Famous Commencement Speeches To Motivate You

May 4, 2020 Christina O'Handley

famous commencement speech

With graduation season upon us, many people in the class of 2020 were looking forward to ceremonies on their college campus, as well as commencement speeches from some of the smartest people of our generation. Unfortunately, these in-person ceremonies have been postponed or canceled due to COVID-19. While graduation season might look a little different this year, it does not mean those insightful commencement speeches have to stop. With many commencement speeches already available on YouTube, new graduates can now access inspirational advice from some of the best minds in the world.

Although it won’t make up for an in-person ceremony, these famous commencement speeches below may give new graduates, as well as working professionals, some valuable inspiration and advice for their careers.

Tim Cook (CEO, Apple) – Tulane University

In Tim Cook’s speech at Tulane University, the CEO of Apple tells graduates that the best way to make an impact and to find their purpose is to solve the difficult problems they see in the world:

“As you go out into the world, don’t waste time on problems that have been solved. 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. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of being too cautious. Don’t assume that by staying put, the ground won’t move beneath your feet. The status quo simply won’t last. So, get to work on building something better.”

Oprah Winfrey – Colorado College

Oprah has given quite a few famous commencement speeches over the years. However, her speech at Colorado College stands out as one of the best. In her speech, she encourages graduates to give their life to service and to decide how they will have a positive impact on the world.

“The truth is, you cannot fix everything. But what you can do, here and now, is make a decision, because life is about decisions. And the decision is that you will use your life in service; you will be in service to life. You will speak up. You will show up. You will stand up. You will sit in. You will volunteer. You will vote. You will shout out. You will help. You will lend a hand.”

Robert F. Smith – Morehouse College

The most significant part of Robert F. Smith’s commencement speech was his pledge to pay off the student loans for Morehouse’s Class of 2019. His contribution encourages all of us to pay it forward and help others when we can.

“On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus…This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel – Harvard University

In the German chancellor’s commencement speech to the Harvard Class of 2019, Angela Merkel advised students to not be afraid of change, as it holds the keys to new, life-changing beginnings:

“There is no beginning without an end, no day without night, no life without death. Our whole life consists of the difference, the space between beginning and ending. It is what lies in between that we call life and experience. I believe that time and time again we need to be prepared to keep bringing things to an end in order to feel the magic of new beginnings and to make the most of opportunities. That is what I learned as a student, as a scientist and it is what I experience now in politics.”

Ken Jeong – University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Ken Jeong evolved his career as a licensed physician to a career in acting and comedy. Like in his own career, Jeong encourages graduates to shape their own future, even if it is an unconventional path.

“What is your act II? Everyone here has a different timeline. Everyone here has a unique story. Figure out what your act II is, and embrace the change, embrace the twists and the unexpected turns. They’ll be good, and they’ll be bad, but embrace that… There’s always downsides to every journey, but because of my education, I have this core stability that makes me unshakeable no matter what happens. I’m also able to take the good with the bad…. They say everything happens for a reason. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know everything happens, and it’s up to you to maximize the reality of your situation.”

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