From Will Ferrel singing at USC to Betsy DeVos being booed at Bethune-Cookman, here are six stand-out speeches from this season’s graduation ceremonies.
By Rachael Seamands, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis
For college seniors all over the country, the wait is over—graduation is here!
The time has come for well-wishes and good-luck checks with lots of zeros from your mom, uncle, grandma and distant cousin. The graduation cap emoji is frequenting Instagram captions, and Snapchat filters are providing school-color-coordinated showers of confetti based on your location. It’s a great time of year for social media, and amongst all of the cap-and-gown pictures and tassel-switching boomerangs, several timely videos are going viral to further fuel school spirit.
Universities across the country are receiving visits from celebrities to speak at their graduation ceremonies. While names like Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey may overshadow the likes of “The Sopranos” actor Steven Van Zandt and Senator Cory Booker simply due to popularity, visits from anyone of celebrity status are ones to celebrate. So far, here are the best commencement speeches from celebrities across the country.
Levitan, the co-creator of “Modern Family,” spoke at UW-Madison on May 13. Levitan graduated thirty-three years prior from the school, and shared a picture of himself in his cap and gown, wearing only a pair of shorts and a t-shirt underneath, while holding a big bottle of champagne as he received his diploma. “I carried it as if to say, ‘Hey, world, lower your expectations.”
Clearly still true to his school, Levitan had many stories to share about skipping class, partying and the typical “back in my day” anecdotes about the lack of technology during his time in college. With his parting words, Levitan spoke about what he had found in his own life, and what he hoped the seniors sitting before him would find in the years ahead.
“Don’t sit back and wait for good things to happen; make them happen. Put in extra hours, learn new skills, identify new opportunities, spend time with people who are different from you and spend time with people who lift you up rather than drag you down. The world is changing; make sure you change with it. But don’t worry about everyone else—if their life is so great, they wouldn’t post pictures of themselves every ten minutes. Shake off your past limitations and be the best version of yourself.”
Monáe, an actress and the singer behind “Tightrope,” received an honorary degree from Dillard and spoke at the commencement ceremony of her own graduation. Following the ceremony, she tweeted a photo of herself in the black cap and gown, sending an all-caps message of love and graciousness to thank the graduating class for having her speak. Monáe spoke about her parents and how they influenced her as she grew up, as well as her own inspiration, Mary Jackson, a NASA physicist, and the woman Monáe portrayed in her film, “Hidden Figures.”
“Community is so important, now more than ever these days, and I know you see it and I know we are all affected by what’s going on around the world. Everybody should have the right to the American dream. No matter who you love, no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like and no matter what God you serve. May we continue to honor our past, and the foundation so many before us have lain. It’s our responsibility to sustain the future now—it’s in our hands. And so, on this day, I celebrate as you remember the power of grace and pride, and I challenge you to choose freedom over fear.”
Octavia Spencer, the author and actress well known for “The Help,” gave a speech at Kent State’s commencement ceremony on May 13. The announcement of Spencer’s speech received some negative attention in the media, because, for the first time in Kent State’s history, the guest speaker would be paid. Spencer received $100,000 to speak at Kent State, along with the agreement that the speech would not have to exceed fifteen minutes.
However, the university also acknowledged that it was the first year that the entire school would be coming together for a mass graduation ceremony. Celebrities have been paid in the past to speak at other universities, and Spencer’s personal journey about being the child of a maid from Alabama and working her way to becoming a college graduate was one that Kent State was and should have been willing to pay to hear.
“It’s my deepest hope that the curiosity that has guided you here continues to be a guiding light in your life. Represent your own curiosities to the world. Keep moving people, keep reading, keep nourishing what makes your voice unique and defend it for yourself and for others. This ending today is also a beginning. Most endings are, if you’re paying attention. But now you get to go forward. So what’s next for you? What path will you choose? While you reflect on that, I will leave you with Emerson: ‘Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path, but leave a trail.’”
4. Will Ferrel at the University of Southern California
Will Ferrel, a man who needs no introduction, spoke to a lucky group of students at the 2017 graduation ceremony at his alma mater, USC. He talked about how unlucky he had been in his early life, from being broke to surviving on stand-up gigs, mustard and spaghetti.
Ferrel drove home the point that the momentum he eventually gained took years to get going, and he hasn’t taken a single second of his life for granted since then. Understandably, Ferrel didn’t spend the entire speech with a serious face and heartfelt words. A master of comedy, he didn’t disappoint his fans in the audience when he ended his speech by belting the words of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” at the top of his lungs.
“For the graduates sitting out there who have a pretty good idea about what you’re doing with your life, congratulations. 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 dart board. 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: ‘If I should stay, I would only be in your way….'”
You know the rest.
Perhaps the commencement speech with the least amount of positive feedback from this year’s graduation season was the one given by Secretary of Education Betsy Devos at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black university. Devos was actively booed at during her speech, and some students even turned their backs on her as she approached the podium.
Reportedly, Devos’s speech had been an attempt by the Trump administration to reach out to the historically black universities around the country. Petitions had been sent to the office of the university’s president in the hopes that Devos’ speech would be cancelled in favor of another, but to no avail. Upon the introduction of Devos, the boos began in full force and the university’s president, Edison Jackson, stopped and said, “You don’t know her. You don’t know her story.” The boos and shouts continued throughout the speech, and did not stop until she did.
“The natural instinct is to join in the chorus of conflict, to make your voice louder, your point bigger and your position stronger. But we will not solve the significant and real problems our country faces if we cannot bring ourselves to embrace a mindset of grace. We must first listen, then speak—with humility—to genuinely hear the perspectives of those with whom we don’t immediately or instinctively agree.”
Despite the majority, or at least the majority of loud voices, of students’ reactions being negative, Jackson held firm to his belief that Devos was a good choice. “The truth of the matter is that she is passionate about education. Can you imagine how many institutions would love to have the secretary of education be their commencement speaker?” he said.
Artist Pharrell Williams spoke at NYU’s commencement on May 17, choosing to focus on how endless the possibilities are in life once balance is created. Williams began by thanking NYU’s president, Andrew Hamilton, for the invitation. His mother, he said, is a lifelong educator and is very proud of him for speaking at the commencement.
Williams called himself a “forever student” in his speech, noting that to be a teacher means to be in the service of humanity more so than just a public servant. While Williams’s speech was not as long as Will Ferrel’s or quite as comedic, it was easy to hear in his words the artistry that he uses when writing his songs. His lines had a poetic sense to them, and the messages he worked to get across were powerful.
“The days of being an anonymous activist or participant are over. How can we inspire if we are only behind the scenes? How will an anonymous donation ever inspire another? That was the way of previous generations. Don’t be like them. Let your actions serve as an endorsement for education and watch the demand rise. There is no humanity without education. There is no education without demand. You are all walking endorsements for education. Embrace it.”