But there were a few other good speeches you may have missed. If there was a common theme, it was that many of the speakers — like actress Natalie Portman at Harvard — spoke openly about feelings of self-doubt or overcoming fear. Here are five of the less-heralded commencement speeches from this year that are still very much worth watching:
Mary Karr, poet and author, Syracuse University, May 10, 2015
Karr, an English professor at Syracuse, had a troubled childhood, which she speaks openly about in the speech. In it, she also talks about being a mother, her greatest influences and what she's learned about tackling fear.
Best lines: "...which is how poetry works. You start in a scared place and get zip-lined somewhere truer. The real purpose of poetry, W.H. Auden said, is disenchantment. Not to throw fairy dust in somebody's eyes; it's stripping away what's false so you can see what's true underneath. I like to say poetry has to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed."
"The opposite of love isn't hate. It isn't even indifference. It's fear. Often fear of the very pain and suffering that we all know is inevitable. ... Fear can take that expensively educated brain of yours and reduce it to the state of a dog crouched over a bone. You know the moments: heart pounding in your ears, sweat bumping down your ribs. Ask yourself at those times, who's noticing how scared you are? To me it's this watcher, or noticer self—that's who I think you really are. That's where your soul is. That's where God comes in. That's a place you can draw strength from."
Cody Keenan, director of speech writing at the White House, NYU Wagner School of Public Service, May 19, 2015
Cody Keenan is known for writing President Obama's speeches, but this one, he said, marked his own first time at the lectern. Keenan, who has helped the president co-write everything from the State of the Union to his speech at the memorial following the shootings in Tucson, spoke about working for Sen. Ted Kennedy. He shared the best advice the president has given him, and why his general rule is that "if you wouldn't say that to a friend in a bar, don't make me put it in a speech."
Best lines: "That brings me to my final piece of advice. Be afraid to fail. Now, I know you’ve heard people say 'don’t be afraid to fail.' You should ignore that advice. You should be so afraid of failure that you’re willing to do anything to succeed. ... That’s the thing — fear of failure is a powerful motivator. I’d been in the White House for two years before I was asked to write a speech that would earn national attention. And I pretty much stayed up for sixty hours straight to make sure it was good.
Fear of failure keeps you sharp, even if it keeps you sleepless. It’s why, for weeks before something like the State of the Union Address, my car is the last one in the parking lot at night. I’m afraid all the time. I’m afraid to let my colleagues see that I’m not as smart as they are. I’m afraid to let the president down. I was afraid to do this commencement, for fear of being exposed as a lousy speechwriter."
Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts, Medal of Honor recipient, University of New Hampshire, May 16
Pitts received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the bloody Battle of Wanat, where, despite missteps by senior commanders, Pitts and his fellow troops continued to fight long after coming under enemy fire. His speech shared how he crawled back to continue fighting after being injured, what he learned about testing our limits, and what he knows about fear.
Best lines: "Standing wasn’t physically possible, but I was able to drag myself around and pull myself into a kneeling position when needed. I fought alongside my brothers like this for a while until our position sounded eerily quiet given the fight raging around us. I crawled around and it was at this point that I discovered I was the only man left alive at the position. My brothers didn’t abandon me; they had seen their duties through to the end. This was the most terrifying moment of my life. I was alone, injured and I could hear the enemy talking around me."
"Courage cannot exist without fear and fear is everywhere in life—fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of rejection. The key is to deny fear its purpose, which is to hold us back. If the men I served with were afraid that day, I never saw it. They showed me the true definition of courage. Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the ability to move forward in the face of it. There is beauty in this definition, because courage can exist in the decisions we make every day. Courage exists in the individual who accepts who they are and openly lives the life they want in the face of rejection. Courage exists in those who challenge their own perceptions in the face of accepting they are not infallible."
Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Barnard College, May 17
Power spoke openly about anxieties she has faced during her career, from finding out she was pregnant soon after becoming an adviser to Obama's campaign, to speaking on behalf of the United States in an urgent U.N. Security Council session on Russia's attempted takeover of Crimea.
Best lines: "True equality will mean not letting our doubts silence our voices. ... We all experience that feeling — even if it's not obvious on the outside. I have even adopted a name for it — the Bat Cave; it's that dark place in your head where all the voices tell you every reason you can't do something."
"The fact is that doubt — and his more lovable big sister, self-awareness — both are more pronounced among women. Turns out Batwoman's cave often has more square footage than Batman's. True equality will not mean shedding our doubts or our self-awarness, but rather not letting them quiet us when we should be speaking up. There are more than enough forces out there doing that without needing our help. And it will mean that, while everyone will have moments of uncertainty — and humility is an especially prized quality — women should not have to worry that if we stumble, it will be more noticed than when men do the same."
John Waters, film director, Rhode Island School of Design, May 30, 2015
Waters' irreverent, at times profane, speech might raise Grandma's eyebrows. But his unconventional advice for thinking differently and sparking change from the inside was anything but your run-of-the-mill graduation speech.
Best lines: "Hopefully you have been taught never to fear rejection in the workplace. Remember, a 'no' is free. Ask for the world and pay no mind if you are initially turned down. A career in the arts is like a hitchhiking trip. All you need is one person to say 'get in' and off you go. And then the confidence begins."
"These days everybody wants to be an outsider. Politically correct to a fault. That's good. I hope you are working to end racism, sexism, ageism, fat-ism. But is that enough? Isn't being an outsider so 2014? Maybe it's time to throw caution to the wind, really shake things up, and reinvent yourself as a new version of your most dreaded enemy: The insider.
"Like I have. Ha, the final irony: A creatively crazy person who finally gets power. Think about it. I didn't change. Society did. Who would have ever thought a top college like RISD would invite a filth elder like myself to set an example to its students? See, there's hope for everybody. You need to prepare sneak attacks on society."
"Contemporary art's job is to wreck what came before. Is there a better job description than that to aspire to? ... Go out in the world and f--k it up beautifully. Design clothes so hideous that they can't be worn ironically. Horrify us with new ideas. Outrage outdated critics. Use technology for transgression. Make me nervous."