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inspiring quotes: the best graduation speeches this year

inspiring quotes graduation speeches

Some of the happiest moments of spring are at graduation ceremonies. And hearing the commencement speeches that come along with them. Done well, these remarks speak to all of us, and echo well beyond the campuses on which they are delivered. Our correspondent Julie Chang Murphy has compiled a list of inspiring quotes from the best graduation speeches this year. Enjoy!

the best commencement speeches this year

Commencement season this year started off with a bang! As featured in our Sparkler for the Month, billionaire Robert F. Smith made headlines at Morehouse College with this promise. “On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

It’s going to pretty difficult to beat that speech. But every year around this time, we love to hear what advice the luminaries of our great nation have to offer to the next generation. Traditionally, they are full of encouragement about how anything is possible if you work hard enough. The speakers work to convince the graduates that they are now prepared to enter “the real world.” And they emphasize being hopeful and optimistic about the future.

These are messages we all need to hear now and again. But this year, we found that in the best graduation speeches there was a new common theme.

As we listened closely for inspiring quotes in this year’s graduation speeches, we heard something different than before. Speakers across professions and disciplines and across Ivy League colleges and public universities spoke about the imperative of taking action over just having hope. And we were especially moved by the emphasis on being responsible for the community over one’s own individual achievement and success.

Inspiring quotes from the best graduation speeches this year

Here are some of our favorite inspiring quotes from the best commencement speeches this year.

1. Our Favorite quote from Author Chimamanda Adichie’s class day speech at Yale  

What should America be? Conceptualize that America, and then make the case for that America. Not only in obvious ways, such as how you vote, but also in smaller ways — how you treat other people, how you think about other people, the things you refuse to condone, the people whose grievances you refuse to dismiss … the people you choose to listen to and hear.” Hear her full address here.

best graduation speeches this year

Chimamanda Adichie delivering the 2019 Yale Commencement Speech

2. Inspiring words from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s graduation speech at Harvard

“I experienced firsthand how nothing has to stay the way it is. This experience, dear graduates, is the first thought I wish to share with you: Anything that seems set in stone or unalterable can indeed change. Tear down walls of ignorance and narrow mindedness, for nothing has to stay as it is.” Listen to her full address here.

3. Inspiration from Activist and Social Innovator Ai Jen Poo’s commencement speech at Smith

“We need you to take responsibility now — not just for yourself, your community, or even just the people who share your values. We need you to take responsibility for the whole — for the whole entire project of taking this vision of democracy into the future — running it all. And doing it differently. Doing it together. With a whole lot of empathy.” Hear her full remarks here.

best graduation speeches this year

Ai Jen Poo, 2019 Commencement Speaker at Smith College. Courtesy Photo.

4. Wisdom from Actress Kristen Bell’s commencement speech at the University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts

“When you respect the idea that you are sharing the earth with other humans, and when you lead with your nice foot forward, you’ll win, every time. It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but it comes back to you when you need it. We live in an age of instant gratification, of immediate likes. and it is uncomfortable to have to wait to see the dividends of your kindness. But I promise you, it will appear exactly when you need it.” Hear Bell’s complete speech here.

inspiring quotes graduation speeches this year

Kirsten Bell, 2019 Commencement Speaker at University of Southern California. Courtesy Photo.

5. Inspiring quotes from Lawyer and Professor Anita Hill’s commencement speech at Wellesley College

“What I once thought was a sprint to equality has turned out not to be so. I no longer even see it as a marathon. I now see it as a relay. And I now see that the baton that will point the way to social justice must be passed from generation to generation.” For her full speech, click here.

6. Advice from Media Mogul Oprah Winfrey at Colorado College Commencement Exercises

“The truth is, you cannot fix everything. But what you can do, here and now, is make a decision, because life is about decisions. And the decision is that you will use your life in service; you will be in service to life. You will speak up. You will show up. You will stand up. You will sit in. You will volunteer. You will vote. You will shout out. You will help. You will lend a hand. You will offer your talent and your kindness however you can and you will radically transform whatever moment you’re in — which leads to bigger moments.” Hear Winfrey’s entire address here.

7. Wisdom from Apple CEO Tim Cook’s keynote address at Tulane University graduation

“Don’t waste time on problems that have been solved. Don’t get hung up on what other people say is practical. Instead, steer your ship into the choppy seas. Look for the rough spots, the problems that seem too big, the complexities that other people are content to work around. It’s in those places that you will find your purpose. It’s there that you can make your greatest contribution.” Listen to the rest of what Cook had to say here.

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaking at Tulane Commencement 2019. Courtesy Photo.

8. Inspiration from Actress Katie Holmes’ commencement speech at the University of Toledo

“So if you’re waiting for a sign, this is it. … You are the person who’s going to go out there and make things happen for yourself. And that’s a terrifying and amazing responsibility. You deserve joy — not in ten years, but now. So try to be equal parts tough and gentle with yourself. Take things one step at a time. Work hard when no one is looking. And don’t let anybody say you never called them back.” Listen to her full speech here.

9. Inspiration from Poet and Playwright Elizabeth Alexander’s graduation speech at NYU

“What are the powers of your words once you are in the room? What can you do with your words to move us closer to the beloved community? Let us reflect on how we can each make each other more visible with our words and deeds and in so doing, build a better world.” You can find her full remarks here.

New York University 2019 Commencement Speaker Elizabeth Alexander. Courtesy Photo.

10. Our Favorite quote from Scientist Bill Nye’s Senior Convocation speech at Cornell   

As graduates, I imagine some of you are concerned about what’s next. What are you going to do for a living? What are you going to do for the rest of your lives after you make that first draft? Well, my advice is just get started.” Catch his entire address here.

inspiring quotes graduation speeches

Those are our picks for the most inspiring quotes from the best graduation speeches this year.

We don’t know about you, but some of these lines from the best graduation speeches will be going on our refrigerator or mirror as a daily reminder and meditation to level up. Congratulations to all the college graduates this year! We need your energy and contributions now more than ever.

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Crediting her training as a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, Julie has immersed herself in various industries in the last 15 years including fashion design, event planning, fitness and even investigating police misconduct. Julie lives in NYC where she loves trying every ramen and dumpling restaurant with her husband and three children. She finds joy in bold prints, biographies of fierce women, kickboxing and spending way too long finding the perfect polish color to express her mood.

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