10 Inspiring Graduation Speeches for the Class of 2020 (2023)

Cheering family members, caps being tossed high in the air, and students kissing the stress of exams and papers goodbye — that's how we celebrate graduation season during normal times. But, the current global situation has made it impossible to commemorate in person, together.

Colleges and universities across the country are getting crafty with their ceremonies this year by creating virtual celebrations for the class of 2020. Even Youtube has stepped in and created a whole "Dear Class of 2020" event (on June 6) featuring former President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and more.

While the world looks a lot different than it did last year, these past speeches are sure to resonate with the class of 2020. And, honestly, we could all use a little inspiration right now.

Viola Davis, Barnard College

When the incomparable Viola Davis spoke at Barnard, the How to Get Away with Murder star quoted renowned Professor Joseph Campbell on how it's our obligation to "follow the thread of the hero-path." We must become our own champions.

"Now, you know, I jumped out of a plane recently — lost my mind for half an hour. But, you know, when you're flying up in the plane, you’re anticipating the jump, your heart is beating, you're praying, you're doing everything possible and then your instructor says, 'It's time.' And this is usually my Wakanda salute to my sisters, OK? [Puts both hands up in front of her and keeps them up for the remainder of the speech.] So, this is how I'm going to end it: When you put your legs outside of that plane, he tells you to 'put your hands up, put your head back, and then you fall.' So with my hands up, what I'm saying is that on this day of your genesis, your leap, your commencement, your mark in your history, perhaps your elixir is simply this: that you can either leave something for people or you can leave something in people."

Tara Westover, Northeastern University

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Tara Westover is the talk of the town with her best-selling memoir, Educated. At Northeastern in a speech titled "The Un-Instagrammable Self," Westover touched on how we have a "third self" which is our "virtual avatar" that we share to the world. We use our perfectly posed photos of "brunch" and "rarified vacations" to hide the messiness. But, how does this propel us forward? Westover captures how we hide these facets of our lives and, in doing so, we miss so much.

"They are beautiful, unblemished lives. But sometimes I think that when we deny what is worst about ourselves, we also deny what is best. We repress our ignorance, and thus we deny our capacity to learn. We repress our faults, and thus we deny our capacity to change. We forget that it is our flawed human self, and not our avatar, who creates things and reconsiders and forgives and shows mercy.

Oprah Winfrey, Colorado College

Living legend Oprah Winfrey gave a rousing speech at Colorado College, calling on the class of 2019 truly take a stand for the betterment of the world. These are times of turmoil and stress, but Oprah sees only fresh graduates who are ready to confront these problems head on.

"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. You will offer your talent and your kindness however you can, and you will radically transform whatever moment you're in – which leads to bigger moments. You have no idea what your legacy will be."

Madeleine Albright, Bucknell University

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The former Secretary of State spoke on how the world needs "doers" right now — people who will not stand idly by hoping issues will resolve themselves. Albright told Bucknell graduates that its their time to "chart your own course."

"You learned how to put your opinions – and your assumptions – to the test.
This is important, because from this day forward, you will have to rely not on grades or guidance from professors to tell you how you are doing and where you stand.
You will have to rely, instead, on an inner compass; and whether that compass is true will determine whether you become a drifter who is blown about by every breeze; or a doer, an active citizen determined to chart your own course, question your assumptions, and, when necessary, sail unafraid against strong winds."

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, American University College of Arts and Sciences

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the best-selling book Americanah, talked to American University graduates about cliches and how we're told to avoid them at all costs. Ngozi Adichie artfully critiques this thinking by explaining how the simple, sometimes trite saying, "life is short," is really packed fully of meaning that will prove to be invaluable to the class of 2019 and beyond.

"Life is short, really means, do something. It means be skeptical, but never cynical. To be skeptical is to say, 'I don't know if it's true. I'm willing to explore and learn and question.' And to be cynical is to say, 'It's not true, because nothing is ever true.' To be cynical is to be closed; to be skeptical is to be open. Life is short means 'be open.' It means decide what you will do with the regrets in your life. There will always be something to regret. You can waste more time regretting your regrets or you can put it aside and learn from it. Life is short really means have a purpose. And purpose does not need to be grand. I think that the smaller the purpose the more meaningful. To be kind. To have empathy. To avoid sanctimony. To think of the humanity of other people — to try."

Wendy Kopp,University of California, Berkeley

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Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America and co-founder and CEO of Teach For All, is "betting on us," (hello, new grads!) to change things. Kopp is certain that the class of 2019 will "learn from previous generations," and bring "energy and ideas" to the table. The dedicated leader shared some real gems with the Berkeley crowd.

"Always look around the table and invite in voices that are not heard. And if you're the one who can offer an unheard perspective, something that can move our shared humanity forward, have the courage to speak up, even when it feels difficult. Real progress requires moments of tension. If we approach these moments with generosity and curiosity, rather than resistance and blame, we can find entirely new ways forward."

Anita Hill, Lesley University

Anita Hill, the esteemed academic and lawyer who bravely testified against Clarence Thomas in 1991, deeply believes in the power of the millennial. She told graduates at Lesley University that she doesn't believe in the criticism against millennials, and it is their job along with the help of older generations, to end the senseless violence that has plagued America from school shootings to sexual assault. She left the audience with a clear call to action.

"My work will continue. People often ask me if I would undertake the journey again and I say yes, I would. I say yes because I believe in equal justice under the law in its broadest sense. I say yes, I would continue, because I believe each and every one of you deserve it. I say yes as I focus my work on one simple principle — that is that every individual regardless of gender, race, sexual identity, age, disability, religion, color, or class has a right to be schooled, work, walk the streets, and live in their homes free from violence. And I say yes because we need now to start working on prevention. Condolences after an act of violence are no substitute for action that could be taken to eliminate the violence and prevent it from happening. That means we are going to have to change cultures of silence; those cultures of silence that enable violence and we're going to have to examine and rethink many of our structures because many of those structures sustain violence and allow it to continue, and in some cases, thrive."

Jennifer Garner, Denison University

Jennifer Garner, Denison University alum and beloved actress, is simply a gem. Her commencement speech was slightly more relaxed than most, which only made her more endearing. She begins with a list of things everyone must do once they graduate and leave the comforts of school to embark on their adult life. This is definitely advice anyone can manage.

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1. "Don't walk down the Grand Canyon to see what it looks like from the bottom. It's great from the top – you should do that. But when you get to the bottom, it's just a big hill, and it's a pain in the a-- to climb back up."
2. "Don't smoke and don't vape. We know, vaping smells like maple syrup or pineapple or cotton candy, whatever it is. But now that you're going to be adulting, it's not cute – just don't do it."
3. "I'm going to say this because everyone says it, but you won't listen because nobody does: Nothing looks better in your 50s than sunscreen in your 20s."
4. "When it comes to Halloween costumes, go funny over sexy. Why would you dress like a flirty nurse when you could be a mailbox?"
5. "Mixed signals are not mixed signals – they're a no."
6. "Impose self-discipline around three things: Have a book on your bedside table at all times – and read it, obviously. Be in charge of your consumption of social media. And foster a sense of humor about yourselves because otherwise, you run the risk of being boring."
7. "If you're a woman and – pardon me for being binary for just a second. The stage has been set. The world is yours to grab. Go out and get it, girl."
8. "Finally, stay close to your friends from college. You’ve just spent four years hanging out with them. That history is invaluable. Work friends, you talk to them about work. Lovers, you talk to them about love and dinner reservations. But friends from college, you can talk to them about everything and you can do nothing with them and still be happy. My friends from Denison mean the world to me, have gotten me through everything possible. And without them, I wouldn't know any Republicans."

    Stacey Abrams, American University School of Public Affairs

    Politician Stacey Abrams urged graduates to not be bound by labels because they can sometimes lead us to losing sight of the bigger picture. She expressed to the crowd that it's our duty to think beyond what we believe to be true — crucial advice for new graduates and everyone else alike.

    "Our ambitions, our decisions, our responses, are shaped by what we hold to be true. Beyond the easy labels of party and ideology are the deeply held convictions that shape those labels. But too often, adherence to conservative or progressive, to liberal or moderate, to Democrat or Republican or Independent, to being pro-this or anti-that becomes an excuse for lazy thinking. It becomes an excuse for hostile action. And for today, at least, I urge you to set aside your labels and explore what your principles say about the world you wish to serve. Because beliefs are our anchors. If they aren't, we run the risk of opportunism, making choices because others do so, not because we should. But those anchors should never weigh us down. They should weigh down our capacity for thoughtful engagement and reasonable compromise."

    Robert F. Smith, Morehouse College

    Has any commencement speech gotten more buzz this year than this Robert F. Smith's? Of course, the billionaire investor's address was beautifully written and delivered, but, in a delightful surprise, he also vowed to pay off all the student loan debt for the Morehouse class of 2019. Smith told the crowd that when "Dr. King said the 'arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,' he wasn't saying it bends on its own accord. It bends because we choose to put our shoulders into it together and push." In this incredible act of philanthropy, Smith undeniably puts action to Dr. King's words.

    "The degree you earn today is one of the most elite credentials that America has to offer. But I don't want you to think about it as a document that hangs on the wall. Or reflects the accomplishments you made up until now. That degree is a contract. It’s a social contract. It calls on you to devote your talents and energies to honoring those legends on whose shoulders both you and I stand.
    I don't call upon you to be bitter, I call upon you to make things better. Despite all the challenges we face, America is an extraordinary country. Our world is getting smaller by the day. And you are equipped with every tool to make it your own.
    Don't sit around and wait for someone to anoint you ready for the next challenge. Don't wait your turn. Bet on yourself and have the confidence to stand up and say, 'my time is now.' "

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