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This year’s commencement speakers were blunt in describing the country’s bleak state of affairs, but they also shared poignant personal reflections, messages of hope and words of inspiration—none of which were attributed to ChatGPT. Inside Higher Ed reviewed only a small share of the season’s speeches—plenty are still to come, after all—so this sampling does not claim to be comprehensive or even representative. Think of it as a snapshot of the commencement addresses delivered to the Class of 2023, excerpted and edited for clarity and space.
Goshen College: Latino civil rights historian Felipe Hinojosa
“Many of you started your studies … in 2019, in the months right before the world changed, in the ‘before times,’ as your generation likes to say, and in the last four years you wore masks, logged on to Zoom classes and, most impressively, many of you harnessed the power of social media to create networks of mutual aid that cut across borders of age, race, gender, and religion to help get people the groceries, health care and connection so many needed. You did that …
“Class of 2023, I don’t have to remind you of the world you are entering, you know it well: school shootings, white supremacist violence, environmental catastrophes, a political circus and political divisions that stem from a small segment of the country that fears the demographic shifts. All have become routine, but let’s not forget that so have the protests. In the midst of this chaos, young people from across the country, and right here in Goshen, have envisioned a new world: community gardens, youth projects, a coalition of Chicanas organizing around the concept of Motherwork, informed by their shared gendered, classed and racialized experiences as first-generation Latinas from working-class, (im)migrant Latinx families …
“The world needs you now more than ever. Do not succumb to this idea that your emotions should be kept at bay, that your knowledge does not matter. Remember your education is the only thing that cannot ever be taken from you, but it is something you can give away.”
Tennessee State University: Media entrepreneur and talk show host Oprah Winfrey, Class of 1987
“This is what I know for sure: 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.”
Northern Arizona University: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates
“Some of you might know that I never made it to my own graduation. I left after three semesters to start Microsoft. So, what does a college dropout know about graduation? Not much personally, to be honest.
“As I prepared for today, I spent a lot of time thinking about how you, as new graduates, can have the biggest impact on the world with the education you received here. That led me to thinking about the graduation I never had. The commencement speech I never heard. And the advice I was never given on a day just like this one.
“That is what I want to share with you this afternoon: the five things I wish I was told at the graduation I never had.
“The first thing is, your life isn’t a one-act play. “You’re probably facing a lot of pressure right now to make the right decisions about your career. It might feel like those decisions are permanent. They’re not. What you do tomorrow—or for the next 10 years—does not have to be what you do forever. When I left school, I thought I would work at Microsoft for the rest of my life. I am so glad I was wrong.
“Today, I still work on software, but philanthropy is my full-time job. I spend my days working to create innovations that fight climate change and reduce inequalities around the world—including in health and education …
“Not only is it OK to change your mind, reinvent yourself, or have a second career, it can be a good thing.
“The second piece of advice I wish I heard at my graduation is that you are never too smart to be confused.
“I thought I knew everything when I left college. But eventually, I realized that the first step to learning something new is leaning into what you don’t know, instead of focusing on what you do know.
“At some point in your career, you will find yourself facing a problem you cannot solve on your own. When that happens, don’t panic. Take a breath. Force yourself to think things through. And then find smart people to learn from …
“People want to help you. The key is to not be afraid to ask. You may be done with school. But the rest of your life can—and should—still be an education.
“My third piece of advice is to gravitate toward work that solves a problem. “The good news is, you are graduating at a time of immense opportunity to help people. New industries and companies are emerging every day that will allow you to make a living by making a difference. And advances in science and technology have made it easier than ever to make a big impact … When you spend your days doing something that solves a big problem, it energizes you to do your best work. It forces you to be more creative, and it gives your life a stronger sense of purpose.
“My fourth piece of advice is simple: don’t underestimate the power of friendship.
“When I was in school, I became friends with another student who shared a lot of the same interests—like science fiction novels and computer magazines. Little did I know how far that relationship would take me. My friend’s name was Paul Allen—and we started Microsoft together …
“The people you’ve … sat next to in lectures are not just your classmates. They are your network. Your future co-founders and colleagues. Your best sources of support, information and advice. The only thing more valuable than what you walk offstage with today is who you walk onstage with.
“My last piece of advice is the one I could have used the most. It took the longest for me to learn. And it is this: you are not a slacker if you cut yourself some slack.
“When I was your age, I didn’t believe in vacations. I didn’t believe in weekends. I didn’t believe the people I worked with should, either. In the early days of Microsoft, my office overlooked the parking lot—and I would keep track of who was leaving early and staying late. But as I got older—and especially once I became a dad—I realized there is more to life than work.
“Don’t wait as long as I did to learn this lesson. Take time to nurture your relationships. To celebrate your successes. And to recover from your losses. Take a break when you need to. Take it easy on the people around you when they need it, too.”
Georgia Institute of Technology: Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker, Class of 2016
“It is important to use today as an opportunity to take stock of your mission. Our culture is suffering. We all see it. It doesn’t matter which political persuasion you sit on, or whether you are a person of deep faith or not. Anyone with eyes can see that something is off.
“Studies have shown one of the many negative effects of the pandemic is that a lot of young adults feel a sense of loneliness, anxiety and depression despite technology that has connected us more than ever before. It would seem the more connected people are to one another, the more they feel alone. I’m not sure the root of this, but at least I can offer one controversial antidote that I believe will have a lasting impact for generations to come: get married and start a family.”
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts: Former New College of Florida president Patricia Okker
“This is my first time on your campus, but I already feel a profound sense of familiarity. The weather is admittedly different, and so too is the scenery …
“Nevertheless, there is something deeply familiar to me about this place, and that is your commitment to being a top-ranked public liberal arts college. This may not be the most fashionable thing to do these days. Many people have written off a liberal arts education as obsolete. But all of us here know differently …
“My favorite professor in college was Dr. Lloyd Michaels. He was an American literature professor, which not coincidentally became my own area of focus as a professor …
“One day we were reading Chapter 17 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck describes the house of the Grangerford family, Twain’s representation of Southern aristocracy under a society based on slavery.
“Dr. Michaels began the discussion by asking what the inside of the house looked like. Eager to take such an uncharacteristically easy question, I raised my hand and enthusiastically described to the class what Huck had told us about the house, that it was ‘mighty nice’ with ‘so much style.’
“Dr. Michaels paused and said, ‘Tell me more, Pat. What’s it look like?’
“‘It’s fancy and beautiful,’ I said, ‘with beautiful things on the mantel.’
“‘What things?’ he asked.
“Grabbing my book and suddenly feeling a bit anxious, I read aloud what Huck described: the beautiful clock with a picture of a town painted on the bottom and a big sun in the middle.
“And on both sides of the clock, two big, gaudy parrots and next to them a cat and a dog that squeaked when you pressed down on them. And on the table was a ‘lovely crockery basket’ of fruit made from something like white chalk that had pieces chipped off that was, Huck told us, much ‘redder and yellower and prettier than real ones.’
“I looked at Dr. Michaels in disbelief. ‘It’s not pretty, is it?’
“I don’t recall the rest of the discussion, which almost certainly covered Huck’s naïve (and soon to be life-threatening) assumption that those with wealth and power were wiser and more moral than he. I’m sure we discussed how Huck’s and Jim’s survival depended upon Huck’s ability to think for himself.
“I don’t need to remember those details, because the larger lesson has stayed with me all these years. In those few moments in class, Dr. Michaels enacted the most noble charge of a liberal arts teacher: he resisted the temptation to simply give us a lecture about the device of unreliable narrators and the theme of religious hypocrisy and instead let us, let me, figure things out for myself. And one of the most remarkable things about that class period was that I was not at all embarrassed or ashamed that I had been duped by Huck’s narration of that obviously tacky parlor.
“Rather than embarrassment, I felt awe: awe in the power of writers and readers to wrestle with our most pressing moral dilemmas. Awe in the genius of Twain to use the perfect literary device—a naïve and unreliable narrator—to enact in the reading process the urgency of thinking for ourselves.
“Awe in the power of stories to teach us about ourselves and the world we inhabit and the one we want to create.”
University of Michigan: Musician Wynton Marsalis
“We need a revolution in thought and feeling through collective participation. An entire nation cannot hold itself hostage and become an armed perimeter in fear of itself. Our planet is multidimensional, and people all over it want to know you. We need indefatigable volunteers in the cause of the people … not just our people. This democracy cost a lot of people a lot. It would be a tragedy of historic proportion to squander that inheritance because our young couldn’t envision an America better than the mess we’ve made of it for you. Because our young didn’t have the will and desire to throw off the shackles of deeply rooted corruption and come together in the cause of mutual freedoms, because they’re too busy playing make-believe games … or they’re lost in a make-believe world … or too distracted by wondering who likes them on an app.
“May you never become numb to the deprivation and poverty, the misery and lack of opportunity that besets so many of your less fortunate and less aware fellow citizens. May you never lose the sense that a collective will can create unimagined change to better the lives of more and more citizens. You are needed out here. Hello! We desperately need you and your creativity, your conscience and your consciousness.”
Bentley University: NCAA president and former Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker
“When I ran for governor the first time in 2010 and lost to former governor Deval Patrick, that hurt. In fact, I was still pretty sore when a young man called me and said he was organizing the first robotics competition at the Agganis Arena at Boston University. He wanted me to come speak to the teams that were participating in the contest to kick off the morning.
“I reminded him I had just lost the election and questioned him, ‘Why me?’
“He paused for a minute and then said, ‘I think you’re perfect. I want you to talk about why it’s OK to fail.’
“My first thought was, he was very lucky he wasn’t standing in front of me! And my second was to hang up. But I’d been raised by my parents to hear people out. And I heard him out, and in time, I thought the story he was asking me to share was a good one. So I went and I told it, and to this day, I still run into people who were there who tell me they were glad that I did.
“This whole thing about listening that several people have talked about, it’s real. My mom was a Democrat, and my dad, who is now 94, is a Republican. As far as I can tell, I think they canceled each other out in almost every election. Maybe even mine!
“Growing up, the dinner table at our house was a constant conversation. I had friends who lobbied to come by just to watch. Nobody’s motives or character were questioned when my mom and dad went back and forth on the issues of the day. Nobody threw anything. But people had plenty of opinions.
“There was only one rule. You had to listen more than you spoke. And when you spoke, you had to demonstrate some appreciation for what the other person was saying.
“In their house, being part of the team meant appreciating more points of view than just your own. And demonstrating it respectfully on a regular basis.
“My parents were great partners, to each other and to those around them. And as my mom always said to me when I was young, ‘You have two ears and one mouth for a reason!’”