Commencement speeches can bleed together. Adversity: overcome. Mountains: climbed. Friendships: lifelong.
But this year, as esteemed speakers across the country noted, graduation really is a victory.
“Surviving means that you have come through the catastrophe but you’re still relatively intact,” the basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told graduates at Washington University in St. Louis. “Thriving is about learning and growing as a result of the event. That’s what graduations are all about.”
The pandemic, ever-present, did not derail plans. Some schools held virtual commencements, while others only allowed the students themselves to attend in person. Instead of one commencement speaker, some schools invited several people to offer advice to graduates. A few staggered ceremonies to make room for social distancing, prompting some college presidents to go ahead and do the deed themselves.
“I couldn’t ask a guest speaker to speak 28 times,” joked Kent Fuchs, the president of the University of Florida.
Many speakers noted that graduates will face myriad challenges long after disease recedes. Young people will continue to lead protest movements. They will enter a work force reshaped by lockdowns and join economies buffered by the effects of climate change. The future, though bright, is profoundly uncertain.
Still, speakers reminded masked and socially distanced graduates to look for the joy.
Maria Taylor, an ESPN reporter, summed it all up in a speech at her alma mater, the University of Georgia: “To the class of 2021, y’all made it!”
Miguel A. Cardona
Dr. Cardona is the U.S. Secretary of Education. He spoke to the graduating class at the University of Connecticut.
The top song on the Billboard Music charts today is “Save Your Tears,” by The Weeknd and Ariana Grande. In it, they tell the person to save their tears for another day. After this past year, we struggled together, we cried together, and we experienced loss together.
But graduates, today is a new day. Save your sad tears for another day.
Deborah N. Archer
Ms. Archer is the president of the American Civil Liberties Union. She spoke to graduates at New York University, where she serves as a professor of clinical law and a co-faculty director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law.
There’s a saying in the Black community, that we are our ancestor’s wildest dreams. And I believe that and I have felt that so many times. And each and every one of you should feel that powerfully today. You have achieved things that your ancestors would never have imagined.
Mr. Dune helped his company, Sandler O’Neill, recover after the 9-11 attacks. He spoke at Notre Dame, his alma mater, about the lessons he learned from that day.
Normally, I would have gone straight to my two partners I knew best, but we had lost them, too. The question is, ‘How do we recover?’ And, more than that, ‘What can we do for those families left behind?
At such moments, there isn’t time to reflect and figure out what you believe. All you have is your foundation, and you’re about to find out if it’s a good one. If you can get through, it’s going to be on the strength of what you have already. How we conducted ourselves would define who we were and what we stood for. If we were not honorable, then we stood for nothing.
Ms. Venkataraman is the editorial page editor of The Boston Globe. She spoke at the University of Southern California.
Look for heroes not on the silver screen or the pedestal or even at this podium — but at eye level and within reach: the people in your life who have been afraid but done the right thing anyway, who have shown you by example how to be bold.
Prize bravery over bravado. Prize all moments of bravery, even the small and unrecognized ones. You can be heroic whenever you choose, whoever you are, without being perfect or celebrated or superbly talented.
Mr. Pompeo was the 70th Secretary of State. He spoke to students at Regent University.
There’s a growing threat right here, right in our backyard. Our country must remember that no one can enjoy the pursuit of happiness if you cannot own the fruits of your own labor, and no society can retain its legitimacy, or a virtuous character, without religious freedom. I worry. I worry that far beyond the battle lines of defense, economic or trade policy, that the battle to stop the divorce of America from its founding values is much more important.
Dr. Simmons is president of Prairie View A&M University and the former president of both Smith College and Brown University. She addressed the graduating class at Harvard University.
Human differences, intentionally engaged in the educational context, are as much a resource to our intellectual growth as the magnificent tomes that we build libraries to protect and the state-of-the-art equipment so proudly arrayed in our laboratories.
The encounter with difference rocks.
I believe that each of us has a solemn duty to learn about and embrace that difference. That undertaking takes not a month, not a year, but a lifetime of concerted action to ensure that we are equipped to play a role in caring for and improving the world we inhabit together.
President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
President Biden spoke to graduates at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
Class of 2021, you have it all. You really do. And we need you badly. …
The press always asks me why I’m so optimistic about America’s chances in the world. And I’ve said from the time I decided to run, “Because of this generation.” You’re the most progressive, best-educated, least prejudiced, most open generation in American history. We need you badly. You’re ready. It’s time to get underway.
Laurene Powell Jobs
Ms. Powell Jobs is a businesswoman and philanthropist. She spoke to students at the University of Pennsylvania.
Change in ourselves and change in the world happens similarly: It comes slowly, slowly, and then all at once. What matters is your readiness for the moment of revelation, of challenge, of opportunity. We have to be prepared to walk through the door when it opens, or, by our own power and purpose, to open it ourselves. And sometimes we need to tear down walls, the ones within and the ones without.
Mr. Ohanian is a co-founder of Reddit. He spoke at the University of Virginia.
There is going to be an amazing time, over the next 10, 15, 20 years, as we see what happens, with this new technology, with the power of community, to hopefully create a lot more good. And I don’t see any other path forward. We have to figure it out. We have to make it better — for my daughter, for her entire generation, for all of us to be able to not just survive, but thrive together, as a community, accepting the fact that we are all deeply flawed but working to bring about the very best in each and every one of us.
André De Shields
Mr. De Shields is an actor, director and choreographer. He was the keynote speaker at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Why is today different from any other day?
Because you are about to use the many years you have prepared to go out into the world and find employment.
But not just any employment. Here is my charge to you: Don’t look for just a job. Look for that horizon that if you do not discover it, it will forever remain a secret. Look for that treasure, that if you do not uncover it, it will forever remain just X marks the spot. Look for that mystery that if you don’t unravel it, it will forever remain a mystery.
Steven Moity and Isabella Paoletto contributed research.