06/24/2019 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

The Beginning of the Rest of Their Lives

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Garnering the attention of graduating students is always a challenge for commencement speakers — since the audience is primarily itching to get their diplomas and head off to celebrate their accomplishments with family and friends. But every year, without fail, there are those speakers who find a way to cut through the noise to grab the attention of students — and, indeed, the rest of us.

Here are a few from this year’s crop of commencement speakers that stood out for us.

Robert F. Smith — Morehouse College

Without question, the most talked about graduation speech this year was Robert F. Smith’s at Morehouse College. The billionaire investor promised the graduates that he’d pay off the entire class of 2019’s student loans — a pledge that drew looks of shock and then cheers, and has since spun off a flurry of commentary on the problem of college tuition debt. While we are impressed with Smith’s generosity, we also side with those who point out that the solution to college debt needs to be addressed at the state and federal level. It will be interesting to check in with this year’s Morehouse graduates in, say, a decade, to see what effect this debt relief has had on their lives and careers. By then, perhaps we’ve also found a formula that will make college far more affordable for the vast majority of families.

Sonia Sotomayor — Manhattan College

Returning to The Bronx where she grew up in one of the poorest neighborhoods, Justice Sotomayor spoke of the power of education to not only improve one’s financial status, but also “to touch minds and hearts, to help students lead lives of meaning and purpose.” Addressing the question of whether it was still worth pursuing a college degree, given the rising cost of college, Sotomayor noted studies that make it clear that a college degree today remains an economically wise choice. But what all of this economic data misses, she added, “is that education has a more important value than money. Education expands your knowledge and ability to engage with the world,” she said. “Education helps you think critically, to argue persuasively, and to think about things from many different perspectives.” All of this not only helps us lead fuller lives, she noted, it also brings about a better world.

Oprah Winfrey — Colorado College

“I’m here to tell you that you actually do get to transform the world every day by your actions. Small steps lead to big accomplishments,” Oprah said in her patented Oprah confidence. She urged the graduates to show up every day — make careful and wise choices, volunteer, speak up, vote, and engage. She also handed each graduate a copy of her most recent New York Times bestseller, “The Path Made Clear: Discovering Your Life’s Direction and Purpose.”

Bryan Stevenson — University or Pennsylvania

Given that Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, is one of our favorite writers and champions of justice in America, we’re always thrilled to hear that he is delivering the commencement speech somewhere each year. But this year’s speech at the University of Pennsylvania is particularly important, given that his brother, Howard Stevenson, teaches at the university’s graduate school of education. Bryan Stevenson’s speech echoes one we’ve heard earlier from him, but it’s also one we’re glad he offers to as many audiences as possible. It is nothing less than a four-part prescription for aligning the nation with its core beliefs. Ultimately, Stevenson said, “You will be judged by the help you provide to the poor, the neglected, the incarcerated and the disfavored.” As the Philadelphia Citizen wrote in response to this year’s speech: “Is there anything more important to tell new grads than that?”

John Krasinski — Brown University

The actor John Krasinski, perhaps best known for his role on the American version of The Office, is a graduate of Brown University (2001). So his Baccalaureate address to Brown’s Class of 2019 was a kind of homecoming for him. Being an actor, he couldn’t help but ham it up, but his reflections on what a degree from Brown meant to him is valuable in an era in which we focus too much on grades and other outward measures of accomplishment. His classroom experience was excellent, he said, but equally important was the community of people he found — a community that pushed him to reinvent himself, to dig deep into what it means to get an education, to learn not out of necessity but out of love. His insights into how to understand, use and manage fear is also an valuable message for graduates facing a world in great flux and uncertainly.

David Brooks — University of New Hampshire

David Brooks likes to lead his annual commencement speeches with subtle and biting humor. “First my generation gives you a mountain of debt,” he said, “then we give you career-derailing guidelines that will prevent you from every paying it off.” His true goal here, however, is to counter the traditional commencement speech content (the follow-your-passion advice) and offer something more patently Brooks. Don’t ask, “What do I want from life?” The right question, he said, is “What does life ask of me?” Or more specifically, “What is the defining challenge facing my generation and what is my responsibility in meeting that challenge?” What makes Brooks’s speech stand out is that he doesn’t address the obvious issues of the day — global warming, inequality, gun violence, etc. Rather, he describes the key challenge as “the crisis of connection, the crisis of social fragmentation. Like a lot of countries, the United States is divided, lonely and angry.” Pointing out that an increasingly low number of Americans say they are proud to be an American (34% of Millennials), he charged the graduates and their generation with remaking American into a more trusting, socially conscious and connected nation. The formula for success starts with a needed shift in values to be less individualistic, more communal; less cognitive, more emotional; less utilitarian, more moral.

Genesis Noelia De Los Santos Fragoso — Harvard University

We include Genesis Noelia De Los Santos Fragoso on the list because we know one of her high school English teachers well — and are thrilled to see an independent school graduate (from Meadowbrook School, MA) deliver one of this year’s student commencement speeches at Harvard. Genesis titled her piece “Just Off the Orange Line,” a reference to the housing project outside of Boston where she grew up. This is a short, but beautiful speech drawing parallels between the community bonds at home and at college — and the power and complexity of community life. It’s also a broader call for us all to care for the world as we would our families and communities. It reminds us of another excellent essay by Rebecca Solnit — underscoring the importance of collective action and support.

Michael Bloomberg — Washington University

Bloomberg actually spoke twice this commencement season — to the graduates of his alma mater, Washington University, and to the graduates of Harvard’s Business School. The message to both groups focused directly to the intersection of the anxiety of our times and the capitalist world that many of the graduates of are about to enter. “More and more Americans — especially in your generation — are questioning whether capitalism is capable of creating a just society,” he said at Harvard. “Their faith in America and all that we represent is being shaken. If we do not act to restore it, the turmoil in our politics today will be only a prelude of what’s to come, and that could shake the very foundations of our society.” For the sake of the future of the country and the world, he said, we need to reject those who traffic in dishonesty and deceit. “Being ethical does not require a master’s degree,” he said. “It requires having a conscience and following it.”

Tony Balis — The Humanity Initiative

Tony Balis didn’t deliver a commencement speech this year. Rather, he wrote a commentary piece offering advice to commencement speakers in advance of their 2019 speeches. Given that Balis is president of the Humanity Initiative, a nonprofit focused on “encouraging people to understand this planet as our common home,” it’s not surprising that he encouraged speakers to highlight our environmental issues. “The context for a graduation speech has changed severely,” he writes. “The reason is precise and unavoidable: if humanity cannot create and agree on solutions to our urgent air, water, food and land crises, graduates may well spend their lives in constant struggle, bereft of most blessings now considered ‘normal.’ ”

Balis also references excellent commencement speeches by novelist Toni Morrison, environmentalist Paul Hawken, and noted biologist E.O. Wilson. But we’re glad he also mentions the efforts of Parkland High School students to push for gun control legislation and Sweden’s Greta Thunburg’s efforts to challenge adult’s to take greater action on behalf of the planet (see our blog piece on Greta).

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