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by Vault Education Editors | June 01, 2011


May, a month people often refer to as “merry,” is also the month of college graduation, of commencement, an event not uncommonly called “a joyous occasion.” Commencement speeches, for the most part, have accorded with occasion and adopted tones of triumph, wonder, excitement about a graduate's future. This year, with that future so uncertain, the job market still so grim, speakers have taken less idealistic tones, giving advice that’s more measured, more hardened, and maybe a bit less merry.

Take a look at these 11 celebrity graduation speech excerpts and videos.


Which will it be—fear or faith? - Tom Hanks, Yale

"It’s true: You will now work, everyday, for the rest of your lives. That full-time job, you’re career, as human beings, and as Americans, and as graduates of Yale, is to stand on the fulcrum between fear and faith—fear at your back, faith in front of you. Which way will you lean? Which way will you move? Move forward. Move ever forward, and tweet out a picture of your results."


Your college education is an inheritance - Michelle Obama, Spelman

"That is the story of Spellman College: That unyielding presumption upon us, that presumption of brilliance, that presumption that every woman who enrolls at this school has something infinitely valuable to offer this school. And Ladies, that is now your story. That legacy is now your inheritance. And I’ve chosen that word “inheritance” very carefully. Because it’s not an entitlement that you can take for granted. It’s not a gift with which you can do whatever you please. It is a commitment that comes with a certain set of obligations, obligations that don’t end when you march through that arch today."



Happiness is not enough - Toni Morrison, Rutgers

"Please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course you deserve it, but if that’s all you have in mind—happiness—I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it’s a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good."



You will fail and you will suck - Denzel Washington, UPenn

"You will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose, you will embarrass yourself, you will suck at something—there’s no doubt about it. And I know that’s probably not a traditional message for a graduation ceremony, but hey, I’m telling you, embrace it, because it’s inevitable."


Take risks early - Amy Poehler, Harvard Class Day Speaker

"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."



Don’t try to figure it all out just yet - Michael Bloomberg, The George Washington University

"As you think about your career, whatever you do, don’t worry about mapping it all out. Just don’t play it safe. Don’t be the person who quits a startup company or a band before giving it a chance to make it big. Don’t be afraid to start over or change direction. The more risks you take, the happier you’ll be—even if they don’t work out. And I can assure you sometimes they won’t. But I can also assure you this: no matter what job you have, no matter who your employer is, the harder you work, the luckier you’ll get."



Do right with right mind - John Boehner, Catholic University

"Over the years, I’ve carried in my heart a similar code that my parents taught me. And it’s real simple: If you do the right things for the right reasons, good things will happen. So there you have it. Humility, patience and faith, and always a few tears from me.” (Starts crying at 10” mark)



Problems don’t always resolve of themselves; get involved - Robert Gates, Notre Dame

  "We cannot assume because things have worked out in the past, that the problems we face will eventually solve themselves. We need the active involvement of our best, most honest and talented citizens to make our democracy work—whether it’s as candidates for public office, as civil servants, members of our armed forces or in other roles."



The path you have chosen is hard, risky - President Obama, Coast Guard Academy

"But the hard work of protecting our country, the hard work goes on. Securing our homeland and guarding our shores. We will never waver in the defense of this country that we love. None of these missions will be easy and none are without risk. Etched among the headstones of Arlington and seaside memorials overlooking the oceans are names of coastguard men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. This is the life and the risk that you have chosen to accept."

Life is more than achievements - Aron Ralston (of “127 Hours” fame), Carnegie Mellon

"When I was on the brink of death, I didn’t eulogize myself via my life’s accomplishments. Rather, I turned to my loved ones to say thank you. Life is not just about what you do, or what you’ve achieved. It’s about who you are, how you relate with others, how you love."



Wisdom is what’s needed now - Ariana Huffington, Sarah Lawrence

"In the Internet Age, we are drowning in opinion. And we are drowning in data, which is another form of science. But we are desperate for wisdom. That’s really what we need from you, more than anything. And for me, one of the most important things about wisdom is to recognize that often the purpose of our life is not obvious as our life is unfolding."


Bill Clinton: B-Schools Promote One of 'Two Bad Ideas' Hurting America

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Filed Under: Education|Grad School