After the tassles are turned and the graduation caps fall back to the ground, students receive their diplomas and are thrust out into the real world. For some, the future may look frightening and uncertain. These graduation speeches from fantastic women, though, show that the future is simply what you make of it.
- J.K. Rowling
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well have not lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
In her speech for Harvard University in 2008, J.K. Rowling spoke about the twin benefits of failure and imagination. Starting out by admitting how nervous she is about speaking at such an important event, Rowling spoke about some of the most meaningful events in her life, including her fall to rock bottom, which inspired her to do what she loved. What was wonderful about her speech was her plea to graduates to take risks and go after adventure, for as she says, if you don’t you haven’t lived at all.
- Ellen DeGeneres
“Really, when I look back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing. I mean, it was so important for me to lose everything because I found out what the most important thing is, to be true to yourself.”
Ellen DeGeneres‘ speech for Tulane University in 2009 is predictably chock full of jokes and gags, but in the middle she shares a very personal story of how she lost one of her best friends in a car accident. In trying to come to terms with what had happened, Ellen began writing down her feelings, which evolved into her stand-up shows and her current career. She argues that the definition of success is constantly changing, and so the best thing you can do is be true to yourself.
- Michelle Obama
“So you can either choose to use those opportunities to continue fighting the fights that we’ve been locked in for decades, or you can choose to reject those old divisions and embrace folks with a different point of view.”
Michelle Obama‘s speech to the graduates of Eastern Kentucky University in 2013 covered three equally important topics. First, she spoke about the importance of family values, and how much love plays a role in those values. Second, she addressed the question of what comes next and the importance of helping others. Third, Obama talks about just how vital inclusivity is in enriching everybody’s lives. Her speech addressed everybody involved in the students’ lives, from their parents to their friends, and the importance of being there for others.
- Mindy Kaling
“Except here’s the difference: You are the nerds who are going to make some serious bank, which is why I’m here today – to marry the best looking amongst you.”
In her speech to the Harvard Law graduates of 2014, Mindy Kaling good naturedly mocks everybody around her: the graduates, the professors and mostly herself. She says she has no idea why she was asked to speak at this event. However, she impresses on the graduates how important their role in the world is, and how the prestige of having graduated from Harvard will stay with them forever. As she says, “If you kill someone, you are the Harvard Law Murderer.”
- Amy Poehler
“No one is here today because they did it on their own.”
At Harvard Class Day 2011, Amy Poehler stressed the importance of sharing your life with other people. She describes the rules of improv she learned when she was starting out: “Listen, say yes, live in the moment, make sure you play with people who have your back, make big choices early and often.” She extols the virtues of taking chances, and taking solace in your loved ones when you’re frightened or anxious.
- Kerry Washington
“The choice is yours. 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. Or, you can look at all you have accomplished today and use it as fuel to venture forth and write your own story.”
Kerry Washington, in her speech to the graduates of George Washington University in 2013, took the chance to highlight the achievements of her audience. The George Washington alumna talked about how graduates should push themselves out of their comfort zones in order to become their own person, rather than the ideal graduate. She also joked how preceding years had leading political figures, such as Michelle Obama, and the class of 2013 got “that lady who’s having an affair with the president on that TV show.”
- Julie Andrews
“Don’t engage in random acts of kindness, engage in planned acts of kindness.”
In her speech to the graduates of University Colorado Boulder in 2013, Julie Andrews stressed how important kindness would be in their future lives. She argues that they need to be “beacons of light” in a world that needs them, someone to fight for the future of the world. She also asks that they make time for the arts in their lives, as they are “food for the soul.”
- Toni Morrison
“You don’t have to accept media, or even scholarly labels for yourself … every true heroine breaks free from his or her class – upper, middle and lower – in order to serve a wider world.”
Toni Morrison urged the graduates of Rutgers University in 2011 to look beyond themselves in their lives outside university. In a stirring speech, she outlines many of the ridiculous ideals of today’s world, including the high price of education and privatized health care, and challenged them to create a better world for themselves and others.
- Sheryl Sandberg
“We will never close the achievement gap until we close the ambition gap. But if all young women start to lean in, we can close the ambition gap right here, right now, if every single one of you leans in.”
In 2011, Sheryl Sandberg addressed the graduates of Barnard College by tackling the issues of inequality in the workplace. She noted that while university graduates became 50/50 male/female around 30 years ago, it still hasn’t been reflected in the workplace. Using ideas from her yet-to-be released book, “Lean In,” she encourages women to be ambitious and close the gap in the workplace.
- Maria Shriver
“Pausing allows you to take a beat – a breath in your life.”
Maria Shriver spoke to graduates from the USC Annenberg School of Communication in 2012, and acknowledged the “what next” question many would be asking themselves. She noted that all their lives, people would be asking what next, whether it’s in their professional or personal lives. To address the problem, Shriver recommended they take the time to pause and reflect on their lives, to halt the incessant flow of information and take time out for themselves.
These women have shown that you really can do anything you set your mind to. A little ambition, imagination and hard work will take you a long way.
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