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Words Of Wisdom: Commencement Speeches Are Back


The commencement speech season is underway and recent grads are soaking up the advice and wisdom from speakers across the country.

Last weekend, Michelle Obama spoke at Tuskegee University in Alabama, one of the nation's premier historically black universities. She spoke openly about being black in America.

"There will be times ... when you feel like folks look right past you, or they see just a fraction of who you really are," she told grads.

"The road ahead is not going to be easy," she said. "It never is, especially for folks like you and me."

In Chicago, after receiving an honorary doctoral degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Kanye West spoke to grads about asking for forgiveness rather than permission: " 'I'm sorry' is something that you can use a lot," he told the crowd. "It gives you opportunity to give your opinion, apologize for it, and give your opinion again."

Mary Karr, a poet and author best known for her memoir, The Liars' Club, delivered the commencement address to Syracuse University graduates.

She spoke about fear: "Getting what you want can often scare you more than not getting it." And she offered some advice as an "expert in fear."

"If you can get curious about what scares or infuriates you, especially if it's part of yourself, you can get way less scared," she said.

"Being curious and compassionate will take you out of your ego and edge your soul towards wonder ..."

And those three speeches are just the beginning. There are still many, many more to come this graduation season.

In the meantime, if you're looking for life advice — like "Do not pick your nose in public," from actress Sandra Bullock, or job advice — such as, "Try not to get a regular job," from show host Jay Leno — you should check out NPR Ed's online commencement database.

We sifted through hundreds of grad speeches (dating back to 1774) and compiled our favorites.

/ Illustration/NPR

We Need Your Help!

In the next few weeks, we'll be updating the database with the best speeches from the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Here are just a few we're looking forward to:

  • Ken Burns(May 15) — Washington University in St. Louis.
  • Julian Bond(May 16) — Skidmore College.
  • Maya Rudolph (May 16) — Tulane University.
  • Condoleezza Rice(May 16) — College of William and Mary.
  • Bill Nye(May 17) — Rutgers University.
  • Ian McEwan (May 17) — Dickinson College.
  • Samantha Power(May 18) — University of Pennsylvania.
  • Stephen Colbert (May 18) — Wake Forest University.
  • Christopher Nolan (June 1) — Princeton University.
  • You can see a more comprehensive list from the blog Graduation Wisdom here.

    If you see a great graduation speech this month or next month, let us know and we'll put it in.

    Tell us about your favorite graduation speeches — We're on Twitter at @npr_ed. Our Facebook page is here or you can drop us an email at NPREd@npr.org.

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Elissa Nadworny
    Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.