15 Inspiring Celebrity Commencement Speeches
With graduation season well underway, it’s important that recent grads start their journey into the real world with strong words of encouragement and advice. Here are 15 famous people who gave inspiring and rousing commencement speeches.
1. OPRAH WINFREY // STANFORD UNIVERSITY
In 2008, Oprah Winfrey gave a 28-minute commencement speech at Stanford University. She spoke about her early career as a local news anchor in Nashville and her personal and professional journey of failure, success, and finding happiness in life.
"The secret I've learned to getting ahead is being open to the lessons," Winfrey said. "It's being able to walk through life eager and open to self-improvement and that which is going to best help you evolve, because that's really why we're here—to evolve as human beings. I believe that there is a lesson in almost everything that you do and every experience. Getting the lesson is how you move forward, is how you enrich your spirit. And trust me; I know that inner wisdom is more precious than wealth. The more you spend it, the more you gain."
2. STEVE JOBS // STANFORD UNIVERSITY
In 2005, Steve Jobs was the commencement speaker at Stanford University. He spoke about his work, but emphasized his failures in life, including getting fired at Apple and starting NeXT Computer. Jobs believed that failing at life made you better at working and living it.
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work,” Jobs said. “And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”
3. JON STEWART // COLLEGE OF WILLIAM & MARY
Twenty years after talk show host/comedian Jon Stewart graduated from the College of William and Mary, he returned as the commencement speaker for the graduating class of 2004. He spoke about his time at the Virginia college and offered up advice about the future.
“Love what you do. Get good at it. Competence is a rare commodity in this day and age. And let the chips fall where they may,” Stewart told the crowd. “College is something you complete. Life is something you experience. So don’t worry about your grade, or the results or success.”
4. STEPHEN COLBERT // WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY
Stephen Colbert gave the commencement speech to the Class of 2015 at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. It was about six months after he finished his nine-year run as host of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report and the talk show host/comedian compared his transition to The Late Show on CBS to graduating from college and entering the real world.
“It’s time to say goodbye to the person we’ve become, who we’ve worked so hard to perfect, and to make some crucial decisions in becoming who we’re going to be,” Colbert told the graduating class. “For me, I’ll have to figure out how to do an hour-long show every night. And you at some point will have to sleep. I am told the Adderall wears off eventually.”
Colbert also began and ended his speech with references to Mad Max: Fury Road, by telling the graduates, “May you ride eternal, shiny, and chrome.”
5. KATIE COURIC // UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN—MADISON
Katie Couric delivered the commencement speech at the University of Wisconsin—Madison in 2015, where she urged the students to “work hard, and then work even harder ... There may be days when you’ll say to yourself, ‘I can’t. I literally can’t even.’ But you can! You can even!”
6. JOHN GREEN // KENYON COLLEGE
In 2000, author and YouTube star (and mental_floss contributor) John Green graduated from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He recently returned to his alma mater to give the commencement speech for the graduating Class of 2016. During his speech, Green admitted that being an adult is terrible.
“All of it, actually—from the electricity bills to the job where your co-workers call themselves teammates even though this isn’t football for God’s sake—all these so-called horrors of adulthood emerge from living in a world where you are inextricably connected to other people to whom you must learn to listen,” Green said. “And that turns out to be great news. And if you can remember that conversations about grass length and the weather are really conversations about how we are going to get through, and how we are going to get through together, they become not just bearable but almost kind of transcendent.”
7. MAYA RUDOLPH // TULANE UNIVERSITY
In 2015, Maya Rudolph gave the commencement speech at Tulane University in New Orleans. The Saturday Night Live alum did her famous impressions of Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé, while giving the Class of 2015 some words of wisdom about creating your own life and destiny.
"During senior year, my father asked me what I planned to do after I graduated, and I told him 'I want to be on Saturday Night Live,'" she shared. "But until that moment, I never wanted to admit that being on SNL was my dream. I never wanted to admit that I was a thespian ... So if I must give any of you advice it would be say yes. Say yes, and create your own destiny."
8. JIM CARREY // MAHARISHI UNIVERSITY OF MANAGEMENT
In 2014, Jim Carrey surprised the graduating class at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa with a touching and emotional commencement speech about his father. He implored graduates to choose their own paths in life and to not settle out of practicality. Carrey also received an honorary doctorate for his achievements in comedy, art, acting, and philanthropy.
“The decisions we make in this moment are based in either love or fear,” Carrey told the students. “So many of us chose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect so we never ask the universe for it. I’m saying I’m the proof that you can ask the universe for it. And if it doesn’t happen for you right away, it’s only because the universe is so busy fulfilling my order.”
9. MINDY KALING // HARVARD LAW SCHOOL
Comedy writer/actress Mindy Kaling gave the commencement speech to the Class of 2014 at Harvard Law School, where she joked about her “glamorous” lifestyle, and questioned why Harvard would even ask her to be the commencement speaker in the first place. Kaling also joked that celebrities are the worst people in the world to give advice to recent graduates.
“What advice could I give you guys?” said the star of The Mindy Project. “Celebrities give too much advice and people listen to it too much. Most of us have no education whatsoever. Who should be giving advice and the answer is people like you. You are better educated and you are going to go out into the world and people are going to listen to what you say, whether you are good or evil, and that probably scares you because some of you look really young.”
10. STEVE CARELL // PRINCETON UNIVERSITY
In 2012, Steve Carell spoke to Princeton University graduates during Class Day. His niece was in the audience as one of the Ivy League school’s graduates. He spoke about his attempt to enter law school, but ultimately not becoming a lawyer once he read the question “Why do you want to be an attorney?" on the law school application. Carell then ended his speech with a few tidbits about what to expect from the real world.
“I would like to leave you with a few random thoughts. Not advice per se, but some helpful hints,” Carell told the graduating class. “Show up on time. Because to be late is to show disrespect. Remember that the words 'regime' and 'regimen' are not interchangeable. Get a dog, because cats are lame. Only use a 'That's what she said' joke if you absolutely cannot resist. Never try to explain a 'That's what she said' joke to your parents. When out to eat, tip on the entire check. Do not subtract the tax first. And every once in a while, put something positive into the world. We have become so cynical these days. And by we I mean us. So do something kind, make someone laugh, and don't take yourself too seriously.”
11. J.K. ROWLING // HARVARD UNIVERSITY
Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling gave the commencement speech at Harvard University in 2008. During her speech, Rowling talked about the value of imagination, failing in life to succeed, and friendship throughout school into the real world.
“The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life,” Rowling shared. “They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again.”
12. TOM HANKS // YALE UNIVERSITY
In 2011, Tom Hanks was the commencement speaker at Yale University. He told the graduates how they can make a deep impression on the world based on how they handle fear and if they inspire faith.
"Fear has become the commodity that sells as certainly as sex," Hanks said. "Fear is cheap, fear is easy, fear gets attention ... It's fast, it's gossip and it's just as glamorous, juicy and profitable. Fear twists facts into fictions that become indistinguishable from ignorance."
13. ELLEN DEGENERES // TULANE UNIVERSITY
Talk show host/comedian Ellen DeGeneres was the commencement speaker for Tulane University’s Class of 2009. At the ceremony, she was also awarded the Tulane University President's Medal. DeGeneres spoke about the importance of following your passions in life.
“Success is to live your life with integrity and to not give in to peer pressure to try to be something that you're not,” DeGeneres told the class. “Success is to be honest and to contribute in some way ... Follow your passion, stay true to yourself, never follow someone else's path unless you're in the woods and you're lost and you see a path then by all means you should follow that.”
14. CONAN O’BRIEN // DARTMOUTH COLLEGE
Late night talk show host Conan O’Brien addressed the Class of 2011 at Dartmouth College, along with “faculty, parents, relatives, undergraduates, and old people that just come to these things.” He spoke about his success and failures at NBC, while highlighting why it’s important to be disappointed in life: “Today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.”
O’Brien ended his speech by saying, “At the end of my final program with NBC, just before signing off, I said ‘Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.’ Today … I have never believed that more.”
15. KERRY WASHINGTON // GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
In 2013, Scandal star Kerry Washington gave the commencement speech at George Washington University, from which she herself graduated in 1998. She received an honorary degree from her alma mater and gave some words of advice to the recent graduates, “You and you alone are the only person who can live the life that can write the story that you were meant to tell.”