3 Empowering Commencement Speeches To Inspire Your Next Move

3 Empowering Commencement Speeches To Inspire Your Next Move



As Spring turns to Summer, tan and tired twenty-somethings wrap up their Senior Week festivities and line up in cap and gown.

At every college and university across the nation, just before they cross the stage and receive their diplomas, they are asked to sit down and listen to some wise advice from a celebrity (or semi-celebrity) that’s meant to inspire them as they head off into the Real World.

Soon-to-be grads have a lot on their minds, especially young women. As they try to wrap their heads around leaving a place they’ve inhabited for four years, they’re also inundated with opinions and information — where they should live, what jobs they should and shouldn’t take, what to do about their significant other (or about the fact that they don’t have a significant other).

This year, several of our favorite feminists met young female graduates where they are, striking a balance between practical and inspirational, political and personal. Their messages, which will resonate with the newly and not-so-newly graduated, are:


“Come together” and “make feminism humanism” Ann-Marie Slaughter at Barnard 

Barnard’s decision to invite Ann-Marie Slaughter to speak at this year’s commencement was met with great controversy. Students were upset because they felt like Slaughter represents a white, corporate, privileged feminism rather than the intersectional feminism with which they identify. In her speech, Slaughter offers that “each of us can speak only our own truth,” but that, rather than getting caught up in debate, “we must come together as competitors and as carers.” “Carers,” she explains, is a term she borrows from the Brits, and represents a generosity and thoughtfulness that should go hand-in-hand with our drive and ambition. Drawing on feminist heroes past and present — like Gloria Steinem and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie — Slaughter reminds Barnard grads they, as she sees it, have a responsibility today to be “champions,” who, like Adichie,” define feminism without qualifying adjectives” and who work together to do better than “describing and rating women in terms of their breasts and their bottoms.”


Never “give in to fear” and always “reach back and help others” Michelle Obama at CCNY

We’re at a time as a nation, the First Lady explained, where we’re at risk of making enormous decisions out of fear. Instead, she told the CCNY Class of 2016, to use their intellect and education to ask for better — to remember that “our greatness comes when we appreciate each other’s strengths,” not when we “build walls” that “demonize and dehumanize entire groups of people.” Dreams and ambition know no bounds, and young people with big hopes have the power to change their lives and the lives of others, she reminds us, citing her own path to the White House as evidence. It’s something she’s reminded of “every single day,” she says, “when [she] wakes up in a house that was built by slaves and [watches her] 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.” Though the “Founding Fathers never could have imagined” our world, she says, “you are the living breathing proof that the American Dream endures.”


Persevere and “build resilience” – Sheryl Sandberg at UC Berkeley

Famed Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg spoke openly about the months following her husband’s death last year, and what she’s learned from loss. Sandberg told graduates honestly that “the question is not if some [difficult] things will happen….they will,” but rather how you mark and navigate the time that follows a challenge or tragedy. In a lesson that feels apt for all of us, but perhaps especially young women, she said: “you will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive.” Sandberg’s choice to grieve somewhat publicly — and to speak so vulnerably and honestly at an event like Berkeley Commencement — proves she practices what she preaches; she takes her own advice to make room and time for what we need as individuals. She reminded graduates to live gratefully and with awareness, to acknowledge they are fortunate to be “walking without pain,” or to have the tools to fix something that doesn’t work. Dedicate yourself to “building resilience” in communities, workplaces, friendships, and for yourself, Sandberg says. Then, when something deeply difficult happens in a way that strips you of your “Option A,” tap into resilience and “kick the shit out of your Option B.”

Though each in their own way, these speakers exemplify what it means to lift each other up, to support each other while leaving room to respect individuality. We would do well to take a page from each of their books as we navigate what it means to be a woman in 21st century America.

Image courtesy of Getty Images.