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Attention Class of 2021: Get ready for commencement with these celebrity speeches

Chadwick Boseman gives a Wakanda salute in a graduation gown
The late actor Chadwick Boseman addressed Howard University’s graduates in a May 2018 commencement speech.
(Bill O’Leary / The Washington Post / Getty Images)

Most would probably agree the best graduation addresses are inspirational: encouraging, with some hint of the challenges ahead as well as reassurances that they can be overcome. Of course, those can be mere platitudes if not backed by personal experiences. It helps — a lot — to be funny. Throwing in local references can get the crowd on your side. And, as these speakers can attest, it helps to be super-famous.

Here are nuggets from some recent celebrity commencement speeches. See how many of the ingredients from above they use. And congratulations, Class of 2021!

Will Ferrell: You will address me as Dr. Ferrell

When the comedian spoke at his alma mater, USC, in 2017, he catalogued the impressive accomplishments of those receiving honorary doctorates along with him. Then he bragged about his own, including: “Running around in elf tights, eating gum off the ground and playing cowbell. I think my fellow doctorates would agree, based on our achievements, we are all on equal footing.

“I want the university to know that I do not take this prestigious honor lightly. I’ve already instructed my wife and my children: From this point on, they have to address me as Dr. Ferrell. There will be no exceptions. ... ‘Yay, we got the new Xbox, thank you Dad! I mean, Dr. Ferrell.’ ”

Michelle Obama: The story of our families

In her last commencement speech as first lady, at City College of New York in 2016, Obama said, “Our greatness has never, ever come from sitting back and feeling entitled to what we have. It’s never come from folks who climbed the ladder of success or happened to be born near the top and pulled the ladder up after themselves. No, uh-uh . Our greatness has always come from people who expect nothing and take nothing for granted. Folks who worked hard for what they had, then reached back and helped others after them. That is your story, graduates. And that is the story of your families.

“And it’s the story of my family, too. ... I grew up in a working-class family in Chicago. And while neither of my parents went past high school ... they saved up every penny that my dad earned at his city job because they were determined to send me to college. And even after my father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and he struggled to walk, relying on crutches just to get himself out of bed in the morning, my father hardly ever missed a day of work. ... See, he never wanted me to miss a registration deadline because his check was late. That’s my story.”

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On ‘The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,’ former First Lady Michelle Obama talked about how she has dealt with anxiety and depression.

Oprah Winfrey: You better keep that job

Speaking at Colorado College in 2019, the multihyphenate, self-made billionaire talked about redefining success and failure.

“Here’s the truth: For years, I had a job. And through that job, doing a lot of things that I actually didn’t want to do, I got demoted and discovered my life’s calling. I ... got my first job [as a reporter] in radio when I was 16, was hired in television at 19, and it was a job because every day, I felt like, ‘I don’t know if this is really what I’m supposed to be doing.’ But my father was like, ‘You better keep that job.’

“When I was 28, it wasn’t working out for me in news because I was too emotional. I’d cry because people lost their houses or lost their children. I was told I was going to be taken off the evening news and put on a … talk show. That was a demotion for me at the time, that actually worked out for me.”

Chadwick Boseman: Find purpose rather than a job

Chadwick Boseman at Howard University's commencement ceremonies in 2018

Chadwick Boseman told Howard University’s class of 2018, “Whatever you choose for a career path, remember the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.”
(Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Speaking at his alma mater, Howard University, in 2018, Boseman praised student protesters who had recently won a number of concessions from the administration and spoke with specificity about his experience on the campus. Then he told the story of an early, severe career reversal, when he had booked his first big acting job — on “All My Children” — only to be fired after speaking up about stereotypical aspects of his character. He acknowledged the very difficult times he faced after that, including being labeled “difficult,” but said he did not regret speaking up.

“When you are deciding on next steps, next jobs, next careers, further education, you should rather find purpose than a job or a career,” he said. “Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you need to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.”

Actor Chadwick Boseman died Aug. 28 at the age of 43.

Natalie Portman: Good and maybe never done

Speaking at her alma mater, Harvard University, in 2015, the Oscar winner talked about her early academic struggles there and her continued learning process: “There were several occasions where I started crying in meetings with professors, overwhelmed with what I was supposed to pull off when I could barely get myself out of bed in the morning, moments when I took on the motto for school work, ‘Done. Not good.’ ...

“I’m still learning now that it’s about ‘Good and maybe never done.’ That the joy and work ethic and virtuosity we bring to the particular can impart a singular type of enjoyment to those we give to and, of course, to ourselves.”

Tom Hanks: Fear or faith

Tom Hanks attends the 2011 Yale University Class Day in 2011.



Tom Hanks delivered an address at Yale University’s 2011 Class Day.
(Bobby Bank/WireImage)

At Yale University’s 2011 Class Day, the two-time Oscar winner asked whether the forces of fear or faith would define graduates’ lives. He shared a parable of three men whose lives were paralyzed by fear, so they sought the counsel of a wise man who lived so far above the tree line that no vegetation, animals or even insects lived near his cave. The wise man was able to dispel the first pilgrim’s fear of death by saying it would not come until he was ready; he assuaged the second pilgrim’s fear of his neighbors by instructing him to get to know them. Then the third came forward:

“‘O, wise man, I fear spiders. When I try to sleep at night, I imagine spiders dropping from the ceiling and crawling upon my flesh, and I cannot rest,’” Hanks said.

“‘Ah, spiders,’ said the wise man. ‘No s—, why do you think I live way up here?’”

Jim Carrey: Now I drive a convertible

The comedian and painter gave a fascinating speech at the 2014 graduation ceremony at the Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa.

“I used to think Jim Carrey is all that I was. Just a flickering light, a dancing shadow,” he said. “The great nothing masquerading as something you can name, seeking shelter in caves and foxholes dug out hastily. An archer searching for his target in the mirror, wounded only by my own arrows. Begging to be enslaved, leading for my chains. Blinded by longing and tripping over paradise. ...

“I used to believe that who I was ended at the edge of my skin, that I had been given this little vehicle called a body from which to experience creation. And though I couldn’t have asked for a sportier model, it was, after all, a loaner and would have to be returned. Then I learned that everything outside the vehicle was part of me, too, and now I drive a convertible. Top down, wind in my hair.”

Barack Obama: It’s going to be up to you

Former President Barack Obama speaks during Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020 on May 16, 2020.
. In his 2020 address to high school students across the United States, former President Barack Obama touched on lessons from the pandemic.
(Getty Images for EIF & XQ)

Then there’s the other Obama, Michelle’s husband, who virtually addressed high school graduates across the country last year. He acknowledged some of the disturbing lessons of the pandemic.

“It’s also pulled the curtain back on another hard truth, something that we all have to eventually accept once our childhood comes to an end. All those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? It turns out they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions. So, if the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you.”

He added later: “America’s gone through tough times before — slavery, civil war, famine, disease, the Great Depression and 9/11. And each time we came out stronger, usually because a new generation — young people like you — learned from past mistakes and figured out how to make things better.”


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