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Who Gave The Best Graduation Speech? Here Are 7 Worth Remembering

An image of students tossing their graduation caps
Ian Norman


Famous speakers will address thousands of college students across the state for commencement ceremonies in the coming weeks. As people in the crowd turn their tassels, these speakers will step on stage and try to deliver inspiring stories and advice to charge a new generation of college graduates.


Giving a speech takes confidence and finesse. Speakers are expected to be congratulatory, witty and full of encouragement to people who are just beginning life outside of textbooks and the occasional all-nighter in the library. Some people have gone down in history as delivering the most memorable words of wisdom.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy told students at American University to rethink their ideas of world peace stating, “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable — and we believe they can do it again."


Almost 40 years later, Apple CEO Steve Jobs gave students at Stanford a lesson on the gift of life, telling them to always “Stay hungry, Stay foolish.”

From Kennedy to Jobs and beyond, dozens of people have stepped up to the commencement podium. But who left the podium leaving people in awe? Here’s a look at who said “Good Luck” best:

David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005

David Foster Wallace’s “" target="_blank">This Is Water” speech prepares its listeners for the mundane routine that sometimes comes with adult life. Wallace delivers his message with a level-head but also with plenty of optimism. He tells the graduates to not let life go by without thinking outside themselves and enjoying what is happening around them.

"'Learning how to think' really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."

Michelle Obama, Eastern Kentucky University, 2013


The First Lady of the United States took Wallace's “talk to others” lesson and made it political. Obama asked who the EKU graduates would choose to include in their lives and how they were going to give back to family, friends and other communities that helped give them an education.

“If you’re a Democrat, spend some time talking to a Republican. And if you’re a Republican, have a chat with a Democrat. Maybe you’ll find some common ground, maybe you won’t. But if you honestly engage with an open mind and an open heart, I guarantee you’ll learn something. And goodness knows we need more of that, because we know what happens when we only talk to people who think like we do — we just get more stuck in our ways, more divided, and it gets harder to come together for a common purpose.”

Capitol Hill will visit North Carolina for graduation again this weekend when U.S. Congressman G.K. Butterfield (D-NC First District) speaks at Shaw University on Saturday, May 9.

Jeff Bezos, Princeton University, 2010

The founder of Amazon told a funny anecdote about his love for statistics as a kid as he calculated the number of cigarettes his grandmother smoked and the years she was puffing away, but ended his speech saying people are more than just their talents and gifts.

“What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy -- they're given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you're not careful, and if you do, it'll probably be to the detriment of your choices.”

Former Amazon executive Jason Kilar will speak at UNC-Chapel Hill's commencement this Sunday, May 10.

J.K. Rowling, Harvard, 2008


The best-selling author created a magical world with Harry Potter, but said she had a few blunders before the blockbusters. Rowling warned graduates at Harvard about life's failure but motivated them to always persevere.

"You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable ... Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected ... The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive."

Aaron Sorkin, Syracuse, 2012


Since he graduated from Syracuse in 1983, Sorkin wrote the Oscar-nominated movie A Few Good Men and the TV series The West Wing. The dialogue in his work is always sharp and keeps audiences on their toes. His style is unique, and he told the Syracuse graduates to forge their own style wherever they go and don't let other people second-guess them.

"You'll meet a lot of people who, to put it simply, don't know what they're talking about. ... Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt."

Oprah Winfrey, Spelman College, 2012

Winfrey stepped up the podium full of energy and ready to charge the graduates at Spelman College, a historically black women’s liberal arts college in Atlanta, GA. Her presence was powerful and her words were eloquent. After a successful career in the public spotlight, Winfrey’s words of wisdom were simple.

"You must have some vision for your life. Even if you don’t know the plan, you have to have a direction in which you choose to go.”

She also quoted Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, two people who told Winfrey, "Your crown has been paid for. Put it on your head and wear it."

Stephen Colbert, Northwestern, 2011

Late-night talk show host and political comedian Stephen Colbert is known for his witty speeches from college graduations to the White House Correspondents Dinner.


When Colbert visited Northwestern, he urged the graduates to take credit for their success but also to thank their parents because they gave them an education and a house to move back in to the next day.


He told the crowd to let their dreams change through life, which he depicted through Colbert’s evolution from wearing kimonos to no-iron khakis.

"You have been told to follow your dreams. But — what if it's a stupid dream? For instance, Stephen Colbert of 25 years ago lived at 2015 North Ridge — with two men and three women — in what I now know was a brothel. He dreamed of living alone — well, alone with his beard — in a large, barren loft apartment — lots of blond wood — wearing a kimono, with a futon on the floor, and a Samovar of tea constantly bubbling in the background, doing Shakespeare in the street for the homeless.Today, I am a beardless, suburban dad who lives in a house, wears no-iron khakis, and makes Anthony Wiener jokes for a living. And I love it. Because thankfully dreams can change. If we'd all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses."

Colbert will give another commencement speech on Monday, May 18 at Wake Forest University.

Along with Colbert, many more speakers are coming to North Carolina in the coming weeks to deliver advice to graduates. Check out the list of speakers and where to see them here.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond is a podcast producer for WUNC.
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