Top 12 Commencement Speeches of All Time, From JFK to Will Ferrell [Video]
College commencement speeches are as much a part of spring as the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, most commencement speeches aren't very inspiring or entertaining, and instead are about as welcome as another sign of the season -- hay fever.
That's not the case with 12 speeches noted here: Whether given by Steve Jobs, Stephen Colbert or Oprah Winfrey, each of these commencement addresses has something to special to offer -- even if just a good laugh.
12. John F. Kennedy, American University, 1963
President John F. Kennedy gave the commencement speech at American University in 1963 about five months before he was assassinated in Dallas. Delivered with his typical rhetorical splendor, it urges the pursuit of peace amid the burgeoning Cold War. "I speak of peace therefore as the necessary, rational end of rational men," he says. [Transcript of JFK's Speech]
11. Oprah Winfrey, Howard University, 2007
Media mogul Oprah Winfrey received an honorary doctorate and inspired an audience of graduates at historically black Howard University. "After all the partying is over," Winfrey said, "the anxiety may start to creep in. What do you now do with all this education?" Don't worry, she told the student body. "All you need to do is know who you are." [Transcript of Oprah's speech]
10. Jon Stewart, College of William & Mary, 2004
Jon Stewart, speaking at his alma mater, the College of William & Mary, was no less funny than he typically is on his nightly "Daily Show" TV program. "I know that the decisions I made after college worked out. But at the time I didn't know that they would," Stewart says, striking an unusually somber tone. Accepting that you have little control over the direction of your life is a challenge everyone struggles with. [Transcript of Stewart's speech]
9. J.K. Rowling, Harvard University, 2008
"Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling in her commencement speech at Harvard University talked about the "benefits of failure" and the "crucial importance of imagination." Those choices may seem quixotic and paradoxical, Rowling says, but failure teaches you who you are and who you can be, while imagination can help you build a brighter future. [Transcript of Rowling's speech]
8. Woody Hayes, Ohio State University, 1986
Woody Hayes, who died in 1987, gave the commencement address at Ohio State University in 1986. Hayes had served as coach of the Buckeyes football team from 1951 to 1978. In this brief clip, Hayes talks about the now famous idea of "paying forward" -- returning the good you've received by doing a good deed for someone else. [Transcript of Hayes' speech]
7. Bono, University of Pennsylvania, 2004
U2 lead singer and social-activist Bono challenged Class of 2004 graduates to answer, "What's your big idea? What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of Pennsylvania?" He urged students to take on the status quo and tackle the moral challenges of the age. [Transcript of Bono's speech]
6. Conan O'Brien, Harvard University, 2000
Eleven years ago, Conan O'Brien was still host of his long-running "Late Night" TV program when he gave the commencement speech to students at Harvard University, his alma mater. Among the pressing questions O'Brien confessed to asking himself on the eve of his own graduation in 1985 was: "Am I really graduating a virgin?" [Transcript of O'Brien's speech]
5. Winston Churchill, Harrow School, 1941
In this audio clip, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, speaking to students at the Harrow School in Fall 1941, gave a lecture in resiliency as World War II blazed on. Britain by that time already had endured two years of devastation, including months of intense bombing by German airplanes. Having secured the support of the United States earlier in the year, Churchill said, "This is the lesson: Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never." [Transcript of Churchill's speech]
4. David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005
Acclaimed author David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide at age 46 nearly three years ago, offered graduating students of Kenyon College in 2005 an impassioned understanding of what freedom truly is and how to stay faithful to it. "The whole trick is keeping the whole truth up front in daily consciousness," he says. [Transcript of Wallace's speech]
3. Stephen Colbert, Knox College, 2006
In the commencement speech he gave at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., in 2006, comedian and faux political conservative Stephen Colbert said that he found it more difficult than most students do to graduate from college. Still, Colbert eventually graduated -- he thinks -- adding, "The question is: Why have a two-time commencement loser speak to you?" [Transcript of Colbert's speech]
2. Will Ferrell, Harvard University, June 2003
It's not every commencement speaker who'll dance his way to the lectern to a disco beat, but that's exactly what comedian Will Ferrell did in his speech to graduating Harvard University students in 2003. That wasn't the only emotion on display, as the "Saturday Night Live" alumnus turned on the crocodile tears in recalling his own non-admission to the prized Ivy League school. [Transcript of Ferrell's speech]
1. Steve Jobs, Stanford, 2005
Apple Inc. Chairman and CEO Steve Jobs told graduating students of Stanford University in 2005, that as a youth he struggled with determining what to do with his life or how a college education could help him figure it out. So he dropped out. "I loved it, and much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on," he says. [Transcript of Jobs' speech]
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David Schepp has spent more than a dozen years covering business news for the electronic and print media, including Dow Jones Newswires, BBC News, Gannett Co., and most recently at AOL's DailyFinance. Nearly 10 years ago, he started writing a weekly People@Work column, looking in depth at issues facing workers in today's workplace. The syndicated column appeared in newspapers and websites nationwide before it made its debut on DailyFinance in 2010. Schepp now continues that tradition at Aol Jobs, covering the jobs beat and providing readers insight and analysis into the nation's challenging employment scene.
Schepp holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Metropolitan State College of Denver.
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