The Best Celebrity Graduation Speeches of 2015


It’s after Memorial Day, which means that across the country, grills have been rolled out, beach towels unfurled, and thousands of college grads unleashed into the real world. Helping them make the transition are big-name commencement speakers dispensing advice with varying degrees of seriousness. Robert De Niro’s grabbed headlines with his already-infamous “yeah, you’re fucked” address at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (though his follow-up — “the good news is that’s not a bad place to start” — got slightly less attention). Here are some other highlights from the 2015 commencement season, from tongue-in-cheek to earnest to everything in between.

Forest Whitaker at California State University, Dominguez Hills

Whitaker grew up across the street from the Los Angeles-area school, where he opted to take the sweet and serious approach to life advice. Riffing on a Walter Kirn quote — “Life is an upstream, not an uphill, battle, and it results in just one story: how, and alongside whom, one used his paddle” — Whitaker offered his own advice on the tried-and-true graduation theme of perseverance: “Life is an active, not a passive, journey, and much of the time, you will have to paddle against these currents. Whenever you feel lost, remember that what matters, in the end, is how you paddle.” (Skip to 1:09:00 for the start of Whitaker’s speech.)

Stephen Colbert at Wake Forest University

Colbert, unsurprisingly, opted for a more humorous approach to his address, available in full here. Analogizing his impending career transition to the experience of leaving campus, Colbert psyched grads up for some “crucial decisions about who we’re going to be”: “For me, I’ll have to figure out how to do an hour-long show every night. And you, at some point, will have to sleep. I am told the Adderall wears off eventually. Good luck.” The comic also emphasized the importance of having one’s own standards in the absence of objective measures like grades, though he took off the edge with a nice side-swipe at Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Joyce Carol Oates at Niagara County Community College

Like Whitaker, Oates grew up near the campus where she gave her address, and spent much of her speech meditating on her upbringing and background in the area. But Oates’ main theme, drawing from her experience as a teacher at Princeton University, was artistic perseverance: “Energy — industry — refusal to be discouraged — a prevailing sense of humor: these are essential in our lives… The writing students of mine who have gone on to be truly successful, in several cases quite impressive careers, were individuals who worked — worked — worked — and did not allow rejections to dissuade them of their inner worth.” Her main example? A onetime slaughterhouse employee, and 40-time rejectee, named Stephen King. Read the full speech here.

Maya Rudolph at Tulane University

Rudolph’s own alma mater of UC Santa Cruz is rather different from Tulane, she acknowledges: “You have The Green Wave; our school mascot was the Banana Slug. We didn’t have a football team, but we did have an ultimate frisbee team. I majored in Not Washing My Feet and Advanced Zig Zag Rolling.” But the improv comedy motto of “Yes, And,” which she learned at LA’s Groundlings shortly after college, is universally applicable: “Say, ‘Yes, And’… and create your own destiny.” Read the full speech here.

Ken Burns at Washington University in St. Louis

Leave it to Ken Burns to lay off the platitudes and deliver a meditation on the nature of history and injustice in America. The end of his speech is jam-packed with advice, but the middle urges graduates to understand their past and its shameful recurrence in Ferguson: “It is unconscionable, as you emerge from this privileged sanctuary, that a few miles from here… we are still playing out, sadly, an utterly American story, that the same stultifying conditions and sentiments that brought on our Civil War are still on such vivid and unpleasant display. Today, today. There’s nothing new under the sun.” Read the full speech here.

Bill Nye at Rutgers University

Nye’s connection to New Jersey may not be as immediately apparent as his fellow commencement speaker Jon Bon Jovi, but that doesn’t make his address any less worthwhile. Asking graduates to rise to the generational challenge of climate change, the Science Guy urged his audience to fight for carbon regulation and clean power the way his generation fought for environmental protection: “I want you to solve our legal problems as well as our technical challenges and, dare I say it — Change the World.” Read the full speech here.

Salman Rushdie at Emory University

The novelist, who just ended his tenure as a Distinguished Professor at the Atlanta school, advised graduates to stay hungry and distinguish themselves in whatever way they can, using characteristically colorful language — “There it is, out there, the grand and appalling human reality; its elation, its despondency, its danger, its dentistry” — while enlisting the advice of contemporaries Toni Morrison (The world is interesting and difficult. Happiness? Don’t settle for that”) and Saul Bellow, particularly the latter’s Augie March: “Augie’s response to the vastness of the unknown is to be larger than life. That is the best response….Try not to be small.”

Matthew McConaughey at the University of Houston

McConaughey reportedly earned $120,000 for his self-described choice between “a sugar donut or some oatmeal.” But while the speech may not have been six-figures great, it was refreshingly honest (acknowledging that a college degree doesn’t guarantee much in 2015), endearing, and most importantly, included some good Dazed & Confused retrospection: “I should NOT have been in THAT scene [where Wooderson double checks whether some other characters want to leave with him], I should have exited screen left and never come back. But back then, making my first film, getting invited back to set, cashing that check and having a ball, I WANTED more screen time, I WANTED to be in the scene longer and more, and come back into the scene, right? I shouldn’t have been there. Wooderson shouldn’t have been there. It’s just as important where we are not as it is where we are.” Read the full speech here.

Denzel Washington at Dillard University

Washington’s speech at the New Orleans HBCU, where he established a scholarship program for theater students, was unusually overt in its religious themes; his first takeaway of four was “Put God first,” because “everything I have is by the grace of God.” The actor also offered a twist on the classic “virtues of ambition” address, arguing that grads ought to say thank you in advance because, “True desire in the heart, for anything good is God’s proof to you, sent beforehand, that it’s already yours.”