Advice From Famous Commencement Speakers

Words of advice to recent college graduates

Commencement is a time for families to gather and celebrate the accomplishments of their college graduates. But before students walk across that stage, they hear words of reflection from their peers and college administrators, as well as advice on life after graduation. Some lucky students hear speeches from notable public figures. Several colleges cancelled their main commencement ceremonies this year — citing safety concerns — as student protests sparked by the latest war between Israel and Hamas escalated on campuses across the U.S. However, many continued on as planned despite student walkouts. Here are some excerpts from 2024 commencement speeches given by Hollywood stars and directors, comedians, politicians, journalists, academics and religious leaders.

Angela Bassett

Position: Actress, director and executive producer known for her roles in “Waiting to Exhale,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” and the “Black Panther” series

Spoke at: Spelman College in Georgia

Advice to graduates: “As you go into the world beyond these walls and those hallowed halls that have surrounded you at Spelman these last few years, there will be times when you may feel like the unnamed Black woman. This is especially true when you come across people in your workplace or your community, your own home, who may not see your full humanity in all your glory. But it’s in those moments, in particular, that I want you to remember who you are. Raise your head and embody the queen that you have been prepared to be. I want you to rise above any negativity that threatens to take you off course to your greatness.” — May 19, 2024

Bernie Sanders

Position: U.S. senator representing Vermont and former U.S. presidential candidate

Spoke at: University of New England in Maine

Advice to graduates: “In so many ways, and as somebody who has been all over this country and every state in the Union, we are an incredibly beautiful country. In so many ways. But we would be dishonest with ourselves, if we did not acknowledge that in this particular moment in American history, we have many, many crises. And on your shoulders, and I don’t envy you, you are entering the workforce at a very difficult time in American history. But we are depending on you with full confidence, that you’re going to have the strength, the energy, the vision, the morality, to turn this country around and make it the beautiful nation that we know that it can become.” — May 18, 2024

Frieda Ekotto

Position: Novelist and professor of Afro-American and African studies, comparative literature and Francophone studies at the University of Michigan

Spoke at: Colorado College

Advice to graduates: “You have flourished. You have acquired the fundamental imperatives of a liberal arts education: the ability to think critically, to fight for social justice, to implement peace, to struggle for freedom and a sustainable well-being. These are the privileges or claims or arrangements we, living in the West, all enjoy. These are the arrangements that every human being, anywhere in our planet, seeks to enjoy regardless of their nationality, origin, religion, race, gender or ethnicity. We need to defend these privileges not just for ourselves but especially for those who, for reasons of oppression and powerlessness, cannot do on their own. The poetics of in-between moments: One breath a time.” — May 19, 2024

Glenn Youngkin

Position: Governor of Virginia

Spoke at: Virginia Commonwealth University

Advice to graduates: “From today going forward, each of you will be composing your symphony. You will be performing in your symphony. And you will be conducting your symphony. As you compose your symphony, you get to choose the movements. You get to choose the pace, how bold, how soft, how complex, how elegantly simple. You will dictate what you compose. I encourage you to see opportunities for addition and multiplication, not subtraction and division. Seek out both/and moments, instead of either/or moments. We need each of you, your talents, dreams, aspirations, your contributions that certainly will make tomorrow better than today.” — May 11, 2024

Jen Psaki

Position: Host of MSNBC’s “Inside with Jen Psaki” and former White House press secretary

Spoke at: George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Advice to graduates: “Mistakes are really about things that don’t go as we expect them to and having to regroup and recalibrate and adjust our plans afterwards. You may learn more about who you are by messing up. I certainly have. And if you handle these moments well and handle your mistakes well they may end up as funny anecdotes that you can tell at dinner parties. Or on dates. Or during a commencement speech on the National Mall.” — May 19, 2024, at the National Mall

Jennifer Coolidge

Position: Actress known for her roles in TV shows and movies, such as “Legally Blonde” and “White Lotus”

Spoke at: Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri

Advice to graduates: “When I think about your generation and how passionate and vocal you are, it makes me so happy because this is progress. Seriously, we need you. We need your strength. There is war and famine spreading across the world. As you know, protests on campus and across the world, like some you’ve had here, illustrate the need for the voices of brilliant, uniquely nuanced and qualified graduates, like you.” — May 13, 2024

Jerry Seinfeld

Position: Stand-up comedian and actor

Spoke at: Duke University in North Carolina

Advice to graduates: “The slightly uncomfortable feeling of awkward humor is OK. It’s not something you need to fix. I totally admire the ambitions of your generation to create a more just and inclusive society. I think it is also wonderful that you care so much about not hurting other people’s feelings in the million and one ways we all do that in every second of every day. It’s lovely to want to fix those things. BUT, what I need to tell you as a comedian, do not lose your sense of humor. You have no idea at this point in your life how much you are going to need it to get through. Not enough of life makes sense for you to be able to survive it without humor.” — May 12, 2024

Kamala Harris

Position: Vice president of the United States

Spoke at: United States Air Force Academy in Colorado

Advice to graduates: “Wherever you go from here, you are ready. You all are ready. You have the skills; you have the knowledge and the strength of character to meet any challenge. You are warriors. You have dedicated yourselves to the service of our nation. And America’s security relies on you. I know you will make our country proud.” — May 30, 2024

Ken Burns

Position: Documentarian

Spoke at: Brandeis University in Massachusetts

Advice to graduates: “Be curious, not cool. Insecurity makes liars of us all. Remember, none of us get out of here alive. The inevitable vicissitudes of life, no matter how well gated our communities, will visit us all. Grief is a part of life, and if you explore its painful precincts, it will make you stronger. Do good things, help others. Leadership is humility and generosity squared. Remember the opposite of faith is not doubt. Doubt is central to faith. The opposite of faith is certainty. The kinship of the soul begins with your own at times withering self-examination. Try to change that unchangeable human nature of Ecclesiastes, but start with you. ‘Nothing so needs reforming,’ Mark Twain once chided us, ‘as other people’s habits.'” — May 19, 2024

Maria Ressa

Position: Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist

Spoke at: Harvard University in Massachusetts

Advice to graduates: “We’re standing on the rubble of the world that was. And we, you, must have the courage, the foresight, to imagine and create the world as it should be — more compassionate, more equal, more sustainable. Your Harvard education gives you the tools. Make it a world that is safe from fascists and tyrants. Alone, no matter how much of a superstar you are, you will accomplish very little. We will accomplish very little alone. This is about what we can do together, to find what binds us together. Our world on fire needs you. So, Class of 2024, welcome to the battlefield. Join us.” — May 23, 2024

Meredith Woo

Position: Academic, author and former president of Sweet Briar College in Virginia

Spoke at: Simmons University in Massachusetts

Advice to graduates: “The new world you begin is much more complex than the one where your parents and their parents (were) born. There will be greater diversity of voices and perspectives in your world, than even in mine, both within the United States and abroad. Your great challenge going forward is to take stock of this and building and sharing a common world with others with different perspectives. … It is only when we try to understand perspectives that are different, alien, and sometimes from the left field, do we move closer to seeing reality as a whole and develop a shared common sense.” — May 17, 2024

Mitt Romney

Position: U.S. senator

Spoke at: Johns Hopkins University in Maryland

Advice to graduates: “Some people think that having no attachments or casual attachments is the kind of freedom that’ll bring them happiness. They’re wrong. In fact, it’s our connections to others, to important causes that we believe in, to our voluntary commitments to others that truly bring meaning and satisfaction to our lives. The more committed your connections, the greater your satisfaction.” — May 23, 2024

Nelson J. Pérez

Position: Archbishop of Philadelphia

Spoke at: Villanova University in Pennsylvania

Advice to graduates: “Graduates, you are resilient. Let those words sink deep into your hearts. You are resilient. In fact, one of the most resilient generations of young people I’ve ever seen. For starters, just as you were preparing to celebrate the end of your high school years, the global COVID-19 pandemic put a stranglehold on our world and turned everything we took for granted as a normal way of life upside down. You responded with grace, patience and ingenuity as you adapted to new ways of living and learning so that we could one day emerge from that health crisis and begin to sort out the new normal together. … You’ve also confronted sharp political divides, the rollercoaster of an inflationary economy and societal tensions at home and abroad the likes of which have not been experienced in decades. … From what I have seen, the nature of your collective response has been inspiring and it gives me hope.” — May 17, 2024

Pat Sajak

Position: Game show host of “Wheel of Fortune” and chairman of Hillsdale College’s board of trustees

Spoke at: Hillsdale College in Michigan

Advice to graduates: “If there’s one thing I’ve found out on my circuitous educational journey, it’s that learning need never and should never stop. Your degrees are of great value and signs of magnificent accomplishments but they don’t represent the end of learning. In some ways, they are just the beginning.” — May 11, 2024

Ruth Simmons

Position: Scholar, author and former president of Smith College in Massachusetts, Brown University in Rhode Island and Prairie View A&M University in Texas

Spoke at: Barnard College in New York

Advice to graduates: “Whatever you have experienced in the past years, please appreciate that these challenges and counters and opportunities provide an avenue to understand how you can best navigate your journey over the coming years. Don’t just celebrate that you’re leaving Barnard. Celebrate that the Barnard experience will be with you and guide you for the rest of your days. Reach into the reserve of learning that you’ve had here for the fuel and inspiration that will take you to unimagined heights. Embrace the diversity of your friendships as a guide to how you must live your life, one that is robustly nourished by individuals who think differently, worship differently and represent a range of cultures and races.” — May 15, 2024

Learn more about college

Get advice about how to choose a college, and check out the complete rankings of the Best Colleges to find the school that’s best for you. For more tips on selecting a college, connect with U.S. News Education on X/Twitter and Facebook.

Some college graduation speakers in 2024

— Angela Bassett

— Bernie Sanders

— Frieda Ekott

— Glenn Youngkin

— Jen Psaki

— Jennifer Coolidge

— Jerry Seinfeld

— Kamala Harris

— Ken Burns

— Maria A. Ressa

— Meredith Woo

— Nelson J. Pérez

— Mitt Romney

— Pat Sajak

— Ruth Simmons

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Advice From Famous Commencement Speakers originally appeared on

Update 06/04/24: This slideshow was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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