Every year at graduations across the country, wedged between the pomp and circumstance and the parties is one important rite of passage: the commencement address. Not until these inspirational words have been spoken can the class of 2018 move their tassels, fling their caps and run off to join the great big world. And every year, more celebrities join the ranks of invited speakers and put their public address skills to the test. It’s less of an audience than the Oscars but with a much longer time limit, so it’s a chance for celebs to really bare their hearts. Here’s a look at who is participating in all the festivities this year and what they’ve been saying.
Mindy Kaling — Dartmouth College, June 10
Mindy Kaling gave a hilarious and heartwarming speech to the Dartmouth Class of 2018 on Sunday, June 10. After cracking jokes about the fact that she’s not actually Priyanka Chopra or Padma Lakshmi but “the other Indian woman we’ve allowed to be on television” and just how cold New Hampshire (where Dartmouth is located) gets in the winter, Kaling went on to discuss how her life has turned out since graduating in 2001 and dispensing life advice to the newly minted graduates.
Among the most memorable advice she doled out was the #MeToo-focused advice to the young men: “When you go on dates, act as if every woman you’re talking to is a reporter for an online publication that you are scared of. One shouldn’t need the threat of public exposure and scorn to treat women well, but if that’s what it’s going to take, fine. Date like everyone’s watching, because we are.”
To the women, she gave these important remarks about working together: “Hey, girls, we need to do a better job of supporting each other. I know that I am guilty of it too. We live in a world where it seems like there’s only room for one of us at the table. Wouldn’t it be better if we worked together to dismantle a system that makes us feel like there’s limited room for us?”
Jimmy Fallon — Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, June 3
On June 3, Jimmy Fallon appeared at the commencement ceremony for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Class of 2018 in Sunrise, Florida. The ceremony had already earned attention because this senior class was the first to graduate in the wake of the tragic school shooting that occurred on Valentine’s Day earlier in the year. Fallon’s speech was filled with messages of love and hope, but also a little humor.
Capitalizing on a viral video, one of Fallon’s opening quips went like this: “Today, you’re graduating from high school. You should feel incredibly proud of yourselves. That doesn’t mean you should rest on your laurels — or your yannies.”
But Fallon went on to more heartfelt sentiments, remarking, “When something feels hard, remember that it gets better. Choose to move forward. Don’t let anything stop you.”
Cynthia Nixon — Helene Fuld College of Nursing, May 4
Nixon gave a tribute to her mother, talking about the woman who taught her courage throughout her life and modeled a can-do attitude. She credited her mother’s approach to a cancer diagnosis for giving her the faith to approach her own, later diagnosis head-on. She also encouraged graduates to “never doubt that you can make a space big enough for yourself in this world” and to know that their voices are important as they advocate for their patients and for better health care.
Amal Clooney — Vanderbilt University, May 10
The human rights lawyer told the crowd it was her first commencement address and asked them to bear with her. But there was little need for that, as Clooney eloquently discussed current affairs she is passionate about, telling grads that courage is needed now more than ever. She cited infringement on women’s rights and LGBTQ issues and freedom of the press as examples of areas that need courageous leadership.
Oprah Winfrey — USC Annenberg, May 11
Winfrey told the crowd she would have been there anyway, since one of her “daughter girls” — a mentee from the school Winfrey founded in South Africa — was part of the graduating class. She reminded graduates that they are now in a position to keep people in power “in check” by responding to false narratives and illuminating darkness. She urged grads to pay attention to people who claim to represent their interests and hold them to account.
Chadwick Boseman — Howard University, May 12
Boseman received an honorary doctorate from the same school where he received his undergrad degree and joked with students that some of them were graduating by the skin of their teeth. He urged grads to reflect on the importance of the moment and recognize how they can contribute to the democratic process. He lauded students who put their complaints about the university into action through protests that took place earlier in the year.
Chance the Rapper — Dillard University, May 12
The singer proved himself a powerful speaker last year with his impassioned speech accepting the BET Humanitarian Award. At Dillard’s graduation, where Chance received an honorary doctorate, he encouraged students to get over the fear of eclipsing their heroes by comparing the performances of Michael Jackson and Beyoncé. “You do a disservice trying to live up to your ancestors,” he said. “You have to outlive them.”
Michael Keaton — Kent State University, May 12
Like many graduation speakers, Keaton spoke about his own memories of college and the way the experience changed him. He explained how school helped him grow to love education and touted the idea of free education for all. The actor also encouraged graduates to take chances in life to help them get back to their most authentic self. But he left the audience with the two most important words he could think to give them: “I’m Batman.”
John Lithgow — Dominican University of California, May 12
Dominican #Commencement2018 highlights featured @JohnLithgow and #MaryYeager #keynoteaddress and award presentations to Erin McKay and Anthony Sassano #Commencement #Graduation #JohnLithgow #PenguinPride #ThisIsDUC https://t.co/NRDwKO47wC pic.twitter.com/r4jyFtk9Ag
— Dominican University (@DominicanCANews) May 14, 2018
Lithgow was just one part of a two-keynote address ceremony. Noted economist Dr. Mary Yeager, his wife, was the other speaker. Lithgow also received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters and Yeager received an honorary Doctorate of Laws. Lithgow and Yeager told graduates that the relationships they established during school would enrich them for years to come and would remain their most precious gift.
Queen Latifah — Rutgers University Newark, May 14
Speaking in her hometown, Latifah told the gathered audience that now, they are the role models. She reached back to her experience of finding her confidence as a young actor in a school production to explain how a student’s roots can shape their life. “The love you find in family is a powerful teacher. Make sure you stay enrolled in that class as long as you can,” Latifah said.
Justin Trudeau — New York University, May 16
The Canadian prime minister urged graduates to fight the tribal mindset that can provide community on one hand but tear people apart on another. Trudeau spoke of tolerance but stressed the need to aim higher, toward acceptance, respect, friendship and love. “Celebration of difference needs to extend to differences of values and beliefs, too. Diversity includes political and cultural diversity too,” he said.
Jimmy Carter — Liberty University, May 19
What’s made headlines in regard to Jimmy Carter’s commencement speech (as seen in the above video, which starts an hour into Liberty University’s ceremony) is his joke about how the crowd at his speech was even bigger than the crowd in 2017 for President Donald Trump’s graduation address. “I don’t know if President Trump will admit that or not,” Carter said. He went on to talk about the human rights work he’s so well known for and to encourage graduates to learn to live in peace, considering all people equals.
Hillary Clinton — Yale University, May 20
Clinton injected lots of political jokes into her address to the graduates, including a not-so-subtle barb aimed at President Trump and the investigation into Russian meddling in the election. To an audience known for wearing outlandish hats to the ceremony, Clinton held up a Russian black fur hat, saying “If you can’t beat them, join them.” Ultimately, however, she encouraged grads to keep fighting for the things they find right, noting that it’s always worth it. (Also worth watching: this hilarious video from the Yale commencement, in which two students performed a shtick so funny, the clip has garnered millions of views on YouTube. Hillary seems thoroughly entertained!)
President Donald Trump — U.S. Naval Academy, May 25
The president told Navy graduates that the country would stand up to defend our men and women in uniform as they stand to defend us. He promised that the U.S. would be rebuilding our aging naval fleet with 355 new ships in the pipeline. Recounting some of the achievements of America’s past, he said that we must have pride in our past to have confidence in the future.
Ava DuVernay — Cornell University, May 26
The award-winning director/producer encouraged the crowd to take charge of their own destiny. “What will be your story, your movie?” she said. “You’re the director.” She recounted the road that took her from being an African studies/English double major at UCLA to speaking at Cornell now. “The numbers never supported it,” she said, referring to her dreams. “I’m from Compton. I’m a woman. I’m black. I never went to film school. The odds that I would be doing what I’m doing were infinitesimal.”
DuVernay didn’t hold back on tough topics, bringing up the University’s past experiences with racial tensions with the comment “I stand here before you as a filmmaker, as you stand on the edge of your future, in a place where in the past, it would never have been imagined by the founders of this institution that I would – or could – stand here and speak to you in this way.” She also told the crowd her journey gives her hope for the future of our world, saying, “What gives me hope… is the knowledge that there is precedent — precedent for everything that everyone is experiencing. To be hopeless is to disregard history.”
Benicio del Toro — Mercersburg Academy, May 27
Benicio del Toro, an ’85 graduate of the prep school, told the story of the road that led to his acting career and the many people who told him he was following a pipe dream, before prompting students to figure out their convictions and passions in order to find their real calling. “Everyone is going to draw lines for you, particularly when they think you should have achieved something or proved something or become something by a specific time. But it’s your job to reimagine these lines,” he said. “Don’t do something for trophies or medals,” he told graduates. “Do it because it will make your life better, or someone else’s. Don’t to it because it’s easy,” he said, before joking, “Even though I’ve done that before.”
“Try to understand where other people are coming from,” urged, referencing the many people who showed concern for him on his path to becoming an actor. “As the Native American saying goes ‘To know a man walk a mile in his shoes.”
Del Toro pulled from the work of American painter Mary Rogers to direct students to look within before listening to the voices around them. “Mary said that every human being has a song in their head and that it lingers in the back of our minds. She talked about letting that song sing to us,” he said. He also recalled the contributions that young people are currently making in society and lauded this generation for having the courage to see themselves as leaders.
Hilary Swank — Savannah College of Art and Design, June 1
Hilary Swank, who took flak for being a “high-school dropout” while promoting her film Freedom Writers back in 2007, delivered a commencement speech upon also receiving an honorary doctorate from the Savannah College of Art and Design on June 1.
Swank spoke to new graduates about paying attention to what lights you up, saying “I knew I wanted to be an actor when I was 8 years old. My favorite teacher had us write a skit and perform it in front of the class. When I was up there, I felt time stand still, and every cell of my body came alive. News alert: When you feel something like this in your life, pay attention. It’s the universe telling you you’re onto something.”
She also explained that she believes her achievements were the mere results of staying true to four guiding lights:
“One, make a choice and then make it happen… Every. Single. Day. Sometimes, that means getting out of your own way, whatever that might be: your mindset, a fear, a seeming obstacle, a ‘setback’ …whatever. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, who you’ve been or where you are now. All that matters is that you make choices every single day to work towards your dream.
“Two, inevitably, the universe is going to throw some very ugly curveballs at you. No matter what they look like, never assume any of them are bad… Be on the look out for the opportunities that are about to present themselves.
“Three, ignore what everyone else is doing or what society is telling you to do. Don’t let anyone tell you ‘how’ something needs to be done for you to achieve your goals — including me! Don’t worry about how fast or slow you’re going compared to others. Speed doesn’t matter. It’s how present you are in each moment that matters. There are a million different paths to your end goal. Any path you choose will likely be long and full of ups and downs, so choose the one that brings you the most joy and makes you feel most alive. And then pursue that goal with all the grit, passion and determination you can muster. And whatever you do, don’t ever give up.
“And fourth — and this is the most important one — remember that none of your goals are worth anything if you lose perspective on your humanity. At the end of it all, when you’re lying on your deathbed, what matters most is who’s around you and that you’re able to take comfort in the fact that you moved through life with grace, kindness and integrity.”
Upcoming addresses scheduled:
Mayim Bialik — UCLA, June 15
Sterling K. Brown — Stanford University, June 17