This year's top commencement speeches

Speeches ranged from motivational to political

In the Washington Post, Jena McGregor highlights some of the most powerful commencement speeches delivered this year. 

Below are the top picks, along with a standout passage from each speech.

William Foege, epidemiologist and former CDC director, Emory University, May 9:

Foege, who worked to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s, delivered a speech entitled "Lessons I am Still Desperately Trying to Learn." Foege shared 10 life lessons divided into "chapters" in a speech that he said took him 80 years to write.

Standout passage: "Every day we edit our obituaries. Sophocles said, 'It's not 'til evening that you may know how good the day has been.' And it's not until you get to be my age that you know how good a life has been. But consciously, daily edit your obituary so you realize that sooner. Edit with care and gusto."

Maria Popova, founder and author of Brain Pickings, Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, May 15:

The creator of the literary blog Brain Pickings, Popova delivered a speech rich in imagery and moving prose.

Standout passage: "You may find your fate forked by construction and destruction frequently, in ways obvious or subtle. And you will have to choose between being the hammer-wielding vandal, who may attain more immediate results—more attention—by tearing things and people and ideas down; or the sculptor of culture, patiently chiseling at the bedrock of how things are to create something new and beautiful and imaginative following a nobler vision, your vision, of how things can and should be."

Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state, Scripps College, May 14:

The choice to make Albright speaker was rife with controversy at Scripps. Some students and faculty criticized her diplomatic relations, as well as her comment that "there's a special place in hell" for women who don't help one another, in reference to supporting Hillary Clinton. Responding to the class valedictorian's reference to her comment, Albright said, "There is a special place in heaven for anyone who speaks truth to power."

Standout passage: "Truth can be a blunt instrument and, at times, a dangerous one. In some countries, even in our era, bearing witness to the abuse of authority can put truth-tellers in prison—or worse. It is also possible to be completely convinced that something is true and at the same time, completely wrong. There are people in our world today who are ready to die—or kill—for alleged truths that are grounded less on the validity of their insights than on the false certainty generated by their resentments and fears."

Lin-Manuel Miranda's commencement speech: 'Your stories are essential'

David Gergen, co-director of the Center for Leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Elon University, May 21:

A native of North Carolina, Gergen used his platform to discuss a new state law, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act (HB2), which has been widely criticized as discriminatory toward transgender people. 

How the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act could put universities' Title IX funds at risk

Standout passage: "I would like to depart from the tradition of showering you with personal advice. Instead, at the risk of offending some of you, I want to talk about the deepening concerns that I and many others have about the future of North Carolina, our beloved state. ... Enough is enough. For those of us who have stayed on the sidelines, it is time to stand up and be counted. It is time to raise our voices against this darkness. Indeed, it is time for fellow citizens of all stripes—white and black; young and old; native and newcomer; men, women and people of chosen gender, everyone—to join forces and preserve the best of who we are as a people. ... It is said that the arc of history bends toward justice. Indeed, it does, but it won't get there without a shove" (McGregor, Washington Post, 5/27). 


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