Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year's grads are unable to walk across the stage and shake educators' hands as they get their diplomas, hug their friends or joyously toss their caps into the air alongside their classmates. But the 6.7 million high school and college seniors in the class of 2020 can, at least, take in the sage advice and thoughtful musings of a slew of respected celebrities and politicians via virtual graduation celebrations, some of which aired online in May. Join Wonderwall.com as we take a look at what some of this year's famous commencement speakers had to say to transitioning students, as well as what stars and politicians have said at past graduation events over the last decade…. starting with Oprah Winfrey. The celebrated media mogul — who's given commencement speeches at institutions across the country over the years (she's seen here on Spelman College's 2012 graduation day) — delivered an online video address during "#Graduation2020: Facebook and Instagram Celebrate the Class of 2020" on May 15. Keep reading to see some of what she had to say, then keep clicking for more…
During a May 15, 2020, online commencement event hosted by Facebook and Instagram, Oprah Winfrey acknowledged that "even though there may not be pomp because of our circumstances, never has a graduating class been called to step into the future with more purpose, vision, passion, and energy and hope." She told the class of 2020, "I wish I could tell you I know the path forward. I don't. There is so much uncertainty. In truth, there always has been. What I do know is that the same guts and imagination that got you to this moment — all those things are the very things that are going to sustain you through whatever is coming. It's vital that you learn, and we all learn, to be at peace with the discomfort of stepping into the unknown. It's really OK to not have all the answers. The answers will come…" She also challenged the class of 2020 to not only "show us not how to put the pieces back together again, but how to create a new and more evolved normal, a world more just, kind, beautiful, tender, luminous, creative, whole. We need you to do this, because the [COVID-19] pandemic has illuminated the vast systemic inequities that have defined life for too many for too long. … You have the power to stand for, to fight for, and vote for healthier conditions that will create a healthier society."
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Jennifer Garner returned to her alma mater, Denison University in Ohio, to deliver a commencement address to the graduating class of 2019. In her speech, she urged graduates to "Dig in — fight for what makes you optimistic about the world. Find it, insist on it, dig into it, go after it." But she also offered some lighthearted advice — including to wear sunscreen. "Nothing looks better in your 50s than sunscreen in your 20s," she said. When considering a Halloween costume, she urged graduates, go for funny over sexy. "Why would you dress like a flirty nurse when you could be a mailbox?" she mused. She also got serious, telling the grads, "Mixed signals are not mixed signals. They're a no."
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John Krasinski, who graduated from Brown University in 2001, returned to Rhode Island as the baccalaureate speaker during the school's commencement and reunion weekend in 2019. The star of "The Office" and director of "A Quiet Place" told that year's class, "Find more of your people," he said. "Lean all the way in. Take chances. Fail big and take chances again. Listen to music. Remember to believe in something. And fall in love as many times as it takes. And remember, before you do something special, just do something."
Dr. Drew Pinsky spoke at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine commencement ceremony in 2011. He told the young graduates, "Life is full of difficult choices. And if you make the wrong ones, then you can always straighten yourself out on a VH1 reality show." Truth.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Eva Longoria was one of the stars who spoke during Her Campus Media's "I'm Still Graduating" Virtual Graduation Ceremony on May 15, 2020. The actress shared a story about authenticity, explaining that growing up in Texas, her mom wanted her to take the gifted and talented assessment test in third grade in hopes it would put her on a brighter path. She made it into the program and found herself leaving her old friends and "riding the bus all the way across town to a place that I didn't know," she explained. Her mom, as usual, made her a bean taco to take along. "As I stepped onto the bus, all I saw was a sea of blonde hair. Kids who did not look like me," Eva recalled. "At that moment, everyone turned around to stare at me, and my bean taco. And as I stared back, I noticed they were all eating the same thing…" That would be Pop-Tarts — which Eva had never seen before. After the kids asked what she was eating, "…I heard one of them whisper, 'She's Mexican.'" After school, Eva begged her mom to buy her Pop-Tarts too. "She looked at me like I was out of my mind," Eva said. "She was like, 'Those things are $4 a box. You know how many bean tacos I could make for $4?' So, do you know what my mom packed for me for breakfast the next day? Two bean tacos. "She said, 'You go and you share your culture. Never forget where you came from.'" Eva left 2020 graduates with this message: "Follow the path that feels right to you, while not being afraid to take a left turn once in a while. Be who you want to be and fight for what you believe in. … When I think about all of you and the journeys that lie ahead for you, I challenge you to stay true to the bean taco — and not conform to the Pop-Tart."
Members of the University of Southern California's class of 2017 were fortunate to have Will Ferrell speak at their commencement ceremony. Will regaled the crowd with his usual theatrics but also exhibited strong emotion and vision for the occasion. The comedy star said, "No matter how cliché it may sound, you will never truly be successful until you learn to give beyond yourself. Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence." Will, a USC alum, also received an honorary doctorate at the ceremony.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose creations include the hit Broadway musical "Hamilton: An American Story," addressed University of Pennsylvania graduates at their commencement ceremony in Philadelphia in 2016. "Your stories, are essential. Don't believe me? In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system," he said. "A story that reminds us that at the beginning of the great unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again, immigrants get the job done."
Satirist and late night television host Stephen Colbert spoke to graduates at Northwestern University — his alma mater — in 2011 and shared a few life lessons with the crowd including this one: "If you love friends, you will serve your friends," he said. "If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve your money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself — and you will have only yourself. So, no winning! Instead, try to love others and serve others and hopefully find those who will love and serve you in return."
Comedian and former "Saturday Night Live" star Amy Poehler addressed Harvard University grads in 2011. In a humorous reference to her own nearby alma mater, the Massachusetts native told the crowd, "I graduated from Boston College, which some call the Harvard of Boston, but we all know that Harvard is the Harvard of Harvard. And you can quote me on that." The "Parks and Recreation" star also delivered some thoughtful advice. "What I have discovered is this: You can't do it alone. As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people's ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life. No one is here today because they did it on their own."
On May 16, 2020, former President Bill Clinton delivered some commencement remarks via video during CNN's "Class of 2020: In This Together" special amid the coronavirus pandemic. "I urge you to embrace the challenge. The world needs you. Your country needs you. Even before the outbreak, you knew you were entering a world of growing inequalities, and divisive tribalism, with people pulling away from those who are different from them," he said. "Seething resentments and a broken information system have empowered those who for profit and power for themselves, are willing to inflame our worst instincts. It's put your future, our democracy, and our very planet at risk." The politician concluded his address to the class of 2020, "I know you've been dealt a hard hand, but you can play it well. With a tough but open mind and a caring heart, you can help keep us together. Help find ways to serve others, not run away from them. Help to unite, not to divide. Help to build, not tear down. Help to support, not demean. If you do, you will find your own path to fulfillment and happiness and in so doing, your example will inspire the world.
During CNN's May 16, 2020, special "Class of 2020: In This Together," comedian Amy Schumer told the class of 2020 what she thinks they need to know — or, rather, don't need to know. "I would say my best advice is honestly, you just learned everything you need to know. You don't know what's going to happen tomorrow so you better live today in a way that you're proud of and a way you can be present for," she urged. "And my other advice would be don't try and make your parents proud of you. Try and make yourself happy. Be happy and healthy and live every day like you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, because you don't."
Pharrell Williams addressed the crowd at New York University's 2017 commencement ceremony at Yankee Stadium. The music star offered this advice to the new NYU grads: "The days of being an anonymous activist or participant are over. How can we inspire if we are only behind the scenes? How will an anonymous donation ever inspire another? That was the way of previous generations. Don't be like them." True words from a true original.
In 2012, "The Office" star Steve Carell addressed graduates on Princeton University's Class Day and delivered a grave warning: "As the world grows more and more technologically advanced, we lose our ability to connect as human beings. And by 'we' I mean you. You are young and because of that, you are wrong," he deadpanned.
Actor Hank Azaria, the voice behind a bevy of characters on "The Simpsons," spoke during the commencement ceremony at Tufts University in 2016. He told the crowd, "I didn't realize it, but when I was your guys' age, I had a belief that who I was and how I thought and how I felt was inherently uninteresting and flawed and not practical. Well, maybe they were and maybe they still are. But it wasn't until I embraced the person that I really was that my work as an actor got really interesting."
Tom Hanks surprised graduates of Wright State University's Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures with a video address on May 2, 2020. "You are the chosen ones because of a fate unimagined when you began your Wright State adventures," explained the Oscar winner — the first celebrity to publicly confirm he had COVID-19 in 2020. "You started in the olden times, in a world back before the great pandemic of 2020. You will talk of those earlier years in your lives just that way. 'Well that was back before the COVID-19. That was before the great pandemic.' Part of your lives will forever be identified as 'before,' in the same way other generations tell time like, 'Well that was before the war' or 'that was before the internet' or 'that was before Beyonce.' The word 'before' is going to carry great weight with you." He praised this year's class. "You've gone from student to graduate with more that is expected of you than to just be an American," he added. "You've had to be responsible Americans. You've had to be good Americans — good Americans who've made sacrifices that have saved lives. … No one will be more fresh to the task of restarting our measure of normalcy than you — you chosen ones."
Former first lady Michelle Obama gave the commencement address at the University of Northern Iowa in 2011. She urged graduates, "At the end of the day, don't ever lose sight of what makes you unique. Don't ever stop believing in what you have to offer. Don't ever count yourself out." Five years later while delivering an address at the 2016 City College of New York commencement ceremony (pictured), she reflected on what America has to offer. "It's the story that I witness every single day when I wake up in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters — two beautiful, black young women — head off to school waving goodbye to their father, the president of the United States, the son of a man from Kenya who came here to America for the same reasons as many of you: To get an education and improve his prospects in life."
Former President Barack Obama delivered the commencement speech to the class of 2013 at Ohio State University. "We've seen courage and compassion, a sense of civic duty and a recognition we are not a collection of strangers; we are bound to one another by a set of ideals and laws and commitments, and a deep devotion to this country that we love," he said. "And that's what citizenship is."
Brooke Shields addressed the graduates of her alma mater, Princeton University, in 2011. Her parting wisdom? "Don't listen to your detractors. Your prominent eyebrows are actually assets. They look quite pretty and everyone else is just jealous."
Actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was the keynote speaker at the University of Houston's 2017 commencement. Arnold encouraged graduates to consider others when they go out into the world. "Make sure that it is not about 'me.' That it is about 'we.' Turn the 'me' into 'we' and I guarantee you that you can change the world," he said.
Comedian Chelsea Handler spoke at Emory University's 2011 commencement ceremony. Her parting knowledge: "Escape a hangover by cracking open a new bottle first thing in the morning. But you already knew that, you crazy college kids, you." On-brand, Chelsea!
Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington delivered a speech at the University of Pennsylvania's 255th commencement in 2011 and also received an honorary degree. (Fun fact: His son, Malcolm, played basketball for the school.) A line to remember? "I found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks," Denzel told graduates.
In 2014, actress-writer-producer Mindy Kaling addressed the graduating class at Harvard Law School. "Celebrities give too much advice and people listen to it too much. Most of us have no education whatsoever," she said (Mindy, however, does: She graduated from Dartmouth College). "People like you," the comedy star added, are the ones who should be giving advice. "You are better educated and you are going to go out into the world and people are going to listen to what you say, whether you are good or evil, and that probably scares you because some of you look really young."
In 2018, President Donald Trump gave the commencement speech at the U.S. Naval Academy's graduation ceremony in Annapolis, Maryland, where he drove home his feelings about the importance of being No. 1. "Winning is such a great feeling, isn't it? Winning is such a great feeling. Nothing like winning, you got to win. … You don't give up. You don't give in. You don't back down. And you never surrender. Wherever you go, wherever you serve, wherever your mission takes you, you only have one word in mind, and that's victory. That is why you are here. Victory. A very important word. You are now leaders in the most powerful and righteous force on the face of the planet. The United States military. And we are respected again, I can tell you that. We are respected again."
Helen Mirren had some advice for the 2017 graduates of Tulane University. The iconic British actress told them during their commencement ceremony that year, "The trick is to listen to your instincts, grab the opportunity when it presents itself and then give it your all." She also walked away with an honorary degree from the university.
Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke to graduates during George Washington University's commencement exercises on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2015. "For you graduates, the process of discovering yourself, of inventing yourself, of reinventing yourself, is about to begin in earnest. It's about finding your values and committing to live by them. You have to find your North Star. And that means choices," he advised.
Frequent commencement speaker Oprah Winfrey received an honorary degree during Agnes Scott College's 2017 graduation ceremony and also addressed the graduates. Oprah told the crowd, "You're nothing if you're not the truth. I've made a living, I've made a life, I've made a fortune — really, it's fantastic — from being true to myself and, if I could leave you with any message today, that is it."