Some Good Advice to Our 2019 Graduates

16 of the best things people said (and did) in this year’s commencement speeches

It’s tough to top the commencement speaker who told graduates he would pay off their student loans, but others had some memorable lines, too — and not all were spoken.


As commencement speeches go, it will be hard to top the one in which a Texas businessman told Morehead College graduates in Atlanta that he and his family would be paying off their student loans.

The stunning gift from Robert F. Smith, estimated to cost about $40 million, quickly ricocheted around social media, raising the bar for other speakers.

Oprah Winfrey, who spoke at Colorado College’s commencement and gave each graduate a copy of her new book, “The Path Made Clear,” had to defend herself after an Instagram user said she also should have paid off the graduates’ debt. (Winfrey responded that she  had already given $13 million in scholarships and paid tuition for 400 Morehead students.)

A few other speakers, including author Roxane Gay, pre-emptively told their audiences not to expect a similar gift, with Gay noting at Pratt Institute that she had $150,000 in student loan debt of her own.

But commencement speakers who had only words to offer graduates and their families made headlines as well. One, author Tara Westover, even sang the first verse of “How Great Thou Art” at Northeastern University in Boston.

Graduation ceremonies will continue in the U.S. through the middle of June, but here’s a sampling of the best things that have been said so far.

Author and columnist David Brooks, Brooks, University of New Hampshire

“We’ve taken individualism to the extreme and in so doing we’ve weakened the connections between people. When you look at how these values have distorted our society, you realize that the first thing we need is a shift in culture. The revolution will be moral or it will be not at all.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook, Tulane University:

“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.”

Actress Katie Holmes, Holmes, University of Toledo:

“Mark Twain said that traveling was fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. We live in a country where we have so many options, and for so many people in the world, our worst days would almost be a dream come true for them. Try to continue your education for yourself on your own terms. So keep your passports updated.”

Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, Kenyon College:

“Class of 2019, make no mistake about it. Live as if this is the fourth quarter. The world is a serious place, and your life is the most serious thing you have. Don’t spend it away in a pleasure-induced stupor at the cost of your personal power. This moment is not a rehearsal.”

Author Tara Westover, Northeastern University:

“Online, no one has acne or dark circles or a temper; no one washes dishes, does laundry or scrubs toilets. Mostly, we brunch. … But sometimes I think that when we deny what is worst about ourselves, we also deny what is best. … We forget that it is our flawed human self, and not our avatar, who creates things and reconsiders and forgives and shows mercy.”

Actor and vocalist Leslie Odom Jr., Carnegie Mellon University:

“Everything lines up behind your intention. The opportunities that come your way, the people you find surrounding you, where you live, at times what you eat. Much of your ultimate success lies in just how well your actions line up behind your intentions.”

Columnist Peggy Noonan, Notre Dame University:

“What can be done to focus more on threats to religious freedom? They are real and will get real. You know this. The polls are interesting. They say Americans are not always breaking down the doors to go to church, but they respect religious life. They intuitively understand the crucial nature of religious institutions, and they don’t want to see them under siege. They don’t want long-held religious beliefs compromised or trampled by the state.”

Musician and actor Justin Timberlake, Berklee College of Music:

“I won’t tell you to get married or not get married, but I will say this to you: Find someone who is better than you, and convince them to spend their lives with you.”

American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks, Brigham Young University:

“I have teenage kids. I see lots of eye-rolling. But if you roll your eyes at somebody you love, woe be unto you. That is a little act that effectively says, “You are worthless,” to the one person — your spouse — you should love more than any other. Do you want to see if a couple will end up in divorce court? Watch them discuss contentious topics and see if either partner rolls his or her eyes.”

Actress Jennifer Garner, Denison University:

“Don’t smoke, and don’t vape.”

Today show co-anchor Savannah Guthrie, George Washington University:

“I can’t tell you where your dream is. Only you know that. But I can tell you where it isn’t. It isn’t in your comfort zone. It isn’t in your wheelhouse. It’s not where you feel safe. It’s not where conditions are perfect. It is not where you are usually right and rarely challenged. Your blossoming and your growth — which is to say, your success — is always, always, inevitably, on the other side of a risk. It’s on the other side of a bold choice. It’s on the edge, waiting for you, on the other side of your fear.”

The Rev. France Davis, University of Utah:

“Be what you is and not what you ain’t, ’cause if you ain’t what you is, then you is what you ain’t.”

Oprah at a Graduation May 2019

Colorado College graduate Alexander Jobin-Leeds reacts with commencement speaker Oprah Winfrey to someone in the audience at the Colorado College graduation ceremony in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sunday, May 19, 2019. Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette via Associated Press

Oprah Winfrey, Colorado College:

“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.”

Vice President Mike Pence, Liberty University:

“You know, throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself Christian. It didn’t even occur to people that you might be shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible. But things are different now. Some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs. So as you go about your daily life, just be ready. Because you’re going to be asked not just to tolerate things that violate your faith; you’re going to be asked to endorse them. You’re going to be asked to bow down to the idols of the popular culture.”

International Federation of Catholic Universities president Isabel Capeloa Gil, Boston College:

“Unfortunately, I cannot offer to pay your student loans, but I strongly encourage those who can to do so.”

About Ann Laemmlen Lewis

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