Advice to the Graduates

Updated June 26, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Words of wisdom from a selection of commencement speeches

compiled by Ann-Marie Imbornoni
Graduation At The Fairmont School: Source/Lib. of Congress

A graduating class of the Fairmount School. (Source/Library of Congress)

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Graduation Cap and Diploma It's commencement time for many college and university students across the country. To mark the occasion, we've gathered a variety of humorous, insightful, and oftentimes surprising words of wisdom from distinguished speakers in recent years.

When I was growing up in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1950s, segregation was the law of the state. . . . I was not allowed to grow up thinking of myself as a victim, and if you look anything like me, neither should you. Just let us all agree on what the rules are, judge fairly, and reward results consistently.

DiplomaArthur Ashe, tennis player
Kean College
Union, New Jersey
May 24, 1990

You will never make a good leader unless you have learned to follow. On those initial journeys when you are asked to pull your oar while another leads, learn what it takes to be a team player. Learn how to get along with others. Learn what loyalty and honesty are all about.

DiplomaDr. Robert D. Ballard, deep-sea explorer
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Worcester, Massachusetts
May 23, 1992

Serve your country. . . . Convince your government that the real threat comes from within, just as Abraham Lincoln said. Governments always forget that. Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts. They have absolutely nothing to do with the defense of the countryâthey only make our country worth defending.

DiplomaKen Burns, filmmaker
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio
May 23, 1993

Who are the rich? . . . A rich person is someone with a home and a modicum of education and a chance, at least, for a job. A rich person is one who believes that if he makes a decision it will have some effect, at least, in his own life, and who believes that the police and the judges are on his side. Those are the rich people.

DiplomaJimmy Carter, former U.S. President
Rice University
Houston, Texas
May 8, 1993

What is going on here? . . . I think a lot of this is due to the phenomenon of compartmentalization of our lives. We have become disintegrated. Our lives are split up so that when we go to business, when we go to work, our task there is to earn a living. Our task there is solely economic. We're told to leave our values at the door.

DiplomaBen Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream
Vassar College
Poughkeepsie, New York
May 23, 1993

If you see a need, do not ask why doesn't somebody do something, ask why don't I do something. Hard work and persistence and initiative are still the non-magic carpets to success for most of us.

DiplomaMarian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund
Washington University
St. Louis, Missouri
May 15, 1992

Let yourself regraduate every four years. Celebrate what you have done. Admit what you are not doing. Think about what is important to you and make some changes. If you give yourself a chance to move on, you can do anything.

Diploma Cathy Guisewite, cartoonist
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
April 30, 1994

I believe most passionately that in each one of you lies a Jefferson, a Lincoln, an Eleanor Roosevelt, a Mother Teresa, and a Martin Luther King, Jr. None of these great men and women accepted the failures and inequities of the world in which they were born, and neither should you!

DiplomaDaniel K. Inouye, politician
The University of Hawaii
Honolulu, Hawaii
December 20, 1992

The privilege of attending so fine a university as this one must bear with it an unceasing responsibility to use your knowledge and training for improving the lives of others.

DiplomaThurgood Marshall, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Virginia
May 21, 1978

Words like "leadership," "resolve," and "determination" are just words until they are brought to life by men and women who dedicate themselves to the profession of arms and the security and well-being of the nation.

DiplomaGeneral Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
United States Military Academy
West Point, New York
May 31, 1990

Get all the knowledge and skill you can, in whatever professions you enter; but remember that most of your education must be self-education, in learning the things women need to know, and in calling up the voices we need to hear within ourselves.

DiplomaAdrienne Rich, poet
Smith College

One of the most important tools is skeptical or critical thinking. Put another way, equip yourself with a baloney-detection kit. . . . Part of the job of education is to be able to tell what is baloney and what is not.

DiplomaCarl Sagan, Wheaton College
Norton, Massachusetts
May 22, 1993

Do not confuse passion with success. Passion is the joy of getting there. Success can be a trap. I think this country and our culture glorifies and deifies the goddess Success to the point that whenever we try and fail, we hear our own inner voices say, "Shame on you." If there is any shame, it is in the fact that we inflict such heavy punishment on ourselves.

DiplomaNeil Simon, playwright
Williams College
Williamstown, Massachusetts
June 3, 1984

One more point. This is the last period of time that will seem lengthy to you at only three or four years. From now on, time will pass without artificial academic measure. It will go by like the wind. Whatever you want to do, do it now. For life is time, and time is all there is.

DiplomaGloria Steinem
Tufts University
Medford, Massachusetts
May 17, 1987

P. J. O'Rourke

Change magazine, May/June 2008
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