8 Inspiring, Hilarious, and All-Around Awesome Commencement Speaker Addresses

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.

Senior Week ftw!
Senior Week ftw!

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!

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42 Responses to “What Are You Doing After Graduation?”  

Other variations of this query:

“What are you up to nowadays?”

“What are your plans for the future?”

“Is this an annoying question?” (When you put it that way….yes.)

“But seriously, what are you doing with your life?”

You’ve all been asking. Finally, I have some answers. So the next time you consider posing this question to me or to any other recent college grad/current senior, here’s some advice: Don’t. Instead, simply consult this helpful list of potential replies. Choose your favorite answer and commence seething with jealousy as you imagine my unconventionally fascinating life.

Let’s try it out!

You: “Hey, what are you doing after graduation?”

Me:

 

1. If I told you, I’d have to kill you.

2. Becoming a consulting detective. The only one in the world.

3. On that note, conducting frame-by-frame analyses of Sherlock while writing up philosophical treatises on the show’s characters counts as a “job,” right?

4. Training to be a ninja in the remote Akaishi mountain range.

5. Graduation? I’m still waiting for my Hogwarts letter…

6. Patenting perforated hockey tape so players don’t have to carry around scissors or totally ruin their teeth trying to tear traditional hockey tape.

7. I’m already well on my way to becoming a professional wedding guest.

8. Official Puppy Snuggler!

9. I find writing cover letters to be very life-affirming. I think I’ll do this indefinitely.

10. Me? Nah, let’s talk about—Look, it’s Superman!

11. Moving to Israel to organize and play for the Israeli women’s national hockey team in the 2018 Olympics.

12. I’m hoping to pull a Tilda Swinton and sleep in a glass box on display at the MOMA for money and art and also money.

13. Pie-eating contest judge.

14. Perennial “Bing vs. Google Challenge” participant.

15. Researcher in the “Tootsie Roll Licks” department.

16. Discovering and then memorizing every digit of Pi.

17. Simply walking into Mordor.

18. Proving the existence of Blibbering Humdingers and Wrackspurts.

19. Heading the Atlantis search-and-rescue team.

20. Saving the world from the Kragle.

21. Taking over for Hermione as head of S.P.E.W.

22. Working on a film/television set as the person in charge of creating fictional languages.

23. Testing mattresses at Sleepy’s.

24. Building ice castles in the mountains of an obscure Scandinavian country with the wickedly talented Adele Dazeem.

25. Border control security at Area 51.

26. Squatting in the local library until I’ve read every single book in the building.

27. Warming beds at the Four Seasons by sleeping in every room.

28. Dogsledding across Antarctica.

29. Experimenting with different flavors of ice cream in the hopes of developing the next great Ben & Jerry’s flavor.

30. Ghostbusting.

31. Exotic dancing.

32. Captaining the Black Pearl across the seven seas.

33. Coordinating staff activities at the Google offices.

34. Testing water slides for levels of fun and safety.

35. I plan on being paid to participate in the college psych studies for the rest of my life.

36. Sleeping in a cryo-chamber until Ryan Callahan is back on the New York Rangers.

37. Eating, Praying, Loving.

38. Participating in dance-offs across the country.

39. Scuba diving for treasure in the Bermuda Triangle.

40. Going to grad school. At the Jedi Knight Training Academy.

41. Filibustering.

42. Searching for the meaning of life.

 

…and what might you be up to these days?

 

A Tribute to Cory Monteith

I watched the first episode of Glee the very night it aired, immediately following the season finale of American Idol. (This was back in the day when I watched American Idol—and back in the day when I watched Glee, for that matter.) I was instantly hooked. I still count that first performance of “Don’t Stop Believing” as one of television’s most iconic moments; despite the inherent cheesiness of the stars’ matching outfits, and the fact the producers didn’t even try to mask the lip-synching, and the anti-climactic notion of singing to a stubbornly empty auditorium, the actors really just looked like they were having so. much. fun. It also provided our first glimpse at the unlikely, but undeniably thrilling, vocal chemistry between Lea Michele and Cory Monteith, one that would come to define many of Glee’s most popular numbers.

In a way, Glee was the Harry Potter of musicals; it’s been said that J.K. Rowling’s popular series revived kids’ interest in reading, and I’d argue that Glee functioned in much the same way with regards to musicals. In a brilliant stroke of marketing, FOX slotted in the series premiere of Glee right after the American Idol finale—and then forced us newfound Gleeks to wait two whole months for the rest of the season to pick up. Turns out I wasn’t the only lazy bum who stayed on my couch after AI that night; I remember discussing my excitement over this refreshing, peppy new TV series with a variety of my peers in school the next day.

Glee was beloved for destroying Breakfast Club stereotypes at the outset. You can be a football star and lead singer in the Glee Club. You can have Down syndrome and be on the cheerleading squad. You can be gay, or bisexual, or dumb, or have a big nose, and you can be you. And once the show gained traction, the writers took full advantage of the spotlight to explore very prevalent, very relevant teen issues. The first was homophobia. Chris Colfer became an instant idol to closeted—and out—teens everywhere, and the students of the Glee club became role models of acceptance. The next was teen pregnancy. Another was the very specific, but very, very prevalent issue of texting while driving. The delivery of the message was unartistically blunt, but I was okay with that, because I believe that it’s too important of an issue to risk it being lost in translation. I hope these messages were received loud and clear by Glee’s many devoted fans—fans who tuned (ahem) in week after week all in order to cheer on a couple of kids who liked to sing and dance.

A wise wizard once said that music is a magic beyond all that is learned at any esteemed school of witchcraft and wizardry. Indeed, there is something magical about music that causes it to dramatize a moment, and that’s where Glee really took off. Sure, the show got kooky at times, but the music was always soaring. After a time, I realized that I didn’t have to suffer through ridiculous plotlines to get my fix of Glee club performances, and instead could just binge-watch the musical numbers on YouTube later on. But it wasn’t just the complex harmonies that hooked me—it was the unbridled enthusiasm exhibited by the cast as they performed these complex harmonies and astounding choreography moves. And Cory Monteith, with his baby-faced smile, lumbering dance moves, and airy voice, was an integral part of all that.

It’s hard to know what to do or how to react when a celebrity dies. I can’t—and shouldn’t—even begin to imagine how Cory’s friends and family must feel, so I won’t attempt to address that. You feel sad, because a person you know existed now doesn’t, but you feel guilty for even feeling sad because you didn’t know him or her personally. And what you will miss of that person is not even that person, but a veneer, a public image, a character in a television series.

You also feel terrible spewing banalities like, “Such a talent was taken too soon,” because it shouldn’t matter how much talent a person had. And, truth be told, Cory was far from the most talented singer or dancer or even actor on the show. But that boy sure had a beautiful smile.

He had one of those smiles that makes it impossible not to smile back, and this smile was also on display when he was just Cory, not Finn Hudson, in interviews, articles, Twitter. To be honest, I had no idea about his history of substance abuse, so it’s clear—as with any human being on the planet—that his life was not all rainbows and unicorns. But even out of character, he seemed like a guy you’d want to be friends with, like a big teddy bear who could make you laugh and, oh yeah, serenade the hell out of you. His everyman persona was aided by the fact that he was a huge hockey fan—not only does he sing and dance and act but he also yells at referees and fumes after losses and jumps up in euphoria after goals. It felt like he was one of us.

On screen, Cory epitomized in the most literal way what Glee was all about. His was one of the most prominently heartfelt, joyful faces at the end of each episode, when the members of the club would sing and dance their hearts out to any number of popular or obscure songs, and Mr. Schuester would look on, beaming. Separate from the heavy stuff, Glee’s lighthearted jingles always made me unabashedly happy; the enthusiasm of the actors was contagious. Within that, Finn and Rachel—that is, Cory Monteith and Lea Michele—have always been at the heart of the show. Cory’s death is tragic, and in its own way, Finn Hudson’s disappearance is as well. Glee has never shied away from teaching difficult lessons, and telling the difficult truths. As I mentioned before, the show has always embraced its responsibility to educate its viewers. Here’s hoping the showrunners will find a way to honor both Cory’s memory and the heartwarming character he left behind. But here’s also hoping that, amidst tragedy, Glee will help us, through music, find that often-elusive, precious joy in life– like it has always done for me.

**

If you haven’t already sniffled through every Glee video on YouTube, check out a sampling of Cory Monteith’s greatest hits to get a feel for his performances. You might want to have your tissues at the ready.

The Beginning…

More Journey. You can never have too much Journey…

…Or too many epic Cory Monteith-Lea Michele duets…

…Or too many boy band covers. Definitely not too much of this. Ever.

And Cory rockin’ out on the drums is always pretty awesome, too.

RIP Cory.