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Best Commencement Address Takeaways for 2017 Grads

Though it’s really easy to get excited about graduating college, in can be very hard to find yourself moved by any commencement address. Think about it, you’re anxious about the future, maybe a little sad, have probably been outside for hours, and really just want to hear your name called and go home.  But as dry as conventional musings about how your class is “the future” (along with every class before and after it) can be, every year there are a handful of commencement addresses that genuinely challenge our expectations and bless new grads with palpable insight. With graduation 2017 in the rear view, here are four standouts from the 2017 season, that every new graduate should hear.

Bernie Sanders- Take Stake in the Future

Sanders’ speech didn’t deviate very much from his campaign trail musings, but none the less his self-described “dose of reality” is something all new grads should hear. The Vermont senator was adamant about reminding the graduating class that the future of the United States —and the world— is in the hands of young people. While noting that we live in what he calls a dangerous political time, Sanders was clear in his message that football is a spectator sport, but democracy isn’t.


Senator Sanders wasn’t wrong to point out the peril that our country is in, especially as it relates to access to education. The current presidential administration has shown little interest in supporting students stuck under the weight of crippling student loan debt or for students trying to educate themselves in a way that will negate that debt. For Sanders, the only solution is our unapologetic interest in creating a better and more equitable world, not just for ourselves, but for our descendants.

Oprah Winfrey- There Are No Limits on a Life of Service

Oprah Winfrey is no stranger to philanthropy. According to a report from People Magazine, the former TV personality is the most philanthropic-minded celebrity “by a huge margin”. In 2016 Winfrey dropped about 40 million of her own dollars into helping the Oprah Winfrey Foundation support programs that provide women and children with access to a decent education.

While Winfrey was elated that many members of Agnes Scott College’s graduation class are going on to serve with organizations like the Peace Corps and Teach for America, the mogul was quick to mention that her “whole life was a prayer” and “an offering in service.” She emphasized how first we must serve the self by fostering it into its most actualized version; something we do through our interactions with others and in our education. According to Winfrey, it’s after we elevate our own minds, that we can entertain a constant state of humility that shows our higher calling to us. Maybe you don’t have two years of life to give to the Peace Corps or $40 million to make education more accessible, but what you can possess is a drive to always find your passion, because it’s the passionate attitude, not just the laundry list of accomplishments, that can change the lives of those around us.

Betsy DeVos- Know Yourself and Don’t Back Down

Okay, so this one isn’t exactly about the speech per-se, but is easily in the pantheon of potential learning experiences. #BackstoBetsy was trending on Twitter after Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, was almost booed off stage during her commencement address at Bethune-Cookman University.  If there’s anything for the new grad to take away from DeVos’ speech it is the eminent reminder that at the end of the day you have to know what you’re ‘about’ and try not to let go of it.

In every sense the Bethune-Cookman president would’ve preferred that the graduates sit around and say absolutely nothing. No boo’s and no backs turned. There is so much pressure when people leave college to just take anything that’s thrown at them, but my advice would be to try and approach the after-college years like these grads did – determined and uncompromising. Uncompromising isn’t always a bad thing.There may come a time —on any career path— when you feel that an employer is testing your integrity. But in the face of something that represents what you think is truly wrong with the world, you don’t have to yield. There’s always room for people to pick a side and stand up.

Will Ferrell- Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

Will “we’re going streaking!” Ferrell is arguably the most left field orator on this list. None the less, his speech contains one of the greatest takeaways for any new grad — don’t take yourself too seriously! Ferrell explains how as an undergrad he would regularly abdicate his work-study responsibilities to wander about campus. After a friend invited him to “crash” a literature course, Ferrell stole a janitor’s outfit and cleaning supplies before strutting into the classroom mid-lecture. The actor told the professor —while in character— that he’d been sent to clean up a student’s vomit. Much to Ferrell’s surprise, the professor was amused and a month later pulls him over on campus to call his janitor act “one of the funniest” things he’d ever seen.

Ferrell ultimately colluded with the professor who asked him to come in and surprise another class with the act. After a few tries, the students caught on and would eventually break to indulge him. It was the willingness to put himself out there that opened Ferrell’s mind up to the idea that large groups of people could find him funny. For the actor, it was the professor’s support of his good attitude and craft that he used to “give myself [Ferrell] permission to be silly and weird”. For the new grad, that anecdote is paramount. Imagine if Ferrell had taken himself so seriously that the idea of crashing a lecture while in character was off the table? He’d have never envisioned himself as who he is today without seizing that opportunity to be vulnerable and creative. As a student leaving college, it’s important to never be so rigid in your perception of yourself or a space, that you miss out on dynamic exposure to new ideas.

Last Words

When we leave school, inspiration and purpose are the things we crave. To have all this knowledge without an outlet can be maddening. Sure, each of these speakers had something different to say, but the through line is to always seek out your passion and use it. If being passionate equals philanthropy, shaking up the political system, or just making people laugh, then it’s worth doing. The path post-transition isn’t always clear, but if we aim to know ourselves and our environment then there’s always a move to make.

Article by Raz Robinson, journalist and freelance writer, based in New York City and Philadelphia. You can connect with him on LinkedIn, email at razrobinson9(at)gmail(dot)com, or follow on Twitter @razrobinson.

This entry was posted in Career Advice, College Life, Education & Training, Employment Trends, First Year on the Job, HBCU Career Programs, HBCU's and Politics, Life After College, Millennials at Work, New Grad, Professional Development, ReSkill America and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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