10 Iconic Moments from Celebrity Graduation Speeches!

Graduation can be both exciting and a little scary as you embark on a new chapter in your life. These celebrities have given some insightful words of wisdom in their graduation speeches over the years.

Graduation is always an emotional time, especially in college. For many students, the last four years were the first time living away from home, developing strong friendships, and learning life lessons. The loss of this community can be nerve wracking, as what comes next is almost always uncertain. There’s one thing we all have in common–we’ll never forget the graduation speaker’s parting words before we walk across the stage.

These celebrities have visited colleges and universities over the years to deliver the coveted commencement speech and imparted many of their own hard learned lessons to others. Read on for ten iconic moments from celebrities’ graduation speeches.

Oprah Winfrey, Virtual Graduation 2020

The famous talk show host, actress, author, and philanthropist has spoken at numerous graduation ceremonies over the years–including Spelman College, Harvard University, and the University of Southern California. But what really stands out is her 2020 speech–the Covid-19 pandemic had just begun, and graduations were held virtually across the country. Oprah participated in Facebook’s #Graduation2020 event, and offered advice in a time of worldwide uncertainty coupled with typical post-grad anxiety, saying “Every one of us is likewise now being called to temper the parts of ourselves that must fall away, to refine who we are, how we define success, and what is genuinely meaningful. And you–the real graduates on this day: you will lead us.” Oprah is an alum of Tennessee State University.

Amy Poehler, Harvard University 2011

The actress, comedian, writer, and director spoke at Harvard’s 2011 commencement ceremony, of course cracking jokes along the way. Poehler herself graduated from Boston College, which she joked was “Harvard of Boston.” Complete with references to the iconic Boston accent (Hahvahd Yahd) and referring to Lady Gaga as a deity among God and Buddha, Poehler’s speech was the perfect blend of her timely comedy and heartfelt advice. On the brink of the rise of social media, Poehler reflected that she felt she was learning more about the world from the millennial generation. But that didn’t stop her from offering this piece of advice: “All I can tell you today is what I have learned. What I have discovered as a person in this world. And that is this: you can’t do it alone. As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people’s ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.”

John Krasinski, Brown University 2019

The actor and filmmaker graduated from Brown back in 2001, and returned for the 2019 commencement speech. He opened his speech with his typical self-deprecating sense of humor, saying “I have already had the T-shirts made up. My kid just graduated from Brown and all I got was the dude from the office.” Krasinski spoke a lot on his own experience as a student at Brown, and how finding his place and beginning his acting career was owed to the people he surrounded himself with–his sketch comedy group Out of Bounds. Expanding his perspective through his newfound diverse community is what was the most important aspect of his Ivy League education. One key takeaway: “People often ask me how I got into acting. The truth is I didn’t get into acting. I got into everything. Believe it or not. When I got to Brown, I really hadn’t listened to any music that wasn’t on the radio, seen any movie that wasn’t in the multiplex. One day I asked a small group of friends to each give me, one of their favorite movies, favorite albums, and they did, every single week for four years. Yeah. Cry. Okay, I’m back. It was the experience of my life. One of the most mind blowing, mind expanding experiences and no drugs were necessary.” Krasinski went on to encourage the graduates to take the leap of faith out of their comfort zone, even if there are obstacles.

Billy Joel, Berklee College of Music, 1993

The iconic New York musician spoke at one of the top music schools in the world in 1993. Much of his speech was centered on the common misconception that pursuing a career in music “is not a job.” He encouraged the Berklee graduates to never settle for less than what they are passionate for, and that the culture around a career in music was on the brink of changing (nearly 30 years later, this is certainly true). He offered this analysis of how music is much like any other traditional job: “So when are you going to get a real job? When are you going to get serious about life? I have news for them: When are you going to get a real job? This is a real job—as real as a doctor, a teacher, or a scientist and just as important as and very similar to healing, teaching and inventing.”

 

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Jay Leno, Emerson College 2014

The Tonight Show alum returned to his alma mater in 2014 to not only deliver the commencement speech, but also to receive his Doctorate of Humane Letters, which was presented  by then college president Lee Pelton. Leno, who graduated in 1973, spoke about his dyslexia, and joked about his one semester stint in accounting at Bentley University before transferring to Emerson, which he called “the school that saved his life.” He detailed his “rules of show business”, which were invaluable to the hundreds of students going into the entertainment and media industry. While he cracked plenty of jokes about his life as a student and early career in comedy, he left students with practical advice: “Work hard. Remember, anybody can have a life. Careers are hard to come by.”

Meryl Streep, Barnard College at Columbia University 2010

Streep spoke at the women’s only division of Columbia in 2010 in a touching message about women’s education, her long career in acting, and how making your loved ones proud is the most important thing. The speech invited both laughs and cheers–this was not Streep’s first rodeo, as she spoke at her own alma mater, Vassar, in 1983. “Being a celebrity has taught me to hide but being an actor has opened my soul. Being here today has forced me to look around inside there for something useful that I can share with you and I’m really grateful you gave me the chance.” 

Tom Hanks, Yale University 2011

The actor known as “America’s Dad” addressed the graduating class of the prestigious Yale University wearing a Yale baseball cap. He cracked many a joke about the rise of Twitter and spoke to the changing culture surrounding technology, but mostly encouraged the new generation to continue to take risks, despite the unique set of challenges they may face. Hanks left them with this, “Your rising from bed every morning will give fear its chance to grow stronger just as it will afford faith its chance to blossom.”

Jane Lynch, Smith College, 2012

The actress and comedian received an honorary degree from Smith upon visiting for the 2012 commencement speech, though she graduated with her Bachelors from Illinois State University and her Masters from Cornell. As expected, her speech was full of her witty, fast-paced comedy that won the hearts of fans for years in her role of Coach Sue Sylvester on Glee. Lynch’s then wife was a Smith alum, which she mentioned in her speech. She encouraged the students to take in the moment, “even if they’re just a little bit drunk.” She took the improv comedy phrase “yes and” and turned it into a heartfelt piece of advice for the graduates: “In other words, in order for our lives to go forward, in order to engage fully in life, we need to be willing and able to accept what is right in front of us. Whatever it is, the good, the bad, the thrilling, the heartbreaking, every emotion, occurrence, event, person, place or thing, you will experience them all. That’s the ‘YES’ I’m talking about. And the acceptance and embrace of it with all your heart and doing something with it, that’s the “AND.”

Will Ferrell, the University of Southern California, 2017

The comedian, actor, and writer returned to his alma mater in 2017 for this speech, and to be awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, amid several other prominent medical and political figures, and actress Dame Helen Mirren. He references many of his hilarious movie roles throughout his long career, including the Christmas staple Elf. He expressed immense gratitude for being awarded his honorary doctorate, and for being invited back to the university to speak. Aside from his classic comedic delivery and  stories of his own college days, he advised the class of 2017 to always put others ahead of themselves: “ No matter how cliché it may sound you will never truly be successful until you learn to give beyond yourself. Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence.” He ended the speech by belting the hit song “I Will Always Love You” that was popularized by Whitney Houston, and letting out the school’s chant “fight on!” one last time.

Issa Rae, Stanford University, 2021

The actress, writer and producer known for her work in her hit show Insecure graduated from the University with a Bachelor’s Degree in African American Studies in 2007. She credited Stanford for giving her the space to come into herself: “it granted me the room to make a space for myself if I didn’t see one, which in turn, gave me the confidence to create a space for myself when I officially entered the outside work; and most importantly and life-changing is 2) the community it allowed me to build.” Complete with humor, her favorite songs, and referencing her West African heritage, the speech was the perfect blend for the Gen Z audience. She reiterated that while we may not have immediate answers to anything, but maintaining close relationships will help you through the transitional period to adulthood: “Many of those answers are sitting right next to you, or across from you, or behind you. Build and tap into your community.”

As this year’s class of 2022 embarks into the ever-changing world, many of these speeches, old and new, hold timeless advice–to be yourself, be kind, and value your friends and family. Congratulations to this year’s graduating class.

About the Author

Madison Goldberg

Madison E. Goldberg is a senior at Emerson College majoring in journalism and minoring in publishing and photography. She’s covered numerous topics in news and entertainment as a multimedia journalist.