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15 Inspiring Celebrity Commencement Speeches

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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.”

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11 Things You Didn't Know About Dolly Parton
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Over the past 50-some years, Dolly Parton has gone from a chipper country starlet to a worldwide icon of music and movies whose fans consistently pack a theme park designed (and named) in her honor. Dolly Parton is loved, lauded, and larger than life. But even her most devoted admirers might not know all there is to this Backwoods Barbie.

1. YOU WON'T FIND HER ON A DOLLYWOOD ROLLER COASTER.

Her theme park Dollywood offers a wide variety of attractions for all ages. Though she's owned it for more than 30 years, Parton has declined to partake in any of its rides. "My daddy used to say, 'I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,' I am the same way," she once explained. "I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."

2. SHE ENTERED A DOLLY PARTON LOOK-ALIKE CONTEST—AND LOST.


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Apparently Parton doesn't do drag well. “At a Halloween contest years ago on Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the guys were dressed up like me, I just over-exaggerated my look and went in and just walked up on stage," she told ABC. "I didn’t win. I didn’t even come in close, I don’t think.”

3. SHE SPENT A FORTUNE TO RECREATE HER CHILDHOOD HOME.

Parton and her 11 siblings were raised in a small house in the mountains of Tennessee that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. When Parton bought the place, she hired her brother Bobby to restore it to the way it looked when they were kids. "But we wanted it to be functional," she recounted on The Nate Berkus Show, "So I spent a couple million dollars making it look like I spent $50 on it! Even like in the bathroom, I made the bathroom so it looked like an outdoor toilet.” You do you, Dolly.

4. SHE WON'T APOLOGIZE FOR RHINESTONE.


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Parton is well-known for her hit movies Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, less so for the 1984 flop Rhinestone. The comedy musical about a country singer and a New York cabbie was critically reviled and fled from theaters in just four weeks. But while her co-star Sylvester Stallone has publicly regretted the vehicle, Parton declared in her autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business that she counts Rhinestone's soundtrack as some of her best work, especially "What a Heartache."

5. SHE IS MILEY CYRUS'S GODMOTHER, SORT OF.

"I'm her honorary godmother. I've known her since she was a baby," Parton told ABC of her close relationship with Miley Cyrus. "Her father (Billy Ray Cyrus) is a friend of mine. And when she was born, he said, 'You just have to be her godmother,' and I said, 'I accept.' We never did do a big ceremony, but I'm so proud of her, love her, and she's just like one of my own." Parton also played Aunt Dolly on Cyrus's series Hannah Montana.

6. SHE RECEIVED DEATH THREATS FROM THE KU KLUX KLAN.

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In the mid-2000s, Dollywood joined the ranks of family amusement parks participating in "Gay Days," a time when families with LGBT members are encouraged to celebrate together in a welcoming community environment. This riled the KKK, but their threats didn't scare Dolly. "I still get threats," she has admitted, "But like I said, I'm in business. I just don't feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody."

7. TO PROMOTE LITERACY, SHE STARTED HER OWN "LIBRARY."

In 1995, the pop culture icon founded Dolly Parton's Imagination Library with the goal of encouraging literacy in her home state of Tennessee. Over the years, the program—built to mail children age-appropriate books—spread nationwide, as well as to Canada, the UK, and Australia. When word of the Imagination Library hit Reddit, the swarms of parents eager to sign their kids up crashed the Imagination Library site. It is now back on track, accepting new registrations and donations.

8. PARTON'S HOMETOWN HAS A STATUE IN HER HONOR.

A stone's throw from Dollywood, Sevierville, Tennessee is where Parton grew up. Between stimulating tourism and her philanthropy, this proud native has given a lot back to her hometown. And Sevierville residents returned that appreciation with a life-sized bronze Dolly that sits barefoot, beaming, and cradling a guitar, just outside the county courthouse. The sculpture, made by local artist Jim Gray, was dedicated on May 3, 1987. Today it is the most popular stop on Sevierville's walking tour.

9. THE CLONED SHEEP DOLLY WAS NAMED AFTER PARTON.

In 1995 scientists successfully created a clone from an adult mammal's somatic cell. This game-changing breakthrough in biology was named Dolly. But what about Parton inspired this honor? Her own groundbreaking career? Some signature witticism or beloved lyric? Nope. It was her legendary bustline. English embryologist Ian Wilmut revealed, "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's."

10. SHE TURNED DOWN ELVIS.

After Parton made her own hit out of "I Will Always Love You," Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reached out in hopes of having Presley cover it. But part of the deal demanded Parton surrender half of the publishing rights to the song. "Other people were saying, 'You're nuts. It's Elvis Presley. I'd give him all of it!'" Parton admitted, "But I said, 'I can't do that. Something in my heart says don't do that.' And I didn't do it and they didn't do it." It may have been for the best. Whitney Houston's cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992 was a massive hit that has paid off again and again for Parton.

11. SHE JUST EARNED TWO GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS.

Parton is no stranger to breaking records. And on January 17, 2018 it was announced that she holds not one but two spot in the Guinness World Records 2018 edition: One for Most Decades With a Top 20 Hit on the US Hot Country Songs Chart (she beat out George Jones, Reba McEntire, and Elvis Presley for the honor) and the other for Most Hits on US Hot Country Songs Chart By a Female Artist (with a total of 107). Parton said she was "humbled and blessed."

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15 Things You Didn't Know About Betty White
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Happy birthday, Betty White! In honor of the ever-sassy star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls's 96th birthday, let's celebrate with a collection of fun facts about her life and legacy. 

1. HER NAME IS BETTY, NOT ELIZABETH

On January 17th, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, the future television icon was born Betty Marion White, the only child of homemaker Christine Tess (née Cachikis) and lighting company executive Horace Logan White. In her autobiography If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), White explained her parents named her "Betty" specifically because they didn't like many of the nicknames derived from "Elizabeth." Forget your Beths, your Lizas, your Ellies. She's Betty.

2. SHE'S A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD HOLDER.

In the 2014 edition of the record-keeping tome, White was awarded the title of Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female) for her more than 70 years (and counting) in show business. The year before, Guinness gave out Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Male) to long-time British TV host Bruce Forsyth. As both began their careers in 1939, they'd be neck-and-neck for the title, were they not separated by gender.

3. HER FIRST TELEVISION APPEARANCE IS LOST TO HISTORY.

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Even White can't remember the name of the show she made her screen debut on in 1939. But in an interview with Guinness Book of World Records, she recounted the life-changing event, saying, "I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the west coast, in downtown Los Angeles. I wore my high school graduation dress and our Beverly Hills High student body president, Harry Bennett, and I danced the 'Merry Widow Waltz.'" 

4. WHITE'S RISE TO STARDOM WAS DERAILED BY WORLD WAR II.

Before she took off on television, White was working in theater, on radio, and as a model. But with WWII, she shelved her ambitions and joined the American Women's Voluntary Services. Her days were devoted to delivering supplies via PX truck throughout the Hollywood Hills, but her nights were spent at rousing dances thrown to give grand send-offs to soldiers set to ship out. Of that era, she told Cleveland Magazine, "It was a strange time and out of balance with everything." 

5. HER FIRST SITCOM HIT WAS IN THE EARLY 1950S.

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Co-hosting the Al Jarvis show Hollywood on Television led to White producing her own vehicle, Life With Elizabeth. As a rare female producer, she developed the show alongside emerging writer-producer George Tibbles, who'd go on to work on such beloved shows as Dennis The Menace, Leave It To Beaver, and The Munsters. Though the show is not remembered much today, in 1951 it did earn White her first Emmy nomination of 21 (so far). Of these, she's won five times.

6. WHITE LOVES A PARADE.

From 1962 to 1971, White hosted NBC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade alongside Bonanza's Lorne Greene. But that's not all. For 20 years (1956-1976), she was also a color commentator for NBC’s annual Tournament of Roses Parade. However, as her fame grew on CBS's The Mary Tyler Moore Show, NBC decided they should pull White (and all the rival promotion that came with her) from their parade. It was a decision that was heartbreaking for White, who told People, "On New Year's Day I just sat home feeling wretched, watching someone else do my parade."

7. SHE HAS BEEN MARRIED THREE TIMES.


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White and her first husband, Dick Barker, were married and divorced in the same year, 1945. After four months on Barker's rural Ohio chicken farm, White fled back to Los Angeles and her career as an entertainer. Soon after, she met agent Lane Allen, who became her husband in 1947, and her ex-husband in 1949 after he pushed her to quit show biz. She wouldn’t marry again until 1963, after she fell for widower/father of three/game show host Allen Ludden.

8. HER MEET-CUTE WITH HUSBAND #3 HAPPENED ON PASSWORD.

Bubbly Betty was a regular on the game show circuit, but she met her match in 1961 when she was a celebrity guest on Password, hosted by Allen Ludden. Though White initially rebuffed Ludden's engagement ring (he wore it around his neck until she changed her mind), the pair stayed together until his death in 1981. Today, their stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame sit side-by-side.

9. WHITE ORIGINALLY AUDITIONED FOR THE ROLE OF BLANCHE ON THE GOLDEN GIRLS.

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Producers of the series thought of White for the role of the ensemble's promiscuous party girl because she'd long played the lusty Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Meanwhile, they eyed Rue McClanahan for the part of naive country bumpkin Rose Nylund because of her work as the sweet but dopey Vivian Harmon on Maude. Director Jay Sandrich was worried about typecasting, so he asked the two to switch roles in the audition. And just like that, The Golden Girls history was made.

10. IF SHE HADN'T BEEN AN ACTOR, SHE'D HAVE BEEN A ZOOKEEPER.

"Hands down," she confessed in a 2014 interview. This should come as little surprise to those aware of White's reputation as an avid animal lover and activist. Not only does she try to visit the local zoo of wherever she may travel, but also she's a supporter of the Farm Animal Reform Movement and Friends of Animals group, as well as a Los Angeles Zoo board member, who has donated "tens of thousands of dollars" over the past 40 years. In 2010, White founded a T-shirt line whose profits go to the Morris Animal Foundation.

11. SHE DIDN'T DO AS GOOD AS IT GETS BECAUSE OF AN ANIMAL CRUELTY SCENE.

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White was offered the part of Beverly Connelly, onscreen mother to Helen Hunt, in the Oscar-winning movie As Good as It Gets. But the devoted animal lover was horrified by the scene where Jack Nicholson's curmudgeonly anti-hero pitches a small dog down the trash chute of his apartment building. On The Joy Behar Show White explained, "All I could think of was all the people out there watching that movie … and if there's a dog in the building that's barking or they don't like—boom! They do it." She complained to director James L. Brooks in hopes of having the scene cut. Instead, he kept it and cast Shirley Knight in the role.

12. A FACEBOOK CAMPAIGN MADE WHITE THE OLDEST SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE HOST EVER.

In 2010, a Facebook group called Betty White To Host SNL … Please? gathered so many fans (nearly a million) and so much media attention that SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels was happy to make it happen. At 88 years old, White set a new record. Her episode, for which many of the show's female alums returned, also won rave reviews, and gave the show's highest ratings in 18 months. White won her fifth Emmy for this performance.

13. SHE IS THE OLDEST PERSON TO EARN AN EMMY NOMINATION.


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In 2014, White earned her 21st Emmy nod—and her third in a row for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program—for the senior citizen-centric prank show Betty White's Off Their Rockers. She was 92. She also holds the record for the longest span between Emmy nominations, between her first (1951) and last (so far).  

14. SHE LOVES JUNK FOOD.

The key to aging gracefully has nothing to do with health food as far as White is concerned. In 2011, her Hot in Cleveland co-star Jane Leeves dished on White's snacking habits, "She eats Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries, and Diet Coke. If that's key, maybe she's preserved because of all the preservatives." Fellow co-star Wendie Malick concurred, "She eats red licorice, like, ridiculously a lot. She seems to exist on hot dogs and French fries." 

15. SHE WANTS ROBERT REDFORD.

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White once gave this cheeky confession: “My answer to anything under the sun, like ‘What have you not done in the business that you’ve always wanted to do?’ is ‘Robert Redford.'” Though she has more than 110 film and television credits on her filmography, White has never worked with the Out of Africa star, who is 14 years her junior.

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