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The 15 Best Graduation Speeches of 2016

best graduation speeches

Graduates! (Nataraj Metz/Flickr)

It's that time of year again ... when college graduates put on those awkward gowns and head off to commencement, where they sit in the sweltering sun or a stuffy stadium, waiting to grab their diplomas and meet up with their families while half-listening to distinguished speakers dispense timeless wisdom and advice.

Which means it's time for all of us to download some of that wisdom and advice. So here are the don't-miss graduation speeches of 2016.

1. President Obama at Rutgers: "ignorance is not a virtue"

Obama threw shade at Donald Trump without naming him in his address to Rutgers:

“It’s not cool to not know what you are talking about. That’s not keeping it real or telling it like it is. That’s not challenging political correctness. That’s just not knowing what you are talking about.”

2. President Obama at Howard: "you've got to have a strategy"

At Howard University, Obama had some tough love for young people with passion, saying that's just not enough:

"Change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program and it requires organizing. Passion is vital, but you have got to have a strategy."

3. Graduate student Donovan Livingston at Harvard: "Lift off"

This grad's unique and powerful spoken-word-poem-as-speech has gone hyper viral. Watch it for pure inspiration:

"I belong among the stars. And so do you. And so do they. Together, we can inspire galaxies of greatness for generations to come. No, sky is not the limit. It is only the beginning. Lift off."

If you haven't watched it yet, you must:

4. Steven Spielberg at Harvard: "empathy for every soul"

Master filmmaker Spielberg got thoughtful about hatred and discrimination:

“To me, the only answer to more hate is more humanity. We have to replace fear with curiosity.”

5. Richard and Mary Templeton at Southern Methodist: "when life throws you a curveball"

You've never heard of them before, but Richard and Mary Templeton are two leaders in the tech world, and they shared what they've learned and how they've coped since Mary became paralyzed in a freak accident, including this pearl:

"Small and steady steps can be quite big and spectacular. They move you to a bigger place."

6. Sheryl Sandberg at Berkeley: "choose joy and meaning"

As the chief operating officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg is one of the most high-profile people in tech. Last year, her husband, Dave Goldberg, suddenly died. In a speech at Berkeley a year later, Sandberg spoke about his death and her experience for the first time in public:

"My hope for you is that you can find that gratitude—not just on the good days, like today, but on the hard ones, when you will really need it."

7. Michelle Obama at Santa Fe Indian School: "ask for help"

Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico has about 700 Native American students in grades 7 to 12. And this year they invited the First Lady of the United States to speak at their commencement--and she accepted. She shared her personal life story and told the graduates:

"I want you to keep pushing forward. Just keep pushing forward. And I want you to reach out and ask for help. I know your teachers tell you that all the time, but please understand that no one gets through college—or life, for that matter—alone. No one. I certainly didn’t."

8. Madeleine Albright at Scripps: "there is a special place in heaven for anyone who speaks truth to power"

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sparked controversy earlier this year when she suggested that women should vote for Hillary Clinton because "there's a special place in hell" for women who don't support other women. At Scripps, she alluded to that comment and went much broader on the value of diversity:

"The challenge for our leaders is not to eliminate the diversity of these perspectives — for that is not possible. The challenge is to manage them — and when necessary, moderate them — so that we are not defined primarily by what keeps us apart."

9. John Lewis at Washington University in St. Louis:

Representative John Lewis is an icon of the civil rights movement. He spoke powerfully at Washington University in St. Louis about how he helped change the world for the better when he saw how black people were treated unjustly in the pre-Civil Rights era South:

"The action of Rosa Parks and the words and leadership of Dr. King inspired me to find a way to get in the way. I got in the way. I got in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble. ... You must leave here and go out and get in the way. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you must have the courage to stand up, to speak up, and find a way to get in the way."

10. William Foege at Emory: "avoid a life plan"

Have you ever had smallpox? No? Then you can thank William Foege. He's is an epidemiologist, which means he studies how diseases get distributed in certain places and populations. Back in the 70's, Foege developed the strategy that ended up wiping out smallpox. At Emory, he shared the story and lessons of his life in chapters, like Chapter 2, Life Plans:

"When I was your age, everyone was telling me to develop a life plan. My advice? Avoid a life plan. You cannot imagine what will be invented in the future. You cannot imagine the opportunities that will be presented. You enter a world of infinite possibilities, confusing ideas, continuous changes. But a life plan will limit your future."

11. Sonia Sotomayor at University of Rhode Island: "the uh-oh memories"

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor revealed some of the moments she is less proud of--and why those moments matter:

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

12. Lin-Manuel Miranda at Penn: "the stories we tell"

The creator and star of the smash Broadway hit Hamilton dazzled Penn talking about the stories we choose to tell:

“Stories are essential. Don’t believe me? In a year where 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. My dear terrified graduates, you are about to enter the most uncertain and thrilling period of your lives. The stories you are about to live are the ones you will be telling your children, and grandchildren, and therapists.”

13. Elizabeth Warren at Suffolk: "you have to be willing to fight for what you believe in"

Senator Elizabeth Warren got political in her commencement speech, but that wasn't the best part. She was most inspiring when she was dropping science about the power of knowing yourself:

"Knowing who you are will help you when it’s time to fight. Fight for the job you want, fight for the people who mean the most to you and fight for the kind of world you want to live in. It will help when people say that’s impossible or you can’t do that. Look, if you take the unexpected opportunities when they come up, if you know yourself, and if you fight for what you believe in, I can promise that you will live a life that is rich with meaning."

14. David Gergen at Elon University: "there have to be creative solutions"

If you watch a lot of political talking heads on TV, you probably recognize David Gergen. He's a commentator who has worked in four White Houses advising Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. He's also from North Carolina, which is at the center of major political controversy this year. So it's interesting that he spoke at Elon, which is in NC, about getting beyond left and right to stand up for what's truly right:

"Enough is enough. For those of us who have stayed on the sidelines, it is time to stand up and be counted. It is time to raise our voices against this darkness. Indeed, it is time for fellow citizens of all stripes – white and black; young and old; native and newcomer; men, women and people of chosen gender – everyone – to join forces and preserve the best of who we are as a people."

15. Bill Maher from the future: "the oysters are dead"

Here's commentator Bill Maher's commencement address--from 25 years in the future, when Lady Gaga is president:

Can't get enough? Here are 5 more worth checking out:

- Hank Azaria at Tufts--using his “Simpsons” voices

- Peter Thiel at Hamilton College, talking tech

- Harry Connick Jr at Loyola University New Orleans on kindness and humility

- Writer Maria Popova at Penn, on avoiding cynicism

- Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland--at the high school he graduated from

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The 15 Best Graduation Speeches of 2016

Holly Epstein Ojalvo

Holly’s mission is to inform, inspire, and empower engaged activists who will change the world. She was previously an editor at The New York Times and a high school teacher. She spent her brief 20’s slump at a mousepad factory. Holly earned a B.A. at Lafayette College and M.A.'s at U Delaware and NYU. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, daughter, and cat, Tomie Twotone. Follow: @heoj.

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