Inspirational moments from Sheryl Sandberg, J.K. Rowling, Oprah, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres and more.
Let’s face it, ten years out, many of us can’t remember who spoke at our graduation ceremonies, never mind repeat what they said. But every year there’s a small batch of gems–speeches by a celebrity or CEO that fuse together equal parts wit, wisdom, nostalgia and meaning. Many of these are by women. In fact, the commencement address has become a particularly powerful platform for accomplished women. In the coming weeks, big names like Scandal showrunner Shonda Rhimes and General Motors CEO Mary Barra will ascend podiums around the country. In the meantime, here are some of our favorite graduation moments from the last few years.
Julie Andrews at University of Colorado Boulder (2013): “Use your knowledge and your heart to stand up for those who can’t stand. Speak for those who can’t speak. Be a beacon of light, for those whose lives have become dark. Fight the good fight against global warming. Be a part of all that is good and decent. Be an ambassador for the kind of world you want to live in”
Ellen DeGeneres at Tulane University (2009): “Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path and by all means you should follow that. Don’t give advice, it will come back and bite you in the ass. Don’t take anyone’s advice. So my advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.”
Toni Morrison at Rutgers University (2011): “But I tell you, no generation, least of all mine, has a complete grip on the imagination and goals of subsequent generations; not if you refuse to let it be so. You don’t have to accept media or even scholarly labels for yourself: Generation A, B, C, X, Y, [majority], minority, red state, blue state; this social past or that one. Every true heroine breaks free from his or her class—upper, middle, and lower—in order to serve a wider world.”
Barbara Kingsolver at Duke University (2008): “If somebody says ‘your money or your life,’ you could say, ‘life,’ and mean it. You’ll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck — those will be yours.”
Michelle Obama at Eastern Kentucky University (2013): “If you’re a Democrat, spend some time talking to a Republican. And if you’re a Republican, have a chat with a Democrat. Maybe you’ll find some common ground, maybe you won’t. But if you honestly engage with an open mind and an open heart, I guarantee you’ll learn something. And goodness knows we need more of that, because we know what happens when we only talk to people who think like we do — we just get more stuck in our ways, more divided, and it gets harder to come together for a common purpose. “
Amy Poehler at Harvard Class Day (2011): “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.”
J.K. Rowling at Harvard (2008): “So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
Sheryl Sandberg at Barnard College (2011): “We will never close the achievement gap until we close the ambition gap. But if all young women start to lean in, we can close the ambition gap right here, right now, if every single one of you leans in. Leadership belongs to those who take it. Leadership starts with you.”
Maria Shriver at USC Annenberg School of Communication (2012): “I hope if you learn anything from me today, you learn and remember — the power of the pause. Pausing allows you to take a beat — to take a breath in your life. As everybody else is rushing around like a lunatic out there, I dare you to do the opposite.”
Meryl Streep at Barnard (2010): “This is your time and it feels normal to you but really there is no normal. There’s only change, and resistance to it and then more change.”
Kerry Washington at George Washington University (2013): ““When you leave here today and commence the next stage of your life, you can follow someone else’s script, try to make choices that will make other people happy, avoid discomfort, do what is expected, and copy the status quo. Or you can look at all that you have accomplished today and use it as fuel to venture forth and write your own story. If you do, amazing things will take shape.”
Oprah Winfrey at Spelman University (2012): “You must have some vision for your life. Even if you don’t know the plan, you have to have a direction in which you choose to go,”