Commencement Speech Sends Graduates Off To Make Their History

Commencement speeches are delivered at graduation ceremonies, often by graduating students or, more often, by a figure of note. The commencement speaker might be a politician, influential citizen, or other notable figure who can offer some words of wisdom to the graduating class.

When students complete a course of study, they move on or commence to the next stage of life in a ceremony known as”commencement” or “graduation.” The ceremonies often feature commencement speeches to send the graduates off into the world.

While technically, “commencement” refers to the bestowal of degrees at university graduations, it is used interchangeably with the term “graduation” for students at all levels. Hence, we have graduations and commencements – along with speeches – for preschoolers and kindergarteners as well as for those receiving Ph.D. degrees.

While a high school (or lower level) graduation ceremony often has speakers from the graduating class and faculty members offering speeches, a college commencement is likelier to have a more famous speaker to commemorate the auspicious occasion.

Who Gives A Commencement Speech At Graduation?

Individuals with the top academic honors often speak at graduations, known as the valedictorian and salutatorian. Faculty members or administrators will also speak at commencement ceremonies. This can be a university professor, dean, or president.

Alums are often asked to return to the university to address the graduates, primarily if the person is particularly accomplished. It is common for some universities to try to get big-name speakers, such as the president, vice president, and other dignitaries. The commencement speaker can be just about anyone.

What Is The Difference Between A Commencement Speech And A Graduation Speech?

There is no difference between a commencement speech and a graduation speech. Both are speeches given at a ceremony to celebrate individuals who have earned a degree and graduated. Whether the graduating class is from middle school, high school, or university, they can all be considered commencement.

Commencement speech  - valedictorian

What Is In A Commencement Speech?

All forms of speech writing require a clear introduction, the body of the speech, and a conclusion. Most speeches follow a graduation speech template that includes an opening that welcomes guests, introduces the speaker to the audience, and sets the stage for what you plan to say.

In the body of the speech, you can get your main points across by telling stories, using quotes, or sharing knowledge. Make sure the ideas can be brought together to add cohesion to your speech.

Many commencement speakers intend to inspire or motivate the audience, particularly the graduates. In Steve Jobs’ speech, he said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. 

And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” This advice was intended to get everyone thinking about how they want to live their lives.

Lastly, you want to wrap up your speech in a way that pulls the ideas you have made into some kind of conclusion. An audience will find your speech much more satisfying if nothing is left hanging.

What Is The Intent Of A Commencement Speech?

  • Acknowledgment: Many times, a graduate who has the honor of speaking at a commencement ceremony wants to acknowledge all the people who have helped the graduates get to that moment. Part of their speech will go to achieving that.
  • Celebratory: Since a high school or college graduation is a big deal, it stands to reason that part of the intent is to be celebratory. Celebrate that the graduates’ hard work has paid off in a big way!
  • Inspirational: Keynote speakers will often aspire to inspire those listening. That can be anything from living your best life to fulfilling your potential. The speech can be motivating not just to the newly graduated college students but to everyone in attendance.
  • Reflective: Spending some time looking back on the educational journey is another popular graduation speech tactic. 
Remembering the educational journey

How Does A Good Commencement Speech Usually Start?

Commencement speeches usually start with a salutation or greeting. “Friends, family members, distinguished guests, it is my distinct pleasure to have the opportunity to speak to you today.”

A commencement speaker at their alma mater might start, “It seems like just yesterday that I was sitting where you are, wearing the robe and graduation cap, wondering where life would take me.”

What Are Some Examples Of Famous Graduation Speeches?

Some commencement speeches offer insights and motivation to anyone who reads or hears them. Some of the all-time best graduation speeches are available on YouTube. If you don’t have time for the whole video, we have included a quote from each.

Barack Obama, Howard University, 2016 address

An important quote from the speech is, “This institution has been the home of many firsts, the first African American Nobel Peace Prize winner, the first black Supreme Court Justice, but its mission has been to ensure those firsts were not the last.”

Chadwick Boseman, Howard University, 2018 address 

“When you are deciding on next steps, next jobs, next careers, further education, you should rather find purpose than a job or a career. Purpose crosses disciplines. The purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you need to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.”

Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth College, 2011 speech

“Your perceived failure can become the catalyst for profound reinvention.”

David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005 “This is Water” speech

“The real value of a real education… has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over.”

Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane University, 2009 speech

“It was so important for me to lose everything because I found what the most important thing is. The most important thing is to be true to yourself. Ultimately that is what got me to this place. I don’t live in fear, I have no secrets, and I know I will always be OK because no matter what, I know who I am.”

George Saunders, Syracuse University, 2013 address

“Err in the direction of kindness.”

Hillary Clinton, Wellesley College speech, 2017

“And your education gives you more than knowledge. It gives you the power to keep learning and apply what you know to improve your life and the lives of others. Because you are beginning your career with one of the best educations in the world, I think you do have a special responsibility to give others the chance to learn and think for themselves, and to learn from them, so that we can have the kind of open, fact-based debate necessary for our democracy to survive and flourish. 

And along the way, you may be convinced to change your mind from time to time. You know what? That’s okay. Take it from me, the former president of the Wellesley College Young Republicans.”

J.K. Rowling, Harvard University Commencement Speech, 2008

“I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted, and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartache.” “Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the fates.” “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction.”

John F. Kennedy, American University speech in 1963

“I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living.”

Kamala Harris, Tennessee State University  speech, 2022

The value of this education is that it teaches you something very special — that yes, you can be anything and do anything.”

Maria Shriver, Commencement Remarks at the University of Michigan, 2022

“Put your shoulders back, hold your head up high, and walk through hell like you own the place. Trust me, life, at times, will feel like hell. But go forth, believe in yourself, and act as if this world awaits your authenticity, your wildness, your guts, and your bravery.”

Oprah Winfrey, 2008 speech at Stanford University

“Every right decision I’ve made ― every right decision I’ve ever made ― has come from my gut. And every wrong decision I’ve ever made was a result of me not listening to the greater voice of myself. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. That’s the lesson.”

President Joe Biden, commencement address at Howard University, 2023.

“A vivid demonstration when it comes to race in America, hope doesn’t travel alone. It’s shadowed by fear, by violence, and by hate.”

Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Taylor Swift, New York University, 2022 speech

“As long as we are fortunate enough to be breathing, we will breathe in, breathe through, breathe deep, breathe out.”

Pam Berg

A former English teacher and currently an elementary principal in a rural school, Pam has honed her speaking skills in the classroom and before professional groups. Pam enjoys sharing her insights about public speaking almost as much as she enjoys running, which she does daily.

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