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Don’t Drink Paint, and Other Life Lessons

2019 Commencement Speeches Call for Community, Kindness and Critical Thinking

5.29.2019
Every spring, the news media fills with excerpts from the most outstanding, controversial and hilarious graduation speeches in America. And each year, The Alexander Group reviews the best commencement speeches and shares them here. There is always a handful that stand out.

Last year, it was Ronan Farrow’s honest and raw recounting of his investigation into Harvey Weinstein. By the time Farrow made his speech at Loyola Marymount University, he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. But he didn’t talk about the glory; instead, he talked about the struggle, reminding graduates that the greatest success stories are paved with risk, adversity and lonely moments when you want to give up and give in.

This year’s standout speech is, without question, Robert F. Smith’s address to the men of Morehouse College. The billionaire investor promised graduates that he’d pay off the entire class of 2019’s student loans—a pledge that drew cheers from the crowd, tears from the graduates and shock from the faculty. The video recap is worth watching—not only to hear Smith call on graduates and alumni to follow in his footsteps, doing their own part to literally pay it forward for another graduating class—but also to watch the reactions from the audience as the announcement sunk in.

The pledge also spun off a short-lived online confrontation: One Instagram user chided Oprah for not paying off student loans after her commencement speech at Colorado College, where she gave graduates a handshake and a copy of her most recent book. She swiftly clapped back that she had “already paid $13 million in scholarships. Have put over 400 men thru @morehouse1867.” And just like that the troll was silenced.

Trolls aside, the 2019 graduation speech season was remarkably apolitical and marked instead by earnest appeals to today’s graduates to be independent, careful thinkers and to value education, community and a purpose-driven life. 

What Is your Act Two?

Kristen Bell kicked off the season with one of the earliest commencement speeches of the year. In her May 3 address to graduates of the University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts, she extolled graduates to “listen as fiercely as you want to be heard”.

“When you respect the idea that you are sharing the earth with other humans, and when you lead with your nice foot forward, you’ll win, every time.”

“We live in an age of instant gratification, of immediate likes, and it is uncomfortable to have to wait to see the dividends of your kindness,” she said. “But I promise you, it will appear exactly when you need it.”

Brown University alumni, writer, director and actor John Krasinski urged this year’s graduates to “find more of your people”.

“Lean all the way in,” he said. “Take chances. Fail big and take chances again. Listen to music. Remember to believe in something. And fall in love as many times as it takes. And remember, before you do something special, just do something.”

Ken Jeong of “Hangover” and “Crazy Rich Asians” fame spoke about second acts to graduates of the University of North Carolina Greensboro. “What is your act two?” he asked. “Everyone here has a different timeline. Everyone here has a unique story. Figure out what your act two is, and embrace the change, embrace the twists and the unexpected turns.”

You Can’t Take that Away from Me

I recently watched a TED Talk featuring Shabana Basij-Rasikh, a 22-year-old college graduate who was secretly educated as a girl in Taliban-led Afghanistan. The penalty for educating a woman at that time was death. Her father explained to her why they took that risk:  “You can lose everything you own in your life—your money can be stolen, you can be forced to leave your home during a war—but the one thing that will always remain with you is here,” he said, gesturing to her mind.

That lesson stuck with me: No one can take away your education. So I applaud these commencement speakers who reminded graduates to value their education and to use it to benefit their communities.

“Education is deeply important to our growth as people and as a community,” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Manhattan College grads on May 17.

“I am often asked if I ever imagined as a child being on the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States. ‘No,’ I say, ‘When I was a child, my family was poor. No lawyer or judges lived in my neighborhood. I knew nothing about the Supreme Court … You cannot dream of becoming something you do not know about. You have to learn to dream big. Education exposes you to what the world has to offer, to the possibilities open to you.”

Yale alumni and acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the responsibilities of holding a university degree. She reminded the Yale class of 2019 that, by historical precedent, a Yale degree “makes you more likely to become a person who in different capacities will be responsible for policies and actions that will affect the lives of millions of people.”

“No pressure,” she joked, acknowledging that the precedent while impressive, also demonstrated the fallibility of America’s meritocracy. She then urged graduates to use their education for good. “If your degree does end up propelling you to power, remember that if power were a jacket, it is most flattering on all body types when worn very lightly.”

Robert F. Smith opened his speech at Morehouse by saying that “earning a college degree is one of the most impressive and greatest accomplishments in life,” and called on the graduates to stand and celebrate the community who had helped them achieve their education.

Don’t Drink Paint, and Other Life Lessons

In his commencement speech at Tulane University, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave students impassioned advice for finding careers that will give them a sense of purpose: “Don't waste time on problems that have been solved,” he said. “Don't get hung up on what other people say is practical. Instead, steer your ship into the choppy seas. Look for the rough spots, the problems that seem too big, the complexities that other people are content to work around. It's in those places that you will find your purpose. It's there that you can make your greatest contribution.”

William Nye, the educator, engineer, comedian, author and inventor—better known as Bill Nye the Science Guy—urged the Cornell class of 2019 to stay optimistic as they tackle unprecedented global challenges. “Use your knowledge and your abilities to bring out the best in those around you, and let them bring out the best in you,” he said. “We are all so very excited about your future, because you can and you will–dare I say it?–change the world.”

With references ranging from Sid Vicious and Carl Sagan to his own colorful family history, Nye counseled Cornell graduates to use reason and critical thinking to evaluate information, and “read the label on a can of paint before you drink it.” (“That’s a joke," he added. "You don’t drink paint.")

And while Nye’s trademark “nerd-with-an-edge” delivery was entertaining, the “most humorous” nod must go to Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Peggy Noonan. Noonan delivered the commencement speech at Notre Dame, saying “I mean to be brief today… I’m going to try to be at least as interesting as the redacted Mueller report.”

“I have only one piece of advice for you,” Noonan joked. “Never put a child wearing Superman pajamas on the top bunk. Just don’t do it. Nothing good will happen. You’ll thank me one day.”

Noonan then set aside humorous quips and encouraged graduates to develop political views that are grounded in knowledge of human history and human nature, and not just a reaction or antidote to anything: “My belief is that whatever holds us together now, whatever makes us stronger, brings us together, binds us close right now, is good and necessary and must be encouraged with whatever it takes.” 

Tune In…

Graduate season is not over. Here are a few upcoming addresses not to miss: German Chancellor Angela Merkel will speak at Harvard on May 30; entrepreneur, philanthropist and three-term New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will address MIT’s class of 2019 on June 7; and world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma will deliver the main address at Dartmouth on June 9.

Congratulations to the Class of 2019, and to the parents, teachers and mentors who made it happen.

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