The day before the University of Virginia’s real graduation — formally called “Final Exercises” — the school hosts the “Valedictory Exercises” to recognize top students and favorite professors and feature a speaker who is sometimes a little more fun than the formal commencement speaker.
This year’s valedictory speaker: Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central, a U-Va. reject who attended Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College and then married a U-Va. grad, Evelyn McGee Colbert. (Tomorrow’s commencement speaker: Jim Webb, former senator and secretary of the Navy.)
“It is an honor to speak at your 2013 Valedictorian Exercises,” Colbert said to an audience of thousands Saturday. “I believe that means I am this year’s valedictorian, and I am as shocked as you are.”
In addition to showing off a trick involving folding in his ear and then popping it back out by squinting, Colbert went after pretty much everything Hoo-related. He remained elusive on whether he was in the secret society or not. He recognized the university’s many party-school rankings and those lucky students who pay out-of-state tuition. He highlighted many of the school’s famous connections, including alum Georgia O’Keeffe (whose paintings he said “remind me of something I never saw at Hampden-Sydney”), dropout Edgar Allan Poe (weirdest roommate ever, right?) and founder “Prez Tommy Jeff” ( known for “embracing diversity, very affirmative in his actions”). And he mentioned how, thanks to global warming, the school’s Semester at Sea program might soon explore the coast of Ohio.
Colbert also commented on the tumultuous events of last summer, when the U-Va. governing board ousted President Teresa Sullivan and then reinstated her.
“Thank you very much, President Sullivan,” Colbert said. “You are way better than that last president, Teresa Sullivan. She was terrible. I am so glad that they cut her loose. Good riddance, I say!”
Oh, and there was some inspiration, too. Colbert told the students that they need not be offended by Time’s recent cover story that explored this generation’s focus on “me, me, me.”
“Your generation needs everything to be about you,” he said, “and that’s very upsetting to us Baby Boomers, because self-absorption is sort of our thing.”
“Every generation must define itself,” he said. “If you must find your own path, and we have left you no easy path, then decide now to choose the hard path that leads to the life and the world that you want.”
You can watch the full speech here: