All the Best Celebrity Commencement Speeches, Ranked
We could all use a little inspiration these days. Even though graduation season has come and gone, the internet leaves us a treasure trove of motivation in the form of commencement addresses, meant to encourage all of us—whether we're heading back to campus or not—to incite change or make a difference, big or small. Here are the ten most impressive speeches, ranked from great to remarkable.
10. CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE, WELLESLEY COLLEGE, 2015
The Nigerian writer, clad in a yellowish head wrap as a nod to Wellesley's signature color, was welcomed with a standing ovation and roaring cheers from the class of 2015. Her speech primarily touches on gender injustices and privilege, but also mentions the healing power of makeup. "A good shade of lipstick can always put you in a slightly better mood on dark days," she says. Amen.
9. JON STEWART, COLLEGE OF WILLIAM & MARY, 2004
The comedian and William & Mary alum congratulates the 2004 graduating class for being able to walk in their robes in the Williamsburg, Va. heat as well as himself for receiving a doctorate with little to no effort. He then cautions them about the harsh aspects of "the real world," like finally having to pay for things. The truth hurts.
8. MERYL STREEP, BARNARD COLLEGE, 2010
Speaking to Barnard's class of 2010, the actress discusses the nerve-wracking responsibilities of giving a commencement address, then gives a rousing feminist speech to the predominantly female audience. "This is your time, and it feels normal to you, but really there is no normal," she says. "There is only change and resistance to it and then more change."
7. CONAN O'BRIEN, DARTMOUTH COLLEGE, 2011
O'Brien's address notes the unfairness of life, like how the class of 2011 worked for four years to earn a college diploma, while Dartmouth is giving him the same degree for interviewing the fourth lead in Twilight. He also jokes about how he prepared for the speech with same intellectual fervor that students devote to an important term paper: drinking two cans of Red Bull, snorting some Adderall, playing a few hours of Call of Duty, and logging onto Wikipedia. Sounds about right.
6. ELLEN DEGENERES, TULANE UNIVERSITY, 2009
After following George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at Tulane's 2006 commencement after Hurricane Katrina (in a bathrobe, no less), DeGeneres returned by popular demand to give the keynote speech in 2009. In it, she defines the meaning of "commencement" ("common" and "cement", she jokes) and espouses her love for New Orleans, where she was born and raised.
5. STEPHEN COLBERT, NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY, 2011
In his speech, the Late Show host and Northwestern grad recounts how, at his commencement, he never actually received a diploma due to unknowingly not completing one class. He also lauds the university, roasts Conan O'Brien, and does a brief rendition of "Ave Maria". Gratia plena.
4. OPRAH WINFREY, HARVARD UNIVERSITY, 2013
"Oh my goodness, I'm at Harvard!" exclaims the media giant before accepting her honorary doctorate and giving an inspirational speech about getting beyond failure. "Every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you," she says. She also jokes about how she wanted to reveal free degrees under everyone's seat, like in her talk-show. (You get a degree! You get a degree!)
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3. J.K. ROWLING, HARVARD UNIVERSITY, 2008
After dubbing Harvard's Commencement "the world's largest Gryffindor reunion," the Harry Potter author launches into a crowd-pleasing speech about the benefits of failure and the importance of imagination, sharing how she grew up from humble means to become one of the world's most celebrated novelists.
2. DAVID FOSTER WALLACE, KENYON COLLEGE, 2005
The influential writer begins his commencement address with a story: Two young fish are swimming along and happen to meet an older fish, who asks them, "How's the water?" Then one of the younger fish turns the other and says, "What the hell is water?" According to Wallace, it means that the most obvious things are often the most difficult to see. The speech was eventually published posthumously as a book titled This Is Water.
1. STEVE JOBS, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, 2005
Despite never having graduated from college himself, the late Steve Jobs took the stage at Stanford to share three life stories: one about dropping out of college and following his curiosity, one about getting fired and the importance of loving what you do, and one about being diagnosed with cancer. "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life," he says. "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."