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Forget De Niro. Women killed it behind the podium this year. From Michelle O to Mary Karr, here are a few of our favorites

Pro tips

11 commencement speeches given by women this year that deserve an encore

By Kara Cutruzzula on May 29, 2015

So long, Class of 2015. You’re in for a wild ride. But who better to counsel the on-the-way-out youngs with thought-provoking, digestible tidbits of life advice than CEOs, authors, ambassadors, and a first lady? An estimated 1.85 million millenials are graduating this year; some of their commencement speakers delivered soaring lectures, others squeezed in more jokes than an Amy Schumer sketch, but unless your heart’s frozen over, at least a few of their carefully-chosen words should resonate. Relive the best philosophizing from 2015’s most inspired expressions.

Samantha PowerUniversity of Pennsylvania

Samantha Power. Getty Images
Samantha Power. Getty Images

The always candid U.S. ambassador to the U.N. (who shared the stage with Robin Wright at this year’s Women in the World Summit)  quoted Yeats, Shakespeare, and Ben Franklin during her address, admitting she’s “still training for a black belt in bureaucracy,” and said there are four ways to improve your odds of changing the world: “Act as if. Know something about something. Bring others along. And humanize your cause.”

“But see what happens if you act as if you – your little self – can narrow the massive achievement gap between our nation’s rich and poor public schools; maybe, if you set out to do that, if you “act as if,” you will find yourself helping tutor a girl in reading or math at the school down the block. See what happens if you act as if you can fight – you can fight – the epidemic of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo; maybe you will find yourself volunteering at an abuse hotline across town and offering comfort to someone who has no one else to talk to.”

Meredith Vieira, Boston University 

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Sometimes even TV journalists need a little help from their friends. During her speech on conformity, Vieira had a scene-stealing guest star: the infamous Left Shark from the Super Bowl.

“Remember last Super Bowl when the Patriots won? Yeah well, you may be thinking of Tom Brady’s deflated balls right now, but I’m thinking of Katy Perry’s halftime performance … She was on-stage dancing with two sharks. The shark on the right knew every dance move and performed perfectly. But it was the Left Shark, the one who went rogue and danced to his own crazy beat, who stole the show. So don’t ever be a conformist for convenience’s sake, or as Mark Twain put it, ‘Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.’”

Madeleine Albright, Tufts University 

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The former secretary of state began by noting she met one of her heroes, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, at this university back in the ‘60s, but that she never thought she’d be appointed to the same position. “It’s not that I lacked ambition; it’s just that I had never seen a secretary of state in a skirt.” She then challenged grads to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems.

“We must listen to those who argue that globalization should not lead to marginalization of the world’s poor. I have traveled almost everywhere, and I have found that there are essentially three categories of countries in the world today. In the first, people work all day and still don’t have enough to eat. In the second, families are able to scrape together just enough food to meet their basic needs. In the third category of countries, diet books are bestsellers. Of course, the same distinctions also apply to the neighborhoods of Boston and Baltimore, and to the mountains of Appalachia and the American West. Confronted with this hard truth, some people simply shrug their shoulders and say that such inequality is too bad, but there is not anything anyone can do about it. I say, such unfairness is intolerable, and we each have a responsibility to change it.”

Maya Rudolph, Tulane University 

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Of course the former Saturday Night Live star couldn’t face a crowd without cracking a few jokes, starting with her introduction: “I stand here humbled, gracious and completely naked under this robe.” She also snuck in her Oprah impression and encouraged grads to adopt the golden rule of improv comedy known as “Yes, And …”

“If I must give any of you advice it would be Say Yes. Say Yes, And … and create your own destiny. So hold on to your old friends. Kiss your Mama. Admit what your dreams are. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know what you’re gonna do tomorrow. But work hard and don’t be lazy. And put away your damn phone once in a while. And be nice to jerks because we still don’t know the criteria for getting into heaven yet.”

Michelle Obama, Tuskegee University 


Speaking at the historically black institution, the first lady touched on the racism faced by the early Tuskegee Airmen and criticism lobbed at her and her husband over the last eight years, before ultimately emphasizing that the past doesn’t define, but merely informs, the future.

“Our history provides us with a better story, a better blueprint for how we can win. It teaches us that when we pull ourselves out of those lowest emotional depths, and we channel our frustrations into studying and organizing and banding together — then we can build ourselves and our communities up. We can take on those deep-rooted problems, and together — together — we can overcome anything that stands in our way.”

Natalie Portman, Harvard University 


Even Oscar winners dig deep wells of self-doubt. Referencing her early, insecure days at the school and how she was faced with her own limitations after landing the lead role in Black Swan, the actress (and ’03 Harvard graduate) warned against transforming low self-confidence into an excuse to conform to others’ expectations.

“Accept your lack of knowledge, and use it as your asset … If your reasons are your own, your path, even if it’s a strange and clumsy path, will be wholly yours, and you will control the rewards of what you do by making your internal life fulfilling.”

Mellody Hobson, University of Southern California 


The DreamWorks Animation chairwoman wanted her crowd to return home with a three-word takeaway: “Just add bravery.” Hobson, who’s also the president of money management firm Ariel Investments, and is married to George Lucas (“People talk about soulmates; I met my mind’s friend,” she said of the director), likewise championed tolerance for others’ assumptions and achievements and offered a few creative equations.

“Hard work plus bravery equals success. However you define success, set your sights high … Be willing to speak up and stand out. I know firsthand that this can be very hard for women and minorities who are desperate to fit in. I’ve seen a lot of women hang back and say, ‘Tell me what you want me to be, and I’ll be it,’ when a better attitude is really, ‘This is who I am and I have value, and if you don’t like it, that’s fine, but this is who I am.’”

Mary Karr, Syracuse University 

Mary Karr. Photo via Facebook.
Mary Karr. Photo via Facebook.

The writer and poet held nothing back in her raw, revealing speech detailing her difficult childhood and adolescence, struggles with depression, and time spent in a mental institution. She read a poem and emphasized the need for understanding others. “Being smart and rich are lucky. But being curious and compassionate will save your ass.”

“Also for 30 years I’ve been afraid of not having a Ph.D. Now, the prospect of getting one has turned into the most successful gut wrenching weight loss program in history. That’s how fear works though, isn’t it? Getting what you want can often scare you more than not getting it. As a young grad student I worried like hell that I looked like a bimbo, now that I’m an old maid schoolteacher I worry that I don’t. My point being almost every time I was super afraid it was of the wrong thing. And stuff that first looked like the worst, most humiliating thing that could ever happen almost always led me to something extraordinary and very fine.”

Joyce Carol Oates, Niagara County Community College 

 Joyce Carol Oates. Thos Robinson/Getty Images
Joyce Carol Oates. Thos Robinson/Getty Images

The prolific author, who grew up nearby in western New York “in a rural household in which there were virtually no books,” told graduates to appreciate the cultural heritage of their hometowns and mused on the relationship between success and luck, and how to maintain persistence after rejection.

“Energy—industry—refusal to be discouraged—a prevailing sense of humor: these are essential in our lives. An attitude that goes beyond ambition into the realm of the spiritual, the uncharitable; what in boxing, as perhaps in other sports, is called “heart”— the indefinable core of an individual that declares I WILL NOT GIVE UP; I WILL PERSEVERE. Without ‘heart’ an athlete might have a professional career but he/she cannot be a great champion.”

Brooke Shields, FIT 

Brooke Shields. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for FIT
Brooke Shields. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for FIT

Saying she lost sleep over speaking in front of such a creatively intimidating group, the actress talked about how legendary photographer Richard Avedon set an example of not letting others impede your artistic vision, before name-checking another modern art master.

“Andy Warhol said this, he said: ‘It doesn’t matter how slow you go, so long as you don’t stop.’ In most of the things that I’ve done in my career, whether it’s Broadway or directing or writing memoirs or children’s books, I did them because other doors were closed to me. For me, success has been measured in longevity, and in an enduring career that has had both highs and lows. I simply refuse to give up. I went to where the opportunity did exist at the time. Your talent will fuel you. My point is: be fair to yourselves, please, with regards to how you view your achievements. And don’t be afraid to try things outside your comfort zone.”

Azar Nafisi, Claremont McKenna College 

Azar Nafisi/YouTube

The Reading Lolita in Tehran author and professor tweeted that she ditched her prepared speech at the last moment and decided instead to talk to the liberal arts college from her heart. Following the speech, she gave a moving interview about artistic creativity, empathy, and the comfortable dangers of politically correct thinking.

“As Atticus says in To Kill a Mockingbird, to know another person’s point of view, you have to get under his skin, and fictional art takes you under the skin of others not like you and you experience them as you experience yourself. One thing about being young is that other people try to define you, and I think the most important thing when you are young is to try to understand who you are and what you want in life. Go with that passion, that inner urge. Don’t listen to us elders telling you you’re crazy … The best things come out of us letting go and giving into our passion — and to define ourselves before other people start defining us.”