Bleary-eyed, you turn the final page of the final chapter of one of your numerous $200 textbooks and, emerging from the dungeon of your school’s library, brush the months-long accumulation of dust from a nearby window in order to peer outside at the world beyond. The sun is shining (metaphorically if not literally), the flowers are blooming, and months—nay, years!—of exams and essays and polar vortexes are now just fading memories of the past. Even if you completed your studies earlier and have spent the last week or so in a euphoric, drunken stupor, you’re probably clawing your way out of a similar haze.
Either way, the season of graduation is upon us, and the future, as they say, is bright. But before you toss your caps in exuberant triumph and set up your corner office at your brand-new, high-paying job (or, you know, not), you still have the actual graduation ceremony to sit through—and though these ceremonies are often unbearably tedious, there is one aspect of commencement that inevitably garners anticipation and excitement: the speakers.
Commencement speakers are generally chosen to speak at graduations because they attended that school themselves, or they have a vague connection to the university, or they grew up in the area, or simply because they’re super famous and they actually said yes. More often than not, said commencement speakers didn’t step foot in an institution of higher education at all, and they’ll make a light jab at their position in life versus your position in life before immediately backpedaling and hastily insisting that you haven’t totally wasted all of your time and money on pursuing a college degree, as every single graduating senior in attendance spirals further and further downward into a pit of crippling despair.
But despite all this, many commencement speakers throughout the years have managed to impart profound pearls of wisdom to students who are about to enter the “real world.” So whether you’re graduating from college, high school, or a prestigious and highly selective New York City preschool (or, if you’re simply searching for your daily dose inspiration), these memorable commencement speeches are not to be missed.
Bonus drinking game, because everything must always have a drinking game: Take a shot when you hear anything along the lines of “I never even graduated college, SUCKAS,” “I graduated from a different college, LoL,” “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life” or “Failure is AWESOME.”
J.K. Rowling (Harvard University, 2008)
It may be difficult to picture J. K. Rowling as being “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless,” but the woman who enchanted a generation of readers went through many rough patches before the sudden success of Harry Potter. In her 2008 Harvard commencement speech, JKR recounted some of her pre-HP experiences and exalted the surprising benefits of failure and the profound importance of imagination.
Sound bite: “We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: We have the power to imagine better.”
David Foster Wallace (Kenyon College, 2005)
David Foster Wallace’s speech is unflinchingly honest—but also surprisingly comforting, as far as unemployed liberal arts college grads are concerned (holla!). His vivid portrayals of the types of people we will meet—and become—in the Real World enables him to explain the profound benefits of a liberal arts education.
Sound bite: “This is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your own head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone– day in and day out.”
Neil Gaiman (Pennsylvania University of the Arts, 2012)
This particular speech means a lot to me because Gaiman reminisces about a point in his life that feels very, very familiar, which in some obscure way suggests that I have the potential to become Neil Gaiman when I get older, which would be totally awesome because he is THE BEST. Gaiman gets a bit mind-over-matter-y at times, but his message about doing what you love and loving what you do is something that will never get old.
Sound bite: “Make. Good. Art.”
Ellen DeGeneres (Tulane University, 2009)
Because it’s Ellen, you’ll be laughing out loud within the first ten seconds. Much of her commencement address really is just a bundle of laughs, but nestled in between the many puns and gags are some more solemn anecdotes that provide a heartening backdrop to Ellen’s life story and career.
Sound bite: “Look at you all, wearing your robes. Usually when you wear a robe at ten in the morning, it means you’ve given up.”
Meryl Streep (Barnard College, 2010)
Streep’s speech contains large chunks of humblebrag about how she loves/hates being so famous. (We feel for you, Meryl.) But her advice about “studying the world” and treating everyone with empathy are sincere, and she’s Meryl freakin’ Streep so who the hell cares.
Sound bite: “Being a celebrity has taught me to hide but being an actor has opened my soul.”
Steve Jobs (Stanford University, 2005)
Even in death, Steve Jobs seems larger than life, but this heartfelt speech containing three personal anecdotes reveals the more human side to the technological titan.
Sound bite: “You have to trust in something, your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever, because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”
Amy Poehler (Harvard University, 2011)
Newsflash: Amy Poehler is funny. But the Boston College grad also had a lot to say about the joys of collaborating with others and the importance of not being afraid to take risks.
Sound bite: “Take your risks now, as you grow older you become more fearful and less flexible — and I mean that literally. I hurt my knee on the treadmill this week — and it wasn’t even on.”
Elle Woods (Harvard Law School, 2004)
I learned so many important things from Legally Blonde: how to execute the “bend and snap,” how to sit up absurdly straight while riding a bicycle, and how to properly care for permed hair. Though Miss Woods’ speech is the last on this list of esteemed commencement speakers, her speech is also the most memorable, probably because it’s the shortest and therefore easiest to memorize.
Sound bite: “You must always have faith in people, and most importantly…you must always have faith in yourself.”
To paraphrase Elle’s concluding remarks: Congratulations class of 2014; we did it!