In the US, it is tradition for actors, musicians, authors, politicians and successful business people to deliver a rousing, inspirational speech to set university graduates on the path to greatness.
This year was no different, with Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Garner, Pierce Brosnan, Pharrell Williams, Viola Davis and Hillary Clinton delivering some words of wisdom to college graduates as they prepare to step out into the world.
Although this list is not exhaustive (there were many great speeches to choose from), here is a selection of some of the best celebrity graduation speeches of 2019.
1. Jennifer Garner, Denison University
Offering advice on Halloween costumes might not be a usual trope of a commencement speech, but actor Jennifer Garner’s costume advice is perhaps something that all students should remember – always go for funny over sexy. “Why be a flirty nurse when you can be a mailbox?” she said to students graduating from Denison University this year.
Garner’s warm and funny speech covered a number of topics, from practical life advice to important social commentary. She began by advising students never to climb down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to see what it looks like, observing that it’s “a pain in the ass to climb back up”. She told the Class of 2019 to never smoke and never vape and urged students to always use sunscreen to protect their skin.
More seriously, she touched on the crucial issue of consent in an era in which sexual violence is becoming more of a campus issue. “Mixed signals are not mixed signals; they are a ‘no’,” she emphasised.
2. Pierce Brosnan, Dickinson College
Actor Pierce Brosnan gave graduates from Dickinson College a pretty hefty mission in his commencement speech. “Graduates, we need you to save the world.” Way to pile on the pressure, Pierce.
He stated that the world hung in the balance as global environmental challenges mounted, but expressed confidence that today’s graduates could tackle these issues. Passion and creativity (not a licence to kill), he told the students, were the things needed to save the world. In a reference to his most famous role, he said that a lone hero was not what the world required; more important was for people from all walks of life with different beliefs to work together in unity.
As a recipient of a Doctor of Environmental Advocacy Honorary Degree, much of Brosnan’s talk centred around his love of nature and the ocean, the critical problems that are facing the world today and how collaboration is the key to surmounting these challenges.
3. Dr Robert F. Smith, Morehouse College
In a speech that has now gone viral, Dr Robert F. Smith made a rather surprising announcement while addressing graduates at Morehouse College.
As one of the richest African Americans in the world, thanks to his business empire, he pledged to create a grant to eliminate the Class of 2019’s student loans. He stated that he knew the graduates would pay this gift forward and hoped that all classes in the future would enjoy the same opportunities.
His pledge was in keeping with the general theme of his speech, which urged graduates to find their voice, push the boundaries and to always give back to the community to improve their chances in life.
4. Oprah Winfrey, Colorado College
No list of the most inspiring graduation speeches would be complete without one from Oprah Winfrey. In her address at Colorado College, she emphasised that life was not about finding a big break but rather about taking small transformative steps.
She told students that even the smallest of actions could lead to “big accomplishments” and that every day they would be making an impact on the world, that life was about taking one “life-transforming step at a time”.
She urged students to select one problem from the many that are rife today – gun violence, climate change, prison system reform, misogyny – and to show up, volunteer and lead with kindness to help make a change within that issue. And she reassured students that while “you can’t fix everything”, life was about the decisions you make and all the things that you can achieve based on these decisions.
Sharing her mantra of “everything is always working out for me”, she urged graduates to live life by these words and to remind themselves that everything will work out all right in the end. A mantra that all students can carry with them, I’m sure.
5. Chimamanda Adichie, Yale University
As expected, author Chimamanda Adichie gave a measured speech to the graduates of Yale University, mentioning her role as a feminist thought leader.
“Be open to change in your mind, and be open to the possibility that you might be wrong,” she began, before taking the students through a number of life lessons that they could adhere to.
She urged students to “not apologise for existing or taking up space in the world”, especially women, who have been socialised to put others before themselves.
The rise of social media, she stated, had led to an era of outrage in which people were quick to anger, and she reminded students that it was important to always look at primary sources and that “context is always queen”.
6. Kristen Bell, University of Southern California
Being nice can get you anywhere, Kristen Bell told graduates at the University of Southern California. The actor admitted that this was the best advice that she could share because she did not actually graduate from university.
She said that her biggest trick for getting ahead was to really listen to people, and that “when you lead with your nice foot forward, you win every time”. Sometimes, leading with emotional intelligence can win over using logical intelligence, she said.
7. Tara Westover, Northeastern University
Another commencement speaker to touch on how social media has changed the campus climate and university study was author Tara Westover.
She told a poignant story about her own graduation photo, which she had uploaded to Facebook, noting that although she was smiling in the picture, she was far from happy. Her parents were in the photo, but they did not attend the ceremony because did not believe in mainstream education.
Westover warned that social media had become a “third identity”, where everything was perfect and polished. However, she told the students, by denying your worst parts, you eliminate the room for growth and you start to identify more with your virtual self than your real self. She asked the class to pause and think about the elements of their lives that they don’t share online, which might help them to see that those are the parts that have probably got them to their graduation.
I mean, this is probably true – how many times have you Instagrammed an image of you studying in your PJs with a plate of half-eaten toast next to you?
8. John Krasinski, Brown University
When asked to give his speech at Brown University a title, actor and director John Krasinski named it “what do I know”, initially as a jokey way to highlight how unqualified he was to give the speech. However, he realised that it was a challenge to himself to find some things that he did actually know.
He stated that the people he met and the many experiences he tried for the first time while at Brown had helped to transform his life, and that much of his education came from outside the classroom.
“Remember to be scared, find your people, 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. The programme you ran here is the same programme, just run it again and again. That’s what I know,” he concluded.
Read more: You know you’re a graduate when…