Five of the best 2013 commencement speeches (so far)

Stephen Colbert at the University of Virginia
Stephen Colbert at the University of Virginia

Leave it to Stephen Colbert to find a way to make Thomas Jefferson funny. That’s what he did when he was speaking to graduates at the University of Virginia — but he wasn’t the only commencement speaker to get the attention of the crowd this graduation season.

First lady Michelle Obama said at Bowie State University’s graduation that too many young people are”fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper” rather than a teacher or lawyer. Former president Bill Clinton remembered exactly what was said at his commencement ceremony 45 years ago and what he learned from it. And there’s more. Here are excerpts and videos of some of the graduation speeches so far in the 2013 commencement season:

Stephen Colbert

Colbert spoke at the University of Virginia’s Valedictory Exercises, which are ceremonies to honor top students and professors. (His wife, Evelyn McGee Colbert, graduated from U.Va. in 1985 with a drama and English double major.)  Colbert cracked up the audience Saturday with Jefferson jokes:

If anyone can do this, it is the graduates of the university that Jefferson founded. You are his intellectual heirs. In fact, some of you may be his actual heirs – we’re still testing the DNA.

. And he dared to refer to the upheaval at U-Va., last summer when the school’s Board of Visitors forced out the president, Teresa Sullivan, and then reinstated her after a campus revolt:

President Teresa Sullivan, you are way better than the last president – Teresa Sullivan. You are clearly the woman for this job.

My colleague Jenna Johnson wrote about it here, and the university’s Web site had more here. You can watch the whole thing below, and see some of what he said beneath that:

 

This is from the university Web site:

Rather than asking people to turn their cell phones off, Colbert said they should turn their phones on to make sure they didn’t miss any texts or tweets – and just in case he himself tweeted anything during his speech, which, in fact, he did later.

 

He poked fun at some of the unique terms that set U.Va. apart from other universities. “Instead of saying, ‘We are members of a proud educational tradition dating back to our nation’s founders,’ you say ‘Wahoowa,’” he said. “Which begs the eternal question, ‘Wahoo-why?’”

 

Having toured the Grounds earlier in the morning, he then asked the graduates, “Why are you leaving? This could be the most spectacular place you have ever lived,” pointing out that the University is the only college campus designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

 

Another reason the University is so impressive, Colbert said, was because it rejected him when he applied to transfer from Hampden-Sydney College. He said he failed to submit an essay with his application in 1984, and asked if his speech could now serve that purpose.

 

“Because this is a smart school, let me just toss in some SAT words: syzygy, heterodox, Benedict Cumberbatch,” he said.

 

“But perhaps the real reason U.Va. is so great is that it trusts its students. You have the nation’s oldest student-run honor code. Say it with me.” He then recited the Honor Code – “On my honor as a student, I pledge I have neither given nor received help on this assignment” – before appending, “so help me Adderall,” referring to a medicine for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder that some college students reportedly take to help them focus.

 

His favorite thing about U.Va., Colbert said, are the secret societies – “That’s sexy,” he said, proceeding to name a few of them. When he got to the Seven Society, whose members are not revealed until their deaths, he said, “I’m not going to say I am a Seven; I’m not going to say I’m not a Seven. I’m just going to say …” and then he chanted some gibberish while waggling his fingers like a butterfly. After the laughter died down, he added, “And now I will have to have you all killed.”

 

He also listed several famous alumni, including Edgar Allan Poe – whose friends, he said, called him “creepy Eddie.”

“But of course the greatest figure associated with U.Va. is your founder, Thomas Jefferson – TJ, Prez Tommy Jeff, the freckly anti-federalist, Louisiana purchee, old Bible slicer, or as most Americans know him, the inventor of the six-inch wooden cypher wheel.”

 

Colbert said one thing he took issue with was the scope of Jefferson’s beliefs, which were too broad and made him hard to pin down, unlike today’s politicians who have to fit into the box of conservative or liberal.

 

Jefferson’s relations with his slave, Sally Hemings, proved to be too tempting a target for Colbert. “In public life, we often see Jefferson as the embodiment of white male patriarchy,” he said, “but in his private life, he was known for, shall we say, embracing diversity. Very affirmative in his actions. Am I right? I am right. They did the DNA tests.”

 

He included an advice section in his talk, mentioning TIME magazine’s cover story on today’s young people, which called them “lazy, entitled narcissists who are part of the me, me, me generation.”

 

“That’s very upsetting to us Baby Boomers, because self-absorption is kind of our thing. We’re the original ‘me generation,’” Colbert said.

 

A bit more seriously, he said, “There is no secret society out there that will tap you on the shoulder and show you the way. The true secret is, your life will not be defined by the society we have left you.”

 

He told students to have the courage Jefferson and his generation did – to create something for themselves.

 

Quoting Jefferson, he said: “Your generation, no less than his generation, has their own opportunity to recognize and seize that moment ‘when in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the bands that have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth your separate and equal station and for the support of this, mutually pledge to each other your lives, your fortune and your sacred honor.’

 

“If anyone can do this, it is the graduates of the university that Jefferson founded. You are his intellectual heirs.

 

“In fact, some of you may be his actual heirs – we’re still testing the DNA.”

Vice President Biden at the University of Pennsylvania:

There’ll be no U-Haul truck behind my casket. When I did my financial disclosure as vice president the first time, The Washington Post said, quote, It’s probable no man has … assumed the office of vice president with fewer assets than Joe Biden. I hope they were talking financial assets. And there was all this discussion about why I  had no money. I’ll tell you why I had no money. Four years of Penn, three years of Syracuse, four years of Georgetown, three years at Yale, two yaears at Tulane, two years at Penn, and now a gradndaughter at Penn. I was asked why I wore a Penn tie. My answer is: I earned it.

 

Michelle Obama at Bowie State University

… But listen, you dug deep and you kept pushing forward to make it to this magnificent day. (Applause.) And in doing so, you didn’t just complete an important chapter in your own story, you also became part of the story of this great university — a story that began nearly 150 years ago, not far from where we all sit today. As you all know, this school first opened its doors in January of 1865, in an African Baptist church in Baltimore. And by 1866, just a year later, it began offering education courses to train a new generation of African American teachers.

 

Now, just think about this for a moment: For generations, in many parts of this country, it was illegal for black people to get an education. Slaves caught reading or writing could be beaten to within an inch of their lives. Anyone — black or white — who dared to teach them could be fined or thrown into jail. And yet, just two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, this school was founded not just to educate African Americans, but to teach them how to educate others. It was in many ways an act of defiance, an eloquent rebuttal to the idea that black people couldn’t or shouldn’t be educated. And since then, generations of students from all backgrounds have come to this school to be challenged, inspired and empowered. And they have gone on to become leaders here in Maryland and across this country, running businesses, educating young people, leading the high-tech industries that will power our economy for decades to come.

 

That is the story of Bowie State University, the commitment to educating our next generation and building ladders of opportunity for anyone willing to work for it….

 

But today, more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 50 years after the end of “separate but equal,” when it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can’t be bothered.  Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV.  Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.  (Applause.)  Right now, one in three African American students are dropping out of high school.  Only one in five African Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 has gotten a college degree — one in five.

 

But let’s be very clear.  Today, getting an education is as important if not more important than it was back when this university was founded.  Just look at the statistics.  (Applause.)  People who earn a bachelor’s degree or higher make nearly three times more money than high school dropouts, and they’re far less likely to be unemployed.  A recent study even found that African American women with a college degree live an average of six and a half years longer than those without.  And for men, it’s nearly 10 years longer.  So yes, people who are more educated… actually live longer.

 

You can read the full transcript here.

 

 

Bill Clinton at Howard University

In 2009, I was inducted as an honorary member of  Phi Beta Sigma, which was founded here 99 years ago. I’m not quite that old although I look like it some days….

 

I am well aware that the commencement speech is the least important part of this day. I congratulate all of you who are here, your parents, your friends, your loved ones… But unlike almost every other person here who is older, I actually remember who gave my commencement speech 45 years ago next month. And I remember exactly what the speech was. We were like this on the lawn at Georgetown just across town. It started out to be a clear day, then and all of a sudden this huge storm cloud came over and the lightning began to dance in the sky. And a Howard graduate, the mayor of Washington D.C., Walter Washington, stood up at the podium as I am.  He looked at the sky, he looked at the shivering students and he said, “Congratulations. If we don’t get out of here, we’re all going to drown. If you want a copy of my speech, you write me and I’ll send you one. Good luck.” And off we went.

 

Now what did I learn from that? The most successful commencement speeches are brief, and highly relevant. So wherever you are Mr. Mayor, thank you for the memory….

 

We are all 99 and a half percent [genetically] the same. Now because of our ability to do genetic history we found interesting relatives, you know, which has made for funny things. Some of the people in Washington politicians over the last 10 years in their lineage have embarrassed them in terms of their current politics. But the most important thing is that we are all 99 and a half percent the same.  The other thing is before we get too arrogant about this, we all spend 99 and half percent of our time thinking about the half of a percent of us that is different. Don’t we?… The half a percent matters. It gave Einstein the biggest brain ever measured. He made pretty good use of it. It’s a good thing. That half a percent means LeBron James is hard to stop if he is driving for a basket. The half a percent matters. But so does the 99 and a half percent. And that’s why this service ethic counts. And when you leave here I want you to never to forget  for the rest of your life in the good times and bad that we live in an interdependent world and we’ve got to pull it together which means to be a good citizen you’ve got to something sometime for someone else because they are just like you are.

 

 

 

 

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo at the University of Michigan

 You know I have to start by tweeting this. So just give me one second. I’m a professional so this will only take a second….

 

When I woke up this morning and started writing my speech I was thinking about my first month on campus when I was a freshman and the football team went into the season ranked [very high] and we lost our first game 21-14…I’d like you to think of that soaring expectation followed by crushing disappointment as a metaphor for your next 20 minutes with me…

 

When I was your age, we didn’t have the Internet in our pants. We didn’t even have the Internet not in our pants. That’s how bad it was. I know I sound like my grandfather right now. We didn’t have teeth! There were no questions marks, we just had words! What was I talking about? The Internet…

 

Not only can you not plan the impact you’re going to have, you often won’t recognize it when you’re having it…

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | May 19, 2013