7 of the Best Celebrity Commencement Speeches of All Time

7 of the Best Celebrity Commencement Speeches of All Time

Mathilde Frot

Updated November 30, 2023 Updated November 30

Last week, Donald Trump delivered his first commencement speech as President before the Liberty University class of ‘17 in Virginia. Needless to say, folks weren’t all that impressed. So we thought we’d take a look at some of the best celebrity commencement speeches that aren’t just - believe it or not - 1) monosyllabic words 2) comments about the size of the crowd or 3) attacks against the press and “pathetic” haters.

1. Michelle Obama at City College of New York in 2016

In her last commencement address as First Lady, Michelle Obama celebrated diversity, immigration and warned against the dangers of racial prejudice, populism and fascism.

Best passage: “And, graduates, it’s the story that I witness every single day when I wake up in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my 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 who came here to America for the same reasons as many of you: to get an education and improve his prospects in life.”

2. Robert de Niro at New York University in 2015

Addressing graduates of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2015, Robert De Niro encouraged students to pursue their artistic dreams despite job insecurity and rejection.

Best passage: “You’re a dancer, a singer, a choreographer, a musician, a filmmaker, a writer, a photographer, a director, a producer, an actor, an artist. Yeah, you’re fucked. The good news is that that’s not a bad place to start. Now that you’ve made your choice, or rather succumbed to it, your path is clear.”

3.Jim Carrey at Maharishi University of Management in 2014

In a heartfelt address to Maharishi University of Management's class of 2014, Jim Carrey spoke at length about how the example his father set motivated him to serve the world through laughter and urged graduates to let themselves be guided by love.

Best passage: “When I was about 28, after a decade as a professional comedian, I realized one night in LA that the purpose of my life had always been to free people from concern, just like my dad. When I realized this, I dubbed my new devotion: the Church of Freedom from Concern, the Church of FFC. And I dedicated myself to that ministry. What’s yours? How will you serve the world? What do they need that your talent can provide? That’s all you have to figure out.”

4. Sacha Baron Cohen at Harvard University in 2004

Appearing before Harvard's Class of 2004 in the persona of rapper Ali G, Sacha Baron Cohen’s commencement speech was… somewhat risqué.

Best passage: “Mr Ali G has dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge and truth. As an interviewer, his ability to ask the hard questions has put him on the same level as Ed Bradley, Diane Sawyer and the much esteemed Arsenio Hall.”

5. David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005

Appearing before Kenyon College’s Class of 2005, the late novelist David Foster Wallace spoke about the perils of unconscious “default-setting” thoughts and beliefs and urges students to take charge of their own intellectual, emotional and spiritual lives in their lifelong search for meaning, compassion and freedom. Read a full transcript of his speech here.

Best passage: “That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

6. J.K. Rowling at Harvard University in 2011

Delivering her speech to Harvard University’s class of 2011, the bestselling author of the Harry Potter series discussed the benefits of failure and the vital importance of imagination.

Best passage: “So, given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two.”

7. Ellen DeGeneres at Tulane University in 2009

Addressing Tulane University’s class of 2009, the beloved comedian and host of The Ellen DeGeneres Show looks back on her hard beginnings, when she was still down and out and grieving the death of her girlfriend, and advises grads to remain true to themselves.

Best passage: “My point is that, by the time I was your age, I really thought I knew who I was but I had no idea. Like for example, when I was your age, I was dating men. So what I’m saying is, when you’re older, most of you will be gay. Is anybody writing this stuff down? Parents?”

This article was originally published in May 2017 . It was last updated in January 2020

Written by

I'm originally French but I grew up in Casablanca, Kuala Lumpur and Geneva. When I'm not writing for QS, you'll usually find me sipping espresso(s) with a good paperback.

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