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Diversity & Inclusion, Leaders

Sage Wisdom From Selected Commencement 2016 Speakers

[Photos are from Howard University’s 148th Commencement Convocation, May 7, 2016.]

Commencement-Sign1The month of May is usually jammed packed with activities, celebrations, and events that include May Day, Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day Weekend, etc. Add to the above the countless number of  high school and college commencement exercises that are staged during this month. This May, several family members and friends have or will be participating in a graduation march after having successfully completed the academic requirements for their selected programs of study.

Each year I look forward to an exciting array of commencement speakers that accompany the pomp and circumstances for these events. “A good commencement speech walks a fine line,” says Mary Beth Marklein of USA TODAY. “It addresses graduates but will be heard by family, friends, faculty and the wider community. It should be memorable — but only for the right reasons.” [Ref 1]

commencent-2016-3Marklein goes on to list eight (8) key elements of a good graduation speech. Here are two of them: No. 1 – A good commencement speech should inspire the audience, however lose the clichés. Give your advice in your own words. No. 2 – Talk about yourself … but make it meaningful to your audience. My experience as a professional speaker and presenter supports her recommendations. I have seen the impact that a personal story has had on many audiences. For Commencement 2016, I have chosen nine (9) speakers to share some of their knowledge, words of wisdom and/or advice to graduates and everyone else.

This year’s list of speakers are impressive! My only regret is that I could not capture some content from each of them. While searching for the speech from actor, filmmaker, social activist, and Cambridge native Matt Damon, this year’s commencement speaker for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I stumbled upon an essay by Rabbi David Wolpe. As it turns out, Matt Damon won’t be delivering his commencement address until Friday, June 3rd, however, I plan to tune in to hear what he has to say.

1. David Wolpe, Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple and columnist for Time Magazine, Los Angeles, California

commencent-2016-tassle “In commencement addresses across this country, graduates are being told to follow their dreams. Instead of repeating this silver-lined cliché, I hope at least a few of the speakers say something like this to the graduates: ‘Today is not about following your dream.’

 This is my advice for graduates: Let me tell you a story. It is an old story from the Bible, often told. It is about a young man named Joseph who had dreams. He dreamt that his brothers and father and mother bowed down to him. His brothers, understandably, grew to resent him. They resented him so much that they ended up selling him into slavery in Egypt. While he was there, he refused the advances of his master’s wife and ended up in prison. In prison, through interpreting the dreams of the cupbearer and baker and eventually the dreams of Pharaoh himself, Joseph rose to be the second in command in Egypt.

Here is the question: Joseph fell through dreams, and he rose through dreams. What marked the difference between the two episodes?

In the first, Joseph listened only to his own dreams. In the second, he learned to listen to the dreams of others.

 Everyone has dreams. They do not make you special. One thing that can make you special is to listen to the dreams of others as well. You want to be rich? That’s not an uncommon dream, nor is it a very ambitious one. Do you want to enrich others? Now that is a dream worth listening to.”

 2. Charlie Rose, Co-host – CBS This Morning , at University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee

“My life has been spent really asking questions of all manner of men and women, some good and some bad. I can tell you not all heroes are famous. I have never talked to a Medal of Honor recipient — and they insist on being a recipient and not a winner — who has not said to me, ‘I’m not a hero. I did my duty, and somebody saw me do it — that’s all. My buddies,’ they say, ‘do it every day.’ Put someone else’s life ahead of theirs. Fame is way overrated unless you do something good with it.

Be crazy, be humble, dream big. Make your story a great story. Make all of us proud of what you can be, what you have been and what you will do.”


 3. Tyler Perry, American actor, film producer, screenwriter, playwright and philanthropist , at Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Alabama

“…When the foundation is done right, nobody mentions it.  And when it is done right it can carry the weight of anything that it was designed to hold.  Well that is what you have been doing here. You’ve been building a foundation, one that will hold you up for the rest of your life.

And you know, when I was a kid, I would ask myself why is no one was paying attention to the foundation? And why did this work have to be so hard?

Have you ever wondered for some of you why it had to be so hard for you to get thru school? Or just make it from day to day? Well, that is because what you were building had to be strong enough to support the weight of whatever you could dream. And if you are like me, you are a huge dreamer. You had to have a foundation that is big enough and strong enough and bold enough to hold all of your dreams and handle them coming thru.”

4. The Honorable Paul Ryan, Speaker – U.S. House of Representatives, at Carthage College, Kenosha, Wisconsin

“…As you get older, you realize that life does actually follow a plan. It just may not be your plan. It is God’s plan. And coming to accept that fundamental fact—not begrudgingly but peacefully—that is the essence of faith.

You might not be able to make all the changes you wanted. The question is, did you make a difference wherever you could? Did you meet the moment? Did you look yourself in the mirror that morning or that evening and think “Yeah, okay. I am doing this the right way.” Are you endeavoring to be fulfilled and be a good person . . . So if you remember one word from this speech, let it be “faith.” That should be all the planning you need.”

5. Cheryl Sandberg, Chief operating officer of Facebook and author, at University of California at Berkeley


Alexis Oyelibo, B.S. Chemical Engineering, Class of 2016 graduated with a 4.0 GPA

“…And when the challenges come, I hope you remember that anchored deep within you is the ability to learn and grow. You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are—and you just might become the very best version of yourself. Class of 2016, as you leave Berkeley, build resilience.

Build resilience in yourselves. When tragedy or disappointment strike, know that you have the ability to get through absolutely anything. I promise you do. As the saying goes, we are more vulnerable than we ever thought, but we are stronger than we ever imagined.

Build resilient organizations. If anyone can do it, you can, because Berkeley is filled with people who want to make the world a better place. Never stop working to do so—whether it’s a boardroom that is not representative or a campus that’s not safe. Speak up, especially at institutions like this one, which you hold so dear. My favorite poster at work reads, ‘Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem.’ When you see something that’s broken, go fix it.

Build resilient communities. We find our humanity—our will to live and our ability to love—in our connections to one another. Be there for your family and friends. And I mean in person. Not just in a message with a heart emoji.

Lift each other up, help each other kick the shit out of option B—and celebrate each and every moment of joy.

You have the whole world in front of you. I can’t wait to see what you do with it.”

6. Hank Azaria, American actor, voice actor, comedian and producer, at Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts

“…Or as Agador Spartacus [a character in the television series: The Simpsons] would say it: Kids, just please be yourselves. And if you can’t be yourself, please be Judy Garland from that movie ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’. My God, she got to wear such cute outfits in that movie.

Speaking of which, why do we have to be in these robes today? Uh, who is this flattering on? You can’t look good in this. I mean, maybe with shoulder pads and like a cinched belt it would all work. But I’m going to stop talking now, because the sooner we change out of these things the better, yes?”

7. The Honorable Barack Obama, President of the United States, at Howard University, Washington, DC

commencent-2016-6“…James Baldwin once wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

Graduates, each of us is only here because someone else faced down challenges for us.  We are only who we are because someone else struggled and sacrificed for us.  That’s not just Thurgood Marshall’s story, or Ciearra’s story, or my story, or your story — that is the story of America.  A story whispered by slaves in the cotton fields, the song of marchers in Selma, the dream of a King in the shadow of Lincoln.  The prayer of immigrants who set out for a new world.  The roar of women demanding the vote.  The rallying cry of workers who built America.  And the GIs who bled overseas for our freedom. 

Now it’s your turn.  And the good news is, you’re ready.  And when your journey seems too hard, and when you run into a chorus of cynics who tell you that you’re being foolish to keep believing or that you can’t do something, or that you should just give up, or you should just settle — you might say to yourself a little phrase that I’ve found handy these last eight years:  Yes, we can.

 8. Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee, American film director, producer, writer, and actor, at John Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD

President Obama Delivers Commencement Address At Howard University

President Obama and Actress Cicely Tyson – both honorary degree recipients

I love what I do. What I do is make films. I’m a storyteller. And there are two words that are almost in all of my 23 feature films to date. These two words are:  Wake up!

…Wake up from the sleep, wake up from being comatose, wake up from the slum where they keep your eyes shut from all the inequalities and injustices, to this often, more-than-not, evil, crazy world we live in. Let’s move our unconscious minds from the back to the front to a conscious state, and wake up. Let’s leave our lofty ivory towers of institutions and get down to the people. As our sisters and brothers say on the block, ‘get woke.’ Let’s be alert, be open-minded, get woke. Let’s wake up.

No matter how one might wish it be otherwise, we are not making America great again by going back to Eisenhower, Jim Crow, fire hoses, German shepherds, and ‘Leave It To Beaver.’ Not happening. Now’s the time to seize the day, take advantage of this unique moment in history, and build bridges amongst us. Talking about gender, race, religion, and nations, not walls. Let us build bridges of love, versus walls of hate.

Aight. Sidebar Number One. Standing here, I’m amongst some of the greatest minds in the world here at Johns Hopkins University, people who are a lot smarter than me. So I ask: can somebody please educate me? Me, somebody from the public school education in the Republic of Brooklyn, New York? Can somebody please explain to me how you can tell Mexico to build a 25-foot wall on the borders?

On top of that, have the audacity to tell them: Mexico, you foot the bill, too?’’

9. The Honorable Elizabeth Warren, United States Senior Senator – State of Massachusetts, at Suffolk University, Boston, Massachusetts

commencement_2016-all-classes“I never imagined I would be a law professor, I never imagined I would be a United States senator. I never imaged I would be a blonde, but here I am. And I can tell you it is life-changing to be a blonde.

…And now that I’m in the Senate, I can tell you that Washington is full of people who say, ‘No, no, no,’ and who are saying it in nastier and nastier and nastier ways. But knowing who you are will help you when it’s time to fight. Fight for the job you want, fight for the people who mean the most to you and fight for the kind of world you want to live in. It will help when people say that’s impossible or you can’t do that.

Look, if you take the unexpected opportunities when they come up, if you know yourself, and if you fight for what you believe in, I can promise that you will live a life that is rich with meaning. You’ll be on the road less traveled. You won’t care what the polling says. And you’ll find that lemonade is terrific. And besides, if you don’t like drinking lemonade, you can always listen to Beyoncé.”

Sources Cited:

  1. 8 keys to a graduation speech with pomp & significance, by Mary Beth Marklein for USA Today, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/2009-05-12-commencement-graduation_N.htm, [last viewed on 05.26.2016]


Post Notes: The Howard University Community was especially pleased to have the Honorable Barack Obama as the speaker for the 148th commencement convocation. This is the sixth (6th) time in the history of the university, that a sitting president gave the commencement address.


About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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