You could do a lot worse than inspiring words from Oprah

By Alex Heigl
May 16, 2016 03:00 PM
Steve Sands/FilmMagic

Your commencement speech can be either a high-point of the college graduation experience or the low-point in an interminable slog of funny hats and uncomfortable chairs.

But if your college is worth at least a fraction of the inflated tuition you’ve been throwing into their bottomless maw for the last chunk of your life, then they hired a pretty good commencement speaker. And let’s face it, you could do a lot worse than hearing Oprah’s words of graduation advice. Let’s take a look at some of the best ones from this year.

President Barack Obama, Rutgers University

Obama’s commencement speech at Rutgers University on Sunday seemed filled with jabs at Donald Trump, from lines like, “In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue” to “When our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they’re not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we’ve got a problem.” But he was also able to martial some stirring – and Rutgers-appropriate – words for the graduates:

“So don’t lose hope if sometimes you hit a roadblock. Don’t lose hope in the face of naysayers. And certainly don’t let resistance make you cynical. Cynicism is so easy, and cynics don’t accomplish much. As a friend of mine who happens to be from New Jersey, a guy named Bruce Springsteen, once sang, “They spend their lives waiting for a moment that just don’t come.” Don’t let that be you. Don’t waste your time waiting.”

Sheryl Sandberg, University of California, Berkeley

Sandberg’s speech referred to the death of her husband Dave Goldberg last year as a test of her strength, and she tied it into the message she delivered to the graduating class: “You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are – and you just might become the very best version of yourself.” She closed with a statement worth internalizing: “When tragedy or disappointment strike, know that you have the ability to get through absolutely anything.”

Michelle Obama, Jackson State University

Last month, First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a commencement address at the historically black Jackson State University that focused on race and the school’s graduating class can effect change. When confronted with systemic racism, the First Lady said, “Lift up your head and do what Barack Obama has always done, as he says, ‘When they go low, I go high.’ That’s the choice Barack and I have made. That’s what’s kept us sane over the years.”

And she reminded them of the importance of their presence at the ballot box as well: “You can hashtag all over Instagram and Twitter, but those social media movements will disappear faster than a Snapchat if you’re not also registered to vote In the 2014 midterms, African-American youth turnout was less than 20 percent. And here in Mississippi it was almost lower So we’ve got to stand side by side with all our neighbors” she concluded.

Russell Wilson, University of Wisconsin

Wilson’s Saturday commencement speech was plenty inspiring. Here are a few choice lines: “When life tells you no, ask yourself honestly: What am I capable of? And once you know the answer, don’t be afraid to let everyone else know it too.”

“When life tells you no, find a way to keep things in perspective. That doesn’t make the painful moments any less painful. But it does mean you don’t have to live forever in the pain. You don’t have to live forever in that no. Because if you know what you’re capable of, if you’re always prepared, and you keep things in perspective, then life has a way of turning a no into yes.”

Ryan Seacrest, University of Georgia

Seacrest didn’t actually complete his term at the University of Georgia, which is why getting his honorary degree and delivering the commencement speech a real one-two emotional punch. “Make sure you happen to the day instead of it happening to you,” he said, “But no matter the circumstances, you still only get one shot to make a day that matters.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Drew University

Abdul-Jabbar took an explicitly political tone to his speech. “As you go out into the world, you will encounter those who preach the gospel of the American Dream while secretly doing everything they can to prevent it and pervert it,” the NBA All-Star and former Los Angeles Lakers player said. Turning his attention to the graduating class, he said, “While I applaud your courage and intelligence in redefining the American Dream to fit your personal vision of the future, it’s important that along with travel, self-employment, and friends, commitment to championing the values of the U.S. Constitution be included, particularly the parts that condemn racism, sexism, homophobia, and the exploitation of the poor.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren, Bridgewater State University

Warren, who addressed her recent Twitter spat with Donald Trump, also had the distinguished honor of being one of the few speakers to quote Taylor Swift. “As one of the great philosophers of our time has said,” she said, ‘Haters going to hate, hate, hate hate, hate.’ Knowing who you are helps you ‘Shake It Off.’ ”

Oprah, Johnson C. Smith University
Oprah Winfrey attended Johnson C. Smith’s graduation because two students from from her Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa (Noluthando “Thando” Dlomo and Nompumelelo “Mpumi” Nobiva) are members of the school’s class of 2016. “Every stumble is not a fall, and every fall does not mean failure,” she said. “Know the next right move when the mistake happens. Because being human means you will make mistakes. And you will make mistakes, because failure is God’s way of moving you in another direction.”

Paul Feig, USC’s School of Cinema Arts

Bridesmaids The Heat and Ghostbusters director Paul Feig’s advice to the class of 2016 was succinct. “Don’t be an a–hole. You want to make something great, but be cool while you’re doing it so people will hire you again. Because if you screw up and you’re an a–hole, they won’t hire you again. But if you’re nice and you screw up, then they’re like, ‘Let’s give him another shot.’ It will buy you one free pass.” That’s real.

Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton School of Public Service
Clinton’s address to his school of public service mixed political and personal messages: “It seems to me that all of us have a responsibility, each in our own way to build up the positive and reduce the negative forces of our interdependence,” he said before taking some shots at Donald Trump’s statements and suggested policies. But he skewed more general as the speech went on: “Now nearing 70, I can tell you it doesn’t take long to live a life, but the journey is a glorious thing.”

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