Higher Ed

10 Unexpected Commencement Speakers: Inspiration Then and Now

Parchment Staff  •  Jun 14, 2021  •  Blog


The past year has been difficult, particularly for graduates, most of whom spent their senior year sheltering in place, learning online, and participating in virtual commencement ceremonies, if any. This inspired us to take a look at a number (lots) of commencement speeches from years past (albeit in a slightly different way).

Common commencement speakers often include politicians, industry leaders, academics and educators, celebrities and entertainers, sports figures. The list goes on. However, this blog post is about the uncommon, those unusual, unexpected, and unlikely speakers who share inspiring messages that still resonate today.

Here are our featured speakers (in no particular order).


Amy Poehler, Harvard University 2011

“When you feel scared, hold someone’s hand and look into their eyes. And when you feel brave, do the same thing. You are all here because you are smart. And you are brave. And if you add kindness and the ability to change a tire, you almost make up the perfect person.”  More.


Dalai Lama, Tulane University 2013

“Now our hope is lying on your shoulders. Please think seriously on how to build a happy century, a peaceful century. Now you start your real life. In spite of difficulties, you must keep optimism and self-confidence. This is very important.”  More.


Dolly Parton, University of Tennessee 2015

“Dream more. Learn more. Care more. Be more. People will remember us for who we were, not how many records or money we made. A loving person is a caring person, and it’s hard to be better than that.”  More.


Elie Wiesel, Dartmouth 2006

“With all that I have gone through in life: I still have faith in humanity. You are now going into a world which is hounded, obsessed with so much violence, often so much despair. When you say the world is not good today. Correct it! That’s what you have learned here for four years from your great teachers. Tell them that the nobility of the human being cannot be denied.”  More.


Fred Rogers, Dartmouth College 2002

“Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space. Every one of us is a part of that jewel. A facet of that jewel. And in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal. We are intimately related. May we never even pretend that we are not. Love that conquers hate. Peace that rises triumphant over war. And justice that proves more powerful than greed.”  More.


JK Rowling, Harvard 2008
“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its most transformative and revelatory capacity, it’s the power that enables us to emphasize with humans whose experiences we have never shared. We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already. We have the power to imagine better.” More.


Neil Degrasse Tyson, University of Mass, Amherst 2015, Elon University 

“Science matters. Objective truths are true whether or not you agree with them. The universe is bigger than you are. We live in a world where everyone does not have the urge to help others. They tell people to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Just remember that some people have no boots.” More.


Ray Bradbury, CalTech 2000

“Right after graduation today, make a list of the people who don’t believe in you. And you call them tonight, and tell them to go to hell! Then you gather around you the people who do believe in you, your parents and a few friends, if you’re lucky, and then you move on into the future. The important thing in life is to follow your passion. Whatever it is, do it! Sure, there are going to be mistakes. I’ve written thousands of words that no one will ever see. But then I ‘ve written a lot of other stuff too.” More.


Stephanie Courtney (Progressive’s Flo), Binghamton College, 2015

“Failure is rampant but important. But those gaffes, those cringe-worthy moments, at best teach you how to be better, stronger, tougher, faster at whatever you want to do. And at the very least they make excellent dinner party stories.”  More.


More Inspo: Commencement Speeches from 1774 to 2015

By the way, the speakers featured in this piece came mostly from NPR’s “Best Commencement Speeches Ever” (2015), which shares 350+ speeches (searchable by name, school, date, or theme). Lots of inspiration here.


So, congratulations to the class of 2021! Parchment salutes you! You made it through unprecedented obstacles to get where you are. It was tough, but now you’re even more prepared for the next stage of your lives. Remember, you’re only limited by your imagination. 





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