Commencement ceremonies from high schools and colleges have looked markedly different for the past year and a half. Parents aren’t seen straining to pick out their daughter or son from a sea of identical cap-and-gown-clad graduates. The solemn program on stage hasn’t been interrupted by the sudden appearance of a bouncing beach ball. Silly String wars are less likely to break out, fewer air horn blasts pierce the crowd, and those fortunate enough to graduate in a live ceremony don masks in addition to their caps and gowns.
But the commencement speeches from both celebrities, dignitaries, and graduating seniors themselves were a poignant reflection of the realities of the world we are living in today. Here is a selection of speeches that offer a call from those who’ve been fighting for justice and equity and a response from fresh graduates in sober recognition of the work left to be done.
1. John Legend, Duke University, Watch it here
“Over the past year, you were forced to pause. Not just in competition with one another, but in community with each other. Anyone getting sick was a risk to everyone. We all had to slow down. Stop filling our days with maximum productivity and simply keep each other, safe, alive, simply care for one another. And this perspective you gained will serve us all, because while that competitive drive that got you here can be an incredible gift, it can get in the way too. Competitiveness can be a slippery slope. To think, ‘For me to get ahead in life, for me to succeed, someone else is going to have to lose out. Someone else will have to suffer.’ If you let that competitiveness take over, you might start to see life as a zero sum game. [Remember], our nation is at its best when we realize that we all do better, when we all do better.”
2. Bryan Stevenson, Civil Rights Attorney, Author, and Executive Founder of Equal Justice Initiative, University of Michigan, Watch it here
“It’s easy to be discouraged in this moment when we don’t even get to come together for something as significant and momentous as your commencement. But I have great hope, and that hope resides in you. I know that so many of you are deeply committed to finding a path forward and do something about the problems that have created so much division and despair. We’ve never needed more people committed to change in the world than we do today. It breaks my heart to have to tell you that you can be talented, you can be gifted, you can be on the Dean’s list, a scholar of the first order, but if you are black or brown you’re going to go to places where you’ll have to navigate a presumption of dangerousness and guilt. And that’s not right. It’s not fair. It needs to change. And because of that, we have to commit to an era of truth telling in this country. I tell you this because I believe there is something better waiting for us than racism, than exclusion, than bigotry. But to get there, we are all going to have to change the narrative.”
3. Valedictorian Emma Cockrum with her dog Hercules, East Ascension High School, Prairieville, LA, Class of 2020
Cockrum was inspired by Sol Rexius, a pastor at The Salt Company Church of Ames in Iowa. She says Rexius uses the analogy of a dump truck full of dirt being emptied all over their senior year. Here’s how she put it in her commencement address:
“This may sound harsh, but it’s not untrue to how some of us feel. It is easy to feel buried by our circumstances. However, he [the pastor] goes on to paint a picture of a farmer planting a seed. Did the farmer bury the seed? Well, yes, but he also planted it. Instead of feeling buried by our situation, we must realize that the pain and heartache that has been piled upon us is not meant to bury, but to plant us in a way that will allow us to grow and prosper into who we are meant to be. As you stop and take in the circumstances around you, will you allow yourself to be buried or to be planted?”
4. Valedictorian Kimani Ross with her family, Lake City High School, Lake City, SC, Class of 2020
“I’ve had people tell me that I don’t deserve to be where I am now, and that really made me contemplate, ‘Do I really deserve this? Should I just give up and let them win?’ But look at where I am now. I’m glad that I didn’t stop. I’m glad that I didn’t let them get to me.
I’m especially glad that I earned this position so that all of the other little girls around Lake City and surrounding areas can look and say that they want to be just like me. I want those little girls to know that they can do it even if no one else believes in them, I will always believe in them. Classmates, when we’re out in the real world, don’t get discouraged about the obstacles that will approach you. As Michelle Obama once said, you should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it is important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.
To all those who finished their studies and graduated during a global pandemic, I congratulate you for achieving this milestone forged under immense pressure. Your willpower has been proven irrevocable. Never forget that as long as you are unrelenting, you’re an unstoppable force.
Question: What advice would you give to those who graduated during the pandemic?
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