates are so unfortunate, however. Some students are given the parting gift of truly memorable speeches rendered by charismatic A-listers. Here's a roundup of some of my favorite college commencement speeches of 2012, rife with advice, anecdotes, and humor that both you and your students will appreciate.

  • Who: Christiane Amanpour, Global Affairs Anchor of ABC News
    Where: University of Southern California's School of Journalism
    Memorable words: "My most fervent hope is that you will find a passion. Unless you love what you do, you can't really be good at what you do."
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City
    Where: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    Memorable words: "In the game of life, when the final buzzer sounds, the only stat you carry with you is the number of assists you made. So help other people put some points on the board."
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Steve Carell, actor and comedian
    Where: Princeton University, Class Day 2012
    Memorable words: "You are young. And because of that, you are wrong."
    Watch excerpts here.
  • Who: Katie Couric, special correspondent for ABC News
    Where: University of Virginia
    Memorable words: "Life can deal you some crushing blows, and we all need a deep reserve of resilience to survive. Losing someone is also a reminder that life is short, and fragile. We are all terminal. And that's why we have to be grateful for the time we have and savor the joy that comes our way."
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Viola Davis, actress
    Where: Providence College
    Memorable words: "You see, the two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you discover why you were born...You veer off course, but all that while, that purpose, that thing that you were specifically, divinely made for will be looming in front of you."
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Robert DeNiro, actor
    Where: Bates College
    Memorable words: "It's too late to save the tuition, but it's not too late to save yourselves, and...I think this is the most important piece of advice you will hear today: Become a movie star."
    Read it here.
  • Who: James Franco, actor
    Where: University of Texas at Arlington's College of Liberal Arts
    Memorable words: "Don't be afraid to change your life's course. Don't be afraid to reinvent yourself."
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Ira Glass, host of Public Radio International's This American Life
    Where: Goucher College
    Memorable words: "The central mission of the commencement speech is in itself ridiculous: to inspire a moment which needs no inspiration."
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Jane Lynch, actress
    Where: Smith College
    Memorable words: "My advice to you: Live in the moment. Stay fluid and roll with those changes. Life is just a big extended improvisation. Embrace the ever changing, ever evolving world with the best rule I've ever found. Say 'YES AND.'"
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Colin Powell, United States Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005
    Where: Northeastern University
    Memorable words: "Do something that satisfies you every day, make our society a better place, and help your fellow citizens. Give your time and talent in service to others. The need to serve others has never been greater in our nation."
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Condoleezza Rice, United States Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009
    Where: Southern Methodist University
    Memorable words: "You see, education is transformative. It literally changes lives. That is why people work so hard to become educated. And that is why education has always been the key to human beings and their dreams—a force that erases arbitrary divisions of race and class and culture, and unlocks every person's potential."
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Andy Samberg, actor and comedian
    Where: Harvard University, Class Day 2012
    Memorable words: "The following majors are apparently useless as of tomorrow: history, literature, all things related to art, social studies, East Asian studies, pretty much anything that ends with studies, romance languages, and finally folklore and mythology . . . all those majors are now useless. Unless you can somehow turn them into an iPhone app."
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Adam Savage, co-host of MythBusters
    Where: Sarah Lawrence College
    Memorable words: "You will, at some point, probably move back in with your parents. Sorry, but it's true, it's cool, and it's only temporary."
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google
    Where: Boston University
    Memorable words: "The future doesn't just happen. It's not etched or written or coded anywhere. There's no algorithm or formula that says something will do X for Y to occur."
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Maria Shriver, author, journalist, and former first lady of California
    Where: University of Southern California's School of Communication
    Memorable words: "Today, I have one small wish for you. Before you go out and press that fast-forward button, I'm hoping—I'm praying—that you'll have the courage to first press the pause button."
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter (A Few Good Men, The Social Network)
    Where: Syracuse University
    Memorable words: "Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt."
    Read it here.
  • Who: Barbara Walters, broadcast journalist, contributor to ABC News
    Where: Yale University, Class Day 2012
    Memorable words: "The friends you have made here at Yale may be the best experience you have, and they will continue to be a part of your life long after you may—heaven forbid—forget the name of your professor and whatever he taught you."
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Brian Williams, anchor of NBC Nightly News
    Where: George Washington University
    Memorable words: "You don't actually have to build a rocket or go into space, but please take us somewhere. Please keep us moving. Push us, lift us up. Make us better."
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Oprah Winfrey, media mogul, talk show host, and actress
    Where: Spelman College
    Memorable words: "You must have some kind of vision for your life, even if you don't have a plan."
    Watch it here.
  • Who: Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon
    Where: University of Vermont
    Memorable words: "I really wanted to celebrate by sliming all of you, but the grown-ups said no." (Her speech then concluded with a surprise performance by SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick Star.)
    Read it here.

Did I miss one of your favorites? Add it in the comments!

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About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie is a Writer and Senior Editor at Wintergreen Orchard House, where she manages the collection of data from schools in the Northeast and Midwest regions. Stephanie holds a B.A. in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times she has been: an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. She looks forward to sharing her experiences with college-bound students and the counselors guiding them along the way!  

You can circle Stephanie on Google+, follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to her CollegeXpress blog.

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