Commencement: The Whos and Whats of Graduation

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May is the month of commencement ceremonies. Friends and families flock to campuses across the country to see their loved ones graduate. Graduation is a time to reflect, recognize and share words of wisdom, and many universities bring in big-name celebrities and successful individuals from all walks of life to give commencement speeches.

There are many qualified scholars and successful professionals to impart eloquent advice, but celebrities usually get the most hype and publicity. “Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, was our commencement speaker. She had a pretty great and inspirational speech, but I definitely would say that everyone was more excited about Morgan Freeman being there to receive his honorary degree,” said Xander Sirota, who just graduated from Boston University with a degree in physics.

Here is a guide to some of the big names giving commencement speeches this graduation season.

At the University of Virginia, comedian and political commentator Stephen Colbert gave the keynote speech. He joked with students, saying that because they were such a smart bunch he would “just toss in some SAT words: syzygy, heterodox, Benedict Cumberbatch.” He frequently referenced the technology that drives this graduating class, even tweeting during his speech. Colbert cracked jokes about founder Thomas Jefferson, but also used him as one of the themes for his speech.

Inspirational Quote:

"There is no secret society out there that will tap you on your shoulder one night and show you the way. Because the true secret is your life will not be defined by the society that we have left you."

President Barack Obama spoke at both Ohio State University and Morehouse College.

At Ohio State University, Obama told graduates that they were the ones who could keep the democracy of this country in cycle and defeat the growing cynicism for America’s future. He officially started his first campaign rally there last May, and so his speech marked an important anniversary.

Inspirational Quote:

“I dare you, Class of 2013, to do better. I dare you to dream bigger."

Obama also spoke at the all-male and historically black Morehouse College, where he shaped his speech match the demographic of the graduating class. The president drew on his own experiences to impart wisdom to the class, telling them to remember where they came from to get to this point and advising them not to “get a fancy job and nice house and nice car and never look back." He said he used to blame his failures on the difficulties of surviving in the world as a black man, but learned to grow up. He told the graduating class that they, too, have learned that there isn’t room or time for excuses.

Inspirational Quote

"I know that when I'm on my deathbed someday, I won't be thinking about any particular legislation I passed, or policy I promoted. I won't be thinking about the speech I gave, or the Nobel Prize I received…I'll be thinking about a walk I took with my daughters, a lazy afternoon with my wife, whether I did right by all of them."

Obama is also scheduled to speak at the US Naval Academy’s graduation this week.

Graham Nash, of the celebrated band Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, spoke at Lesley University’s commencement last weekend. “His speech was pretty short, but it was really nice and I felt like it really went well with the whole ‘vibe’ of Lesley,” said Sophia Brown, who just graduated with a degree in English. “It was also awesome that he brought out a guitar and sang a song for everyone,” said Brown. Nash fittingly performed the popular “Teach your Children Well,” and invited everyone to join him in song.

Inspirational Quote:

“I don’t give advice…But if I was asked to give you advice, it would be very simple for me. You have to find your passion.”

The Dalai Lama spoke at Tulane University’s commencement, where thousands flocked to hear his words. His holiness also danced to the music of Dr. John, who was receiving an honorary degree. The Dalai Lama advised graduates to pursue lives that would be purposeful. He also asked the audience to view him as one of their own, and not as anyone special. He told students that “sadness translates into more determination” because hope and optimism are the only way to maintain oneself.

For upcoming graduations:

Comedian Bill Cosby will speak at the University of Maryland today

Oprah Winfrey will speak at Harvard University on May 31

Robert Redford will be speaking at Westminster College’s commencement on May 30

Sophomore > Journalism/Environmental Analysis > Boston University

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