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Seven Lessons Students Can Learn From This Year’s Commencement Addresses

Jun 20, 2023

Commencement is a momentous occasion, marking the culmination of years of hard work, dedication, and personal growth. Each year, colleges and universities invite esteemed leaders in business, technology, entertainment, and politics to deliver addresses to their graduating class, offering congratulations and providing valuable life lessons that can guide students on their future paths. Whether they are coming to the end of their academic careers or preparing for another year of school, students in all stages of their educational journey can learn a lot from such commencement addresses.

Here are the top seven lessons that students can learn from this year’s commencement speeches:

1. Graduates and students play an important role as members of our democracy.

“We all get to complain about the man and we all have debts we got to pay. And we’re all entitled to a day off to lay about. But the work that is called for that we must do has no expiration date. It is the construction of our more perfect union, and that job will never ever be completed. It’s one that requires rigorous attention, unfading wherewithal and all hands. The work is the keeping of the promises of our promised land, the practice of decency, the protection of freedom and the promotion of liberty for all with no exceptions. And man, that takes on a lot of work.”

– Tom Hanks

In his commencement address at Harvard University, Tom Hanks emphasized the critical role that young people play in fighting for justice and protecting the values that define our democracy.

2. Leave a legacy of kindness.

“There will never be anything in your life as fulfilling as making a difference in somebody else’s. Everybody here wants to see you take your integrity, your curiosity, your creativity, your guts, and this newfound education of yours, and use it to make a difference. Everybody always thinks you got to go do something big and grand. I’ll tell you where you start. You start by being good to at least one other person every single day. Just start there. That’s how you begin to change the world. By just being good to one other person.”

– Oprah Winfrey

Addressing graduates at her alma mater Tennessee State University, Oprah Winfrey impressed upon students the importance of kindness, emphasizing that small acts of kindness can make a lasting impact on another person.

3. Time is your most valuable resource.

“Will you be able not to waste this time of your life? This topic seems trivial, but these are very, very difficult questions for every person. How you answer them is how you live. And while it is still possible to find new deposits of oil or lithium, and if in the future humanity can start mining resources in space, it is still purely science fiction to live longer than has been given.”

– Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered a stirring speech to the John Hopkins Class of 2023, impressing upon students the value of time and calling them to use the time they are given for good. He appealed to the stories of Ukranians who face uncertainty each day on the front lines, inspiring students to live with urgency and commitment—even during times of peace.

4. You are equipped to take on the challenges you face.

“Lean into your personal strengths and use them to get you where you want to go.”

– Ketanji Brown Jackson

In her commencement speech to the American University law graduates of 2023, Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson drew inspiration from one of her favorite television shows, Survivor, to impart valuable advice on the law profession and post-grad life. With levity and zeal, Jackson encouraged students to recognize that they are indeed prepared for the demands of the profession and they should take an inventory of their strengths as they begin their careers.

5. Students have the power to affect meaningful change in the world.

“No graduating class gets to choose the world into which they graduate.  Every class enters the history of a nation up to the point it has been written by others. But few classes, once in every several generations, enters at a point in our history where it actually has a chance to change the trajectory of the country.  You face that inflection point today, and I know you will meet the moment.”

– Joe Biden

Sharing the story of his journey in politics and reflecting on the history of racism in America, President Joe Biden encouraged Howard University graduates to recognize their power as changemakers in their communities.

6. Failure is an opportunity for growth.

“Here’s what I know to be true: In your life, you will know success, and you will know failure. They are both equally important to your growth as a human being. And if you have a long season of failure, don’t worry, success is on the way. And if you have a long run of successes, you should watch your step because chances are, you’re gonna stumble at some point. It is called balance. Do not chase one while trying to run away from the other. You must embrace both, with open arms if you can stomach it.” 

– Lena Waithe

Emmy Award-winning screenwriter Lena Waithe delivered her first commencement address to Barnard College graduates at Radio City Music Hall. Waithe used the opportunity to emphasize that students should embrace failure as a welcome opportunity to learn and grow.

7. Embrace the joy of life.

“Be human in all of its bedlam and beauty and madness and mercy for as long as you can and in any way you can. It’s time to live.”

– Patton Oswalt

In a speech that was at turns comedic and inspiring, Patton Oswalt reminded graduates of the College of William & Mary to soak in life’s joys, whether great or small. Amidst the turmoil of the world they are entering into and the difficulty of their journey they took to get there, Oswalt instilled in students the value of connection, rest, and the importance of making beautiful memories.

The college graduation speeches delivered this year have provided students with invaluable life lessons as they embark on their post-graduation journeys. The 2023 commencement addresses have inspired students to approach life with a sense of purpose, resilience, and empathy. As graduates and continuing students move forward, they can carry these lessons with them, navigating the challenges and embracing the opportunities that come their way.

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