Graduation Speeches 101

By Guest Contributor

The start of J-term is one of the happiest times of the year for Middlebury students. Unless you are one of those masochistic types who has opted to take J-Orgo or a CW, most Middkids have plenty of free time to ski, sleep, and relax. For me, J-term has always been a good time for soul-searching and some of the best possible soul-searching can be done with the aid of graduation speeches. Think about it: some of the world’s most successful people are asked to summarize the most valuable things they have learned in life in twenty minutes or less. Every year, scores of speakers across the US take up this challenge and his or her words are ingrained forever in the immortal walls of the internet. Here are ten of my favorite graduation speeches. I bet you a Dr. Feel-Good that you will find yourself inspired by at least one of them.

1. Cyma Zarghami (UVM, 2012)

This UVM alumna and president of Nickelodeon gives graduates reasons not to despair as they enter a tough job market. Warning: be prepared to listen to Spongebob diss Middlebury at the end of the speech.

2. Bill Watterson (Kenyon College, 1990)

The legendary cartoonist of Calvin and Hobbes describes how he took procrastination to a whole new level by recreating Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of his dorm room. He also gives a lot of great advice on how to live a good life.

3. Oprah Winfrey (Spelman College, 2012)

Oprah shares three valuable pieces of advice with graduates of one of America’s oldest historically black colleges for women.

4. Steve Jobs (Stanford, 2005)

Ever wonder if that class you’re taking will be of any use to you in the future? Jobs describes how if he hadn’t taken a calligraphy class while he was at Reed, computers probably wouldn’t have the wide array of typefaces and fonts that they have today.

5. JK Rowling (Harvard, 2008)

Rowling, who with the success of Harry Potter became wealthier than the Queen of England, tells graduates that she herself was the biggest failure she knew seven years after her college graduation. She ends her speech by describing the power that imagination has to change the world.

6. Salman Khan (MIT, 2012). 

The founder of the revolutionary educational website Khan Academy takes graduates through a powerful and entertaining thought experiment that has allowed him to live a life with minimal regrets.

7. Michelle Obama (Virginia Tech, 2012)

The First Lady takes a unique approach of giving a commencement speech by focusing on the lessons that the Hokie Nation has taught her in the wake of their 2007 school shooting rather than imparting her own advice to graduates.

8. Jonathan Safran Foer (Middlebury College, 2013).

In this speech, Foer makes the best argument that I have heard against the pursuit of human immortality. After listening to this speech, you will also find yourself spending more time taking in the scenery as you walk across campus and less time staring at your phone.

9. Ellen DeGeneres (Tulane, 2009)

Addressing the “Katrina Class,” DeGeneres details how she does not regret for a second her decision to come out publicly as a lesbian, even though it resulted in the canceling of her sitcom. Staying true to herself allowed her to make a return to television with an extremely successful talk show.

10. David McCullough, Jr. (Wellesley High School, 2012)

In this controversial, yet amazing, graduation speech, a high school English teacher tells his former students point-blank that none of them is special. A good reminder for most of us Middkids as well.

JONATHAN BRACH ‘13.5 is from Melrose, MA