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Inspirational Advice for College Graduates: Famous Commencement Speakers

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Spring is quickly approaching and many colleges have already announced their commencement speakers for 2011. The individuals that are selected to address the degree candidates at graduation ceremonies, college commencement speakers often offer an entertaining mixture of wisdom and advice with a few laughs thrown into the mix. They are typically awarded an honorary doctorate from the school.

Some college students are thrilled with the commencement speaker chosen for their graduation ceremony while others don’t even have a clue who the person is—I might as well be honest, I don’t remember who the speaker was at my college graduation.

10 Famous College Commencement Speakers

From authors and talk show hosts to entrepreneurs and frogs, the following famous commencement speakers made quite an impression. Read on to learn more.

1. John F. Kennedy: American University, 1963

President John F. Kennedy spoke at American University’s spring 1963 commencement ceremony in Washington, DC. President Kennedy’s speech addressed the topic of world peace and called on the Soviet Union to work with the United States to achieve a nuclear test ban treaty and help reduce the considerable international tensions and the specter of nuclear war at that time.

Memorable quote:

“Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many of us think it is unreal. But that is dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable—that mankind is doomed—that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade—therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable—and we believe they can do it again.”

2. Dr. Seuss: Lake Forest College, 1977

In 1977, Theodore Geisel, better known by the pen name Dr. Seuss, was asked to speak at the Lake Forest College commencement ceremony in Chicago. Confusion arose when he mistakenly believed he had only been asked to receive an honorary degree and told the college’s president “I talk with people, not to people” and reported just days before commencement that he would not speak.

After being awarded the college’s honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Dr. Seuss recited an original poem he had composed for the ceremony: My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers, quite possibly the shortest “commencement speech” ever given.

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.”

3. Russell Baker: Connecticut College, 1995

American columist, author, humorist and political satirist Russell Baker won the Pulitzer Prize in for commentary in 1979 and again in 1983 for his autobiography. He addressed the 1995 graduating class of Connecticut College with his entertaining commencement speech 10 Ways to Avoid Mucking Up the World Any Worse Than It Already Is.

Memorable quote:

“Listen once in a while. It’s amazing what you can hear. On a hot summer day in the country you can hear the corn growing, the crack of a tin roof buckling under the power of the sun. In a real old-fashioned parlor silence so deep you can hear the dust settling on the velveteen settee, you might hear the footsteps of something sinister gaining on you, or a heart-stoppingly beautiful phrase from Mozart you haven’t heard since childhood, or the voice of somebody – now gone – whom you loved. Or sometime when you’re talking up a storm so brilliant, so charming that you can hardly believe how wonderful you are, pause just a moment and listen to yourself. It’s good for the soul to hear yourself as others hear you, and next time maybe, just maybe, you will not talk so much, so loudly, so brilliantly, so charmingly, so utterly shamefully foolishly.”

4. Kermit the Frog: Southhampton College, Long Island University, 1996

The beloved Emmy-winning Muppet Kermit the Frog delivered the main commencement speech for the 30th annual Commencement Exercises at Long Island University’s former Southampton College, a school well-known for its innovative curriculum devoted to issues of sustainability and the environment and one of the nation’s first fully “green” college campuses. Kermit received the Doctorate of Amphibious Letters and offered some words of wisdom to graduating students.

Memorable quote:

“I’m also here at Southampton to thank you for something even more important. I am here to thank you for the great work that you have done—and for the great work that you will be doing with your lives. You have dedicated yourselves to preserving the beauty that is all around us. While some might look out at this great ocean and just see a magnificent view, you and I know that this ocean—and every ecosystem—is home to an indefinable number of my fellow animals. As you go out into the world, never lose sight of the fact that you are not just saving the environment, you are saving the homes and lives of so many of my relatives. On behalf of frogs, fish, pigs, bears and all of the other species who are lower than you on the food chain, thank you for dedicating your lives to saving our world and our home.”

5. Jon Bon Jovi: Monmouth University, 2001

The front man of rock band Bon Jovi, musician and actor Jon Bon Jovi delivered the spring 2001 commencement speech at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey. A New Jersey native who made it big long before Jersey Shore hit MTV airwaves, he urged students not to downplay where they come from or whether their university has a big name or not.

Memorable quote:

“We tried to keep up with the Jones’ until I realized that even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat. One out of every 1,000 bands gets a record deal. One out of a million have any success. I’ve been to the top and I’ve been written off more than once… but I’m still here. Still the underdog? Maybe. Passionate? Definitely. Nothing is as important as passion. No matter what you want to do with your life, be passionate. The world doesn’t need any more gray. On the other hand, we can’t get enough color. Mediocrity is nobody’s goal and perfection shouldn’t be either. We’ll never be perfect. But remember these three P’s: Passion + Persistence = Possiblity.”

6. Toni Morrison: Wellesley College, 2004

Best known for The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved, Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, editor and professor Toni Morrison addressed the 126th graduating class of Wellesley College in 2004.

Memorable quote:

“Of course, you’re general, but you’re also specific. A citizen and a person, and the person you are is like nobody else on the planet. Nobody has the exact memory that you have. What is now known is not all what you are capable of knowing. You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative (no author does, I can tell you), you could nevertheless create it.”

7. Steve Jobs: Stanford University, 2005

Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple and former head of Pixar Animation Studios, addressed the 2005 graduating class of Stanford University. Considered one of the world’s most successful college dropouts, Jobs quit Reed College in 1972 after just six months and proceeded to become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world.

Memorable quote:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

8. Oprah Winfrey: Howard University, 2007

Talk show host, actress, philanthropist and all-around media mogul Oprah Winfrey was selected to address the 2007 class of Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, DC. She was awarded an honorary doctorate in humanities and declared a “citizen of the universe” by Howard president H. Patrick Swygert. Oprah was brought to tears and announced, “You can receive a lot of awards in your life, but there is nothing better … there is nothing better than to be honored by your own."

Memorable quote:

“Dr. Swygert was mentioning my grandmother who had a dream for me. And her dream was not a big dream. Her dream was that one day I could grow up — she used to say, I want you to grow up and get yourself some good white folks, because my grandmother was a maid and she worked for white folks her whole life. And her idea of having a big dream was to have white folks who at least treated her with some dignity, who showed her a little bit respect. And she used to say, I want you to — I hope you get some good white folks that are kind to you. And I regret that she didn’t live past 1963 to see that I did grow up and get some really good white folks working for me.”

9. Bill Gates: Harvard University, 2007

Founder of Microsoft and chairman of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates is one of the most famous Harvard dropouts. Even so, he was asked to address the Harvard University class of 2007 calling graduates to not make the same mistake he did when leaving Harvard–not recognizing the terrible inequities in the world.

Memorable quote:

“But taking a serious look back I do have one big regret. I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world-the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair. I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas in economics and politics. I got great exposure to the advances being made in the sciences. But humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries-but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity-reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.”

10. J.K. Rowling: Harvard University, 2008

British author J.K. Rowling received the honor of delivering the commencement speech, The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination at Harvard University’s 2008 graduation ceremony. The wizard behind Harry Potter, Rowling’s books have won multiple awards, sold more than 400 million copies, and were the basis of the popular Harry Potter movie franchise.

Memorable quote:

“I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom. I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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