12 of the Best Commencement Speeches of 2016

An unpredictable election season has politicians and celebrities urging graduates to take action, create change and vote.

12 Great Commencement Speeches of 2016

First Lady Michelle Obama receives an honorary degree and gives the commencement speech at The City College of New York on June 3, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Steve Sands/WireImage)

At colleges and universities all over the country, the class of 2016 has received a wealth of advice from politicians, public figures, business titans, entertainers and artists, and among the recurring themes is the need for millennials to become engaged in politics and their world. As the nation’s largest living generation, millennials have the power to make a big impact at the polls come November.

What follows is a collection of inspiring speakers who urge the class of 2016 to act with purpose and to continue dreaming for a better future. Have a favorite commencement speech? Add it in the comments below.


Michelle Obama, first lady
City College of New York (June 3, 2016)

In her final commencement address as first lady, Michelle Obama spoke to the City College of New York’s graduates about how differences make us stronger as a nation, and about how diversity and hard work make this country what it is. She also warned of more divisive attitudes at play, and cautioned the students to turn away from the fear and anger that some people try to use to turn us against one another.

[G]raduates, I can tell you, as first lady, I have had the privilege of traveling around the world and visiting dozens of different countries, and I have seen what happens when ideas like these take hold. I have seen how leaders who rule by intimidation — leaders who demonize and dehumanize entire groups of people — often do so because they have nothing else to offer. And I have seen how places that stifle the voices and dismiss the potential of their citizens are diminished; how they are less vital, less hopeful, less free.

Graduates, that is not who we are. That is not what this country stands for. No, here in America, we don’t let our differences tear us apart. Not here. Because we know that our greatness comes when we appreciate each other’s strengths, when we learn from each other, when we lean on each other. Because in this country, it’s never been each person for themselves. No, we’re all in this together. We always have been.

And here in America, we don’t give in to our fears. We don’t build up walls to keep people out because we know that our greatness has always depended on contributions from people who were born elsewhere but sought out this country and made it their home — from innovations like Google and eBay to inventions like the artificial heart, the telephone, even the blue jeans; to beloved patriotic songs like “God Bless America,” like national landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge and, yes, the White House — both of which were designed by architects who were immigrants.

(Full transcript)


Hank Azaria, actor and comedian
Tufts University (May 22, 2016)

Tufts graduates were in for a treat when Hank Azaria, a fixture on The Simpsons, the longest-running primetime entertainment show in history, as well as a Tufts alumnus, delivered his advice in character. He told students that being yourself with everything you do is the best character to have in order to succeed:

“Just please be honest with yourself and all of that. What you like and dislike. What angers you or scares you or saddens you or inspires you or delights you. Those feelings are called your instincts, and you ignore them at your own peril.”


Patti Smith, singer, songwriter and poet
Wesleyan University (May 22, 2016)

Singer, songwriter and poet Patti Smith delivered short yet very powerful advice for Wesleyan’s graduating class. In a poem she wrote and recited, Smith said students should never stop dreaming for a better future, and told of her dream for the right people to rule:

I was dreaming in my dreaming
God knows a purer view
But as I surrender to my sleeping
I commit my dream to you

That the people have the power
to redeem the work of fools.
Upon the meek the graces shower
It’s decreed the people rule.

And I believe that everything we dream
can come to pass
Through our union we can turn the world around
We can turn the earth’s revolution.
For the people have the power,
The people of the power.


Elizabeth Warren, US senator from Massachusetts
Suffolk University (May 22, 2016)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) spoke to Suffolk’s graduating class about her unexpected journey to becoming the senior senator from Massachusetts. Before setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and becoming a senator, Warren was a teacher.

Sen. Warren delivered advice graduates don’t hear often: “All the planning in the world can’t prepare you for the twists that are coming your way,” she said. “Don’t be so focused in your plans that you are unwilling to consider the unexpected.”


Sonia Sotomayor, associate justice, United States Supreme Court
University of Rhode Island (May 22, 2016)

In her address at the University of Rhode Island, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor urged graduates to embrace their mistakes as much as the good experiences they have.

“The ‘uh-oh’ moments are worth cherishing just as much as ‘ah-ha’ moments: Mistakes, failures, embarrassments and disappointments are a necessary component of growing wise,” Sotomayor said.

“We can learn more from our not-so-good experiences than we can learn from our good ones.”


John Lewis, US congressman from Georgia and civil rights activist
Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri (May 20, 2016)

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) took the Washington University graduating class back in time with his stories of a segregated Alabama growing up. He recalled stories of his mother advising him to not get in the way of things and not to get into trouble. Lewis stressed the importance of doing otherwise:

“As graduates of this great university, you have received a great education. You must leave here and go out and get in the way. When you see something that’s not fair, not right or not just, you must have the courage to stand up and speak up and find a way to get in the way.”


Spike Lee, filmmaker
Johns Hopkins University (May 18, 2016)

Filmmaker Spike Lee spoke to John Hopkins University graduates about why the need to “wake up” and create a just world:

“Now’s the time to seize the day, take advantage of this unique moment in history and build bridges amongst us. Talking about gender, race, religion and nations — not walls. Let us build bridges of love, versus walls of hate.”


Lin Manuel Miranda, playwright of Hamilton
University of Pennsylvania (May 16, 2016)

Lin Manuel Miranda, the composer and playwright behind the award-winning Broadway smash Hamilton, spoke to graduates at the University of Pennsylvania about why even the smaller stories in a bigger narratives are worth telling:

“I know that many of you made miracles happen to get to this day. I know that parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and family behind you made miracles happen to be here…Your stories are essential. Don’t believe me?

“In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system. A story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again, immigrants get the job done.” (Full transcript)


Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook
University of California, Berkeley (May 14, 2016)

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg spoke to students of UC Berkeley about the lessons she learned following the unexpected death of her husband last year. Despite the difficulties of a given situation, there’s always some good that can come from it: “In the face of the void or in the face of any challenge, you can choose joy and meaning.”

Sandberg describes how she learned her most important life lessons through death: “I’m sharing this with you today in the hopes that on this day in your lives, with all the momentum and the joy you can learn in life the lessons I only learned in death. Lessons about hope, about strength and about the light within us that will not be extinguished.”


Barack Obama, president of the United States
Howard University (May 7, 2016)

President Obama told students of the historically black university to embrace their backgrounds: “Be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your blackness.”

The president also warned that while passion is needed to create change, it is not enough. “You see, change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing.”

He also said there’s no excuse for not participating in politics at all levels. “So you’ve got to vote all the time, not just when it’s cool, not just when it’s time to elect a president, not just when you’re inspired. It’s your duty. When it’s time to elect a member of Congress or a city councilman, or a school board member, or a sheriff. That’s how we change our politics — by electing people at every level who are representative of and accountable to us. It is not that complicated. Don’t make it complicated.” (Full transcript)


Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of New America
University of Utah, May 5

Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning for the US State Department whose 2012 article in The Atlantic sparked discussion and debate over work/life balance, offered graduates advice on finding real meaning in their lives not only through work but also through their relationships with other people.

“You will grow and learn and develop by investing in others just as much as by investing in yourselves. You will discover a new side of yourself, a side of yourself that takes as much pleasure and pride when others succeed as when you do. The value of investing in others is, of course, well understood by many schools of moral philosophy and great religions, including, of course, the LDS church.

“That’s the first lesson: Care is as important as career.”

Full transcript


Jane Goodall, scientist and animal-rights activist
University of Redlands (April 23, 2016)

Scientist and animal-rights activist Jane Goodall reminded the newly minted graduates of the University of Redlands that the world is extremely interconnected, and that everyone is capable of altering it. She also urged the students to understand how their behavior affects the world around them.

“Just remember, we’re part of this amazing animal kingdom,” she said. “Other animals like us can feel happy or sad. Other animals like us can suffer — mentally as well as physically. And just give pause to think about the abuse that we encounter as we travel around. But It’s not only that we abuse other animals: We also abuse other human beings. And we also abuse mother nature.

“We may have different colored skin, we may be from different cultures, we may eat different things and wear different clothes, but wherever you go in the world: If you cry, your tears are the same. If you’re happy, you laugh, and the laughter around the world is the same. … Within each one of us all around the world, the human heart is structured the same.”


Panyin Conduah

production assistant

Panyin Conduah is a production assistant for the Moyers team. Her work has been published online at Waging Nonviolence and in The West Side Spirit and Our Town, both local newspapers based in New York City. Follow Panyin on Twitter @PanyinC110.