10 of Hollywood's Most Memorable Commencement Speeches

8:00 AM 4/30/2018

by Courtney Idasetima

Movie stars, talk show hosts and a COO are among those who've given commencement speeches in recent years.

From left: Ellen Degeneres, Oprah Winfrey and Will Ferrell
From left: Ellen Degeneres, Oprah Winfrey and Will Ferrell
Screengrab/YouTube (3)

College commencement speeches represent students' last chance to get advice and words of wisdom before entering the job market and the real world. Stars have left their mark on millions of students through their speeches.

In honor of graduation season, The Hollywood Reporter takes a look back at 10 of the most inspirational speeches throughout the past decade.

  • Hoda Kotb

    Virginia Tech, 2008

    Just a year after the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech, alumna and Today co-host Hoda Kotb delivered a commencement speech to the university. She touched on the tragedy, telling students that the Virginia Tech family is “not fetal-position, hide-under-the-covers, suck-our-thumb kind of people. We’re people who rise up.”

    She also had a message for the students who had not yet found employment, joking that the engineers always get the jobs and telling students, "my story is for the people who don’t have jobs. Who doesn’t have a job? That was me. Do not panic. Your job is there. It is waiting for you. You just got to go and get it." She went on to tell the audience about her post-grad struggle of having 27 news directors say no to her before finally receiving that one yes.

    The breast cancer survivor also spoke about how getting over that tragedy affected her life afterward.

  • Ellen DeGeneres

    Tulane University, 2009

    The Ellen Show host joked about her lack of education, the meaning of commencement and what it means to wear a robe in the morning at Tulane University in New Orleans in 2009.

    In all seriousness, she took a moment to share her struggles with living in shame and fear as a gay woman who was not publicly out at the time, then her struggles when she was openly out, and the positive messages she received from fans who had similar stories.

    She credited being true to herself and not living in fear to her success, but added some humor, saying, “Follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow someone else's path unless you’re in the woods, and you’re lost, and you see a path. Then, by all means you should follow that.”

    She even quoted the Pussycat Dolls' lyrics from "When I Grow Up" in her speech and Lady Gaga's "Just Dance" lyrics and, as she’s famously known for, danced her way off the stage.

  • Lisa Kudrow

    Vassar College, 2010

    Vassar alumna Lisa Kudrow, class of 1985, took a trip back to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to deliver the 2010 commencement speech. She ensured students that their twenties would be full of crossroads and uncertainty, but that didn’t mean their twenties had to also be torture.

    Kudrow also shared how she had dreams to become an actor when she was a child, but never did anything acting-related in high school or while at Vassar. She elaborated on her struggles, telling students about when she first entered the world of acting, her disappointment at getting fired from Frasier and the sad moment when her friend Conan O’Brien relocated to Los Angeles.

    Her struggles to success reached a turn when she was able to land a steady role on Friends, which of course became a massive hit. Kudrow proclaimed, “It was a good thing I didn't get Saturday Night Live and that Romy and Michele pilot didn’t work out, and every other disappointment that happened. They were actually more like guideposts that kept me on my path.”

  • Conan O'Brien

    Dartmouth College, 2011

    The late-night talk show host had numerous jokes during his speech at Dartmouth College, including mentioning fictitious television characters Meredith Grey of Grey’s Anatomy and Pete Campbell of Mad Men, who attended the university.

    The Harvard University graduate also joked about what the other Ivy League universities were like in relation to Dartmouth.

    He provided what he called real practical advice for students who are graduating, on topics including adult acne, ironing, ramen noodles and wearing colorful high-top Converses. He even had some tips for their parents who would now have to deal with postgrads living in their basements.  

    O’Brien told students about the last time he addressed graduates at the 2000 Harvard University commencement.

    “I told graduates to not be afraid to fail, and I still believe that. But today, I tell you that whether you fear it, or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment, you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.”

    He also shared his personal struggle with finding his space in the field of comedy and his changes in the late-night entertainment world, and he left students with this bit of advice: "There is no greater cliche in a commencement address than to follow your dreams. While I'm here to tell you, that whatever you think your dream is now, it will probably change and that's OK."

  • Oprah Winfrey

    Spelman College, 2012

    The media mogul, television channel owner, business owner, former talk show host and spokeswoman gave a speech about being successful in life to the graduates of Spelman College, a liberal arts women's college located in Atlanta, where she received an honorary doctorate in 1993.

    In her speech, Winfrey quoted Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, and told students, “You want to be in the driver’s seat of your own life because if you are not, life will drive you.”

    She structured her speech on three things to always remember in life: No. 1: What do you want and who are you; No. 2: You must find a way to serve; and No. 3: Always do the right thing.

  • Kerry Washington

    George Washington University, 2013

    The Scandal actress dreamed of being a psychologist or an educator, like her mother, while attending George Washington University, but due to scholarship requirements, she had to audition for productions and earned the role as lead frog in a play during her junior year. 

    Washington told the graduating students to really think about the things that brought them to where they are now and told the crowd they can follow other people’s scripts and do what they want them to do or use what they’ve learned as fuel to write their own stories.

    “In my eyes, you are heroes who have faced fears and taken risks and forged ahead to conquer one of the most important chapters of your life. Now that you achieved the goal of your quest, now you must ready yourself for when the call to adventure comes again, and when it does, don’t follow the path prescribed from someone else. Don’t give into fear, continue to define your unique path.” She went on to say, “You, and you alone, are the only person who can live the life that writes the story that you were meant to tell, and the world needs your story because the world needs your voice. Every single one of you.”

  • Sheryl Sandberg

    Harvard University, 2014

    Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg delivered the 2014 commencement speech at her alma mater, Harvard University, in 2014. Sandberg spoke about some of her first experiences, including her first winter coat, since they didn’t need those in her Miami hometown, and receiving her first C grade.

    She told graduating students about her decision to not lock into a path too early in her life, something that allowed her to go into a new life-changing field of business. She also said that careers are no longer like ladders and are more like jungle gyms and that you need to look different directions to seek new opportunities, and she shared a story about Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.

    “There is no straight path from your seat today to where you are going. Don’t try to draw that line. You will not only get it wrong, you'll miss big opportunities, and I mean big — like the internet,” she said.

    She ended by reminding the graduates that they will have something Zuckerburg does not have — a Harvard degree (he dropped out to work on Facebook but was granted an honorary degree in 2017).

  • President George W. Bush

    Southern Methodist University, 2015

    The 43rd president of the United States delivered a speech at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 2015. He previously gave a commencement speech at the university in 1999 when he was the governor of Texas and has a special connection to the university because his wife, Laura, is an SMU alumna.

    In his speech, Bush got the whole room laughing, cheering and clapping by delivering this line, “Those of you who are graduating this afternoon with high honors, awards and distinctions, I say well done. And as I like to tell the C students, you too can be president.” 

  • Steven Spielberg

    Harvard University, 2016

    The billionaire director, producer and screenwriter shared his college history with Harvard University's 2016 graduates. Spielberg dropped out during his sophomore year, but went back to California State Long Beach in his fifties to set an example for his seven children.

    Spielberg touched on many topics during his commencement speech, including bullying, discrimination and hate, but he left the graduates with some hope and wisdom as he wished them all a “true Hollywood-style happy ending.”

    “I hope you hang on to the friendships you’ve made here at Harvard, and among your friends, I hope you find someone you want to share your life with.” He went on to say, “I spoke about the importance of intuition and how there’s no greater voice to follow — that is, until you meet the love of your life. And this is what happened when I met and married Kate [Capshaw]. And that became the greatest character-defining moment of my life.”

  • Will Ferrell

    University of Southern California, 2017

    Ferrell received an honorary doctorate from the University of Southern California in 2017, the year he also gave a commencement speech that went viral. The comedian wasted no time in cracking jokes during his speech, referencing his former commencement speaking engagements at DeVry Technical School, University of Phoenix and Trump University.

    The 1990 graduate, with a degree in dports information, has become one of the school's most famous alumni. After Ferrell received his degree, he joked that he got a job at ESPN, although he actually moved back to his hometown of Irvine, Calif.

    “I was afraid, you’re never not afraid, I’m still afraid. I was afraid to write this speech, and now I’m realizing how many people are watching me right now, and it’s scary.” He went on to say, “My fear of failure never approached in magnitude my fear of what-if. ” 

    Ferrell left the crowd with some relatable wisdom: “For those of you, as graduates, sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to do with your life, congratulations. For many of you, who maybe don’t have it figured out, it’s OK. That’s the same chair I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard, don’t listen to the critics, and you will figure it out.”

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