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10 Best Commencement Speech Moments of 2017

Oprah, Hillary Clinton and Steve Van Zandt are some of the celebrities that helped send this year’s class into the real world

Graduation is a big deal, but as students across the country learned over the past few weeks, it’s maybe a bigger deal depending on who is giving the big commencement speech to help usher them into the real world. From Notre Dame students walking out on Vice President Mike Pence, Oprah
inspiring at Smith, Hillary returning to Wellesley and Robert De
Niro offering the classic line, “You’re graduating into a tragic, dumbass
comedy,” 2017 has offered up more than a few great college commencement moments. 

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Janelle Monae, Dillard University

“Helloooo, Dillard University!” Janelle Monae greeted the school’s spring grads last month. Dillard gave the singer and the star of Moonlight and Hidden Figures, two of 2016’s best films, an honorary degree. “On this day, graduates of 2017, the future,” Monae said, “I celebrate you as you remember the power of grace and pride, and I challenge you to choose freedom over fear.”

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Joe Biden, Colby College

Former vice president Joe Biden recently stood in front of a podium at Colby College and said that “this past election cycle churned up some of the ugliest realities in our country.” But he left the stage with a call to action for Colby’s graduating class. “All the polling data shows your generation is by far the most tolerant, the most capable, the most engaged of any generation in American history,” he said to the students. “But it also shows you don’t want to be engaged in politics. Overwhelmingly you don’t want to be engaged in the process.”

Then Biden leaned into the microphone. “You have to be. You have to be – for our own safety’s sake.”

Biden has stayed busy since his meme-worthy days as VP ended. In April, he also visited George Mason University and delivered a speech for the It’s On Us campaign. 

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Elizabeth Warren, UMass Amherst

The week before she addressed the Center for American Progress’ Ideas Conference in Washington, Elizabeth Warren spoke in front of a crowd at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in May. The senator kicked things off with jokes about “Elizabeth Warren’s Commencement Speech Drinking Game,” and, of course, Trump. “If you learn nothing else from this speech, please know this” she said, “Fireball is a nickname Donald Trump uses on Twitter, not a beverage to be consumed by distinguished college graduates.”

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Steve Van Zandt, Rutgers

Little Steven didn’t get up on stage to talk about playing shows or to promote his most recent solo record during his Rutgers’ commencement speech. “My generation was going to change the world,” Van Zandt told the audience. “We started some things. But you’ve got to finish them. We got civil rights and voting rights passed. Now gerrymandering and voter suppression is taking it away. We started women’s rights and LGBTQ rights; you’ve got to finish it. You’ve got separation of church and state behind you, but be aware the biggest threat to this country is religious extremists, some foreign, mostly domestic. We established environmental protection, and now the environment is under attack like never before. You know the future is green. I know the future is green. You’ve got to finish the job.”

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Notre Dame Students Leave During Mike Pence Speech

Forget the speaker – this one’s all about the students. Vice President Mike Pence spoke at Notre Dame earlier this month and, according to the New York Times, “several dozen” students peacefully protested by exiting the stadium to both applause and booing.

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Oprah Winfrey, Smith College

Oprah’s at your graduation, and your graduation, and your graduation and yours! You get a speech, you get a speech and you get a speech! The TV legend and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks actress recently spoke at Skidmore College, as well as Agnes Scott, and gave an inspiring address at Smith College, above. “Make it your intention to serve through your life with purpose – you will have a blessed life,” Winfrey said.

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Hillary Clinton, Wellesley College

Hillary Clinton headed back to her alma mater, Wellesley College, again to deliver its 2017 commencement address. “Now you may have heard things didn’t exactly go the way I’d planned,” said Clinton, who won the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, getting laughs from the crowd. “But you know what? I’m doing OK. I’ve gotten to spend time with my family, especially my amazing grandchildren. I was going to give the entire commencement speech about them but was talked out of it. Long walks in the woods. Organizing my closets, right? I won’t lie, chardonnay helped a little, too. But here’s what helped most of all: Remembering who I am, where I come from, and what I believe, and that is what Wellesley means to me.”

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Robert De Niro, Brown University

“Are you sure you want to do this?” De Niro asked Brown University students in May. Even if you’re not graduating, it’s a good question.

Later on, De Niro compared the times to movie genres. “In movie terms, when you started school, the country was an inspiring, uplifting drama. You’re graduating into a tragic, dumbass comedy.” 

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Bernie Sanders, Brooklyn College

While some commencement speakers decide to use metaphors about navigating this big, scary world or about the state of today’s society, Bernie got real and cut to the numbers at Brooklyn College’s celebration. “Today in America, CEOs are earning almost 300 times what the average worker makes. And in terms of income, while you and your parents are working in some cases two or three jobs, 52 percent of all new income generated today goes to the top one percent. Meanwhile, at the same time as we have more income and wealth inequality than any other nation, 43 million Americans live in poverty, half of older workers have nothing in the bank as they approach retirement, and in some inner cities and rural communities, youth unemployment is 20, 30, 40 percent.”

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