Top Advice from 20 High-Profile Commencement Speakers

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Over the past three weeks, we’ve collected the best advice from 2015’s most high-profile commencement speakers. Some speeches included impromptu performances, like Maya Rudolph’s National Anthem parody, Jon Bon Jovi’s newly written, graduation-themed song, and a dancing shark in the middle of Meredith Vieira’s. Some were full of knee slaps, like, predictably, Stephen Colbert’s and Ed Helms’. And others were inspiring calls to action, in the way filmmaker Ken Burns drafted an army to fight racial inequality. All of them left the class of 2015 with food for thought as they entered the new and (literally) sobering 9-to-5 lifestyle.

1. Stephen Colbert
Wake Forest University, May 18
Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Stephen Colbert  doesn’t really care whether you laugh at his “iffy” jokes anymore. In fact, he is pretty sure his tombstone will read, “Well, I thought it was funny,” he told the graduates. That’s because Colbert plays by his own rules, his own standards, and that’s what he hoped the students would learn to do too. “You are your own professor now,” he told them. For Colbert, sometimes that means being an “easy grader.” Like the times when he thought his interviewee might “throw a punch” at him for an iffy joke. —Meagan Flynn

Highlight: “It’s time to say goodbye to the person we’ve become, we’ve worked so hard to perfect, and to make some crucial decisions about who we’re going to be. 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. Good luck.”

Read the full address here.;

2. First Lady Michelle Obama
Tuskegee University, May 9
Tuskegee, Alabama

In a room full of applause, the one thing Michelle Obama stressed most importantly was shutting out the noise. She began by reminding students of the racial plight African-American Tuskegee airmen faced decades before, yet how they ignored the doubts and discrimination and instead went on to “show the world that if black folks and white folks could fight together, and fly together, then surely—surely—they could eat at a lunch counter together.” She let students in on the doubts she had faced on her own road to First Lady, and how she shut all of it out in order to stay true to herself and the issues she cared about. She asked the students to do the same. —Meagan Flynn

Highlight: “Our history provides us with a better story, a better blueprint for how we can win. It teaches us that when we pull ourselves out of those lowest emotional depths, and we channel our frustrations into studying and organizing and banding together — then we can build ourselves and our communities up. We can take on those deep-rooted problems, and together — together — we can overcome anything that stands in our way.”

Read the full address here;

3. Maya Rudolph, comedian
Tulane University, May 16
New Orleans, Louisiana

When Rudolph took the podium, she didn’t waste any time touching on the personal, albeit superficial, themes that most college grads experienced during their four years. Like how she called out grads for campus alcohol culture (“It really is a true honor to be with all of you as you begin this new phase of your life – as you embark on this exciting and challenging journey of being sober during the day.”). But it was her unexpected performance of the National Anthem at the end that made Rudolph’s address among the most popular of the year. Like her famous SNL National Anthem sketch, this one made us take a good, hard look at ourselves and think about how ridiculous we sound when we sing over Beyonce in our cars.
—Cara Smith

Highlight: “So hold on to your old friends. Kiss your Mama. Admit what your dreams are. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know what you’re gonna do tomorrow. But work hard and don’t be lazy. And put away your damn phone once in a while. And be nice to jerks because we still don’t know the criteria for getting into heaven yet.”

Read the full address here.;

4. Bill Nye
Rutgers University, May 17
New Brunswick, New Jersey

If you’ve never heard Bill Nye the Science Guy make a sex joke, it is in fact as awkward as it sounds. He twice asked the chancellor if he could use “connect” and “interact” as substitute, commencement-safe substitutes for sex, to the audience’s slight confusion. Both times knee-deep in science lessons. But it went fittingly with the sense of humor and quirky personality that had made Nye such a favorite in these graduates’ grade-school science classrooms. His message now, though, was a little bigger than they were capable of then: After driving home the looming dangers of climate change, he tasked them with conceiving never-before-imagined solutions, with becoming The Next Great Generation, and—albeit in a cartoonish, mastermind-scientist voice—with changing the world. —Meagan Flynn

Highlight: “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t. This is troubling for many of us know-it-alls. Auto mechanics today write code and debug software. Cooks understand the use of copper to control egg proteins. Bricklayers have intimate knowledge of the strength of materials. Respect their knowledge. Learn from them. It will bring out the best in both of you.”

Read the full address here.;

5. Robert De Niro
Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, May 22
New York, New York

“Tisch graduates, you made it. And you’re fucked.” Robert De Niro didn’t exactly start on an encouraging note, but the actor took the honest approach throughout his speech. He doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to the job market, and he offers advice that fits perfectly for a career in the arts—mainly: get used to rejection. The advice may seem grim on the surface, but De Niro’s tough-love address was filled with laughs. —Kristin Doherty

Highlight: “You discovered a talent, developed an ambition and recognized your passion. When you feel that, you can’t fight it — you just go with it. When it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense. You aren’t just following dreams, you’re reaching for your destiny. ... You’re an artist — yeah, you’re f—d. The good news is that’s not a bad place to start.”

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