The best part of your college graduation day will, of course, be that moment when you’re finally handed that diploma you’ve spent all those late night study sessions working toward. But before you toss your cap up in the air, there’s another crucial element to the ceremony: the commencement speech. They’re inspirational and sometimes funny, and hopefully they’ll leave you will some newfound wisdom you can take with you into grown-up land. Whether you’re preparing for your own college graduation or you’re just looking for a little bit of Friday motivation, here are 9 graduation speeches we love.
1. Amy Poehler, Harvard 2011: There’s nothing Amy Poehler can’t do, and that includes giving a kick-ass graduation speech. The Boston College grad let her humor shine, but sprinkled in some serious moments, too.
Her Standout Quote: “I graduated from Boston College. Which some call the Harvard of Boston. But we all know that Harvard is the Harvard of Harvard. And you can quote me on that.”
2. J.K. Rowling, Harvard 2008: Who wouldn’t want to hear from the woman who created the world of Harry Potter? But she was quite nervous about making the speech, and then she remembered that she couldn’t remember a word of what her graduation speaker said.
Her Standout Quote: “This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard. You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self-improvement.”
3. Sheryl Sandberg, Barnard 2011: Though her famous book hadn’t come out yet, it was clear the thoughts were already coming to fruition. Her advice?
Her Standout Quote: “So my heartfelt message is: Don’t leave before you leave. Don’t lean back, lean in. Keep your foot on the gas pedal until the day you have to make a decision. That’s the only way to ensure you even have a decision to make.”
4. Mindy Kaling, Harvard Law School 2014: Her speech to the law school class of this esteemed institution was full of humor, but wise words as well. But mostly humor. We love this line:
Her Standout Quote: “Harvard Law has an incredible number of illustrious alumni. President Barack Obama attended Harvard Law, or so he says. Elle Woods went here, from the trenchant documentary Legally Blonde.”
5. Michelle Obama, Dillard University 2014: She encouraged the graduates to volunteer and start mentoring programs, or to go even bigger and serve on a school board, in Congress, or as president. From her speech to the students in Louisiana:
Her Standout Quote: “We’re the lucky ones, and we can never forget that we didn’t get where we are today all on our own. We got here today because of so many people who toiled and sweat and bled and died for us—people like our parents and grandparents and all those who came before them, people who never dreamed of getting a college education themselves but who worked, and saved, and sacrificed so that we could be here today. We owe them.”
6. Meryl Streep, Barnard College 2010: Man, those Barnard girls get some good speakers! The Academy Award winner spoke of what an exciting time it was for these young women:
Her Standout Quote: “This is your time and it feels normal to you but really there is no normal. There’s only change, and resistance to it and then more change.”
7. Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane University 2009: The talk show host shared some great advice, but did it with her famous sense of humor.
Her Standout Quote: “Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path and by all means you should follow that. Don’t give advice, it will come back and bite you in the ass. Don’t take anyone’s advice. So my advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.”
8. Maria Shriver, University of Southern California’s Annenberg School Commencement Ceremony 2012: Shriver spoke about the “power of the pause” to the new communication grads.
Her Standout Quote: “I hope if you learn anything from me today, you learn and remember — the power of the pause. Pausing allows you to take a beat — to take a breath in your life. As everybody else is rushing around like a lunatic out there, I dare you to do the opposite.”
9. Kerry Washington, The George Washington University 2013: Washington, an alum of the school, encouraged everyone to be the author of their own script.
Her Standout Quote: “When you leave here today and commence the next stage of your life, you can follow someone else’s script, try to make choices that will make other people happy, avoid discomfort, do what is expected, and copy the status quo. Or you can look at all that you have accomplished today and use it as fuel to venture forth and write your own story. If you do, amazing things will take shape.”
Who was your favorite speaker from this list? Share with us in the comments below.