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14 Best Celebrity Commencement Speeches

From Will Ferrell to Oprah Winfrey to David Foster Wallace, these speakers deftly sent graduates out into the world

Will Ferrell Harvard Commencement

Will Ferrell at Harvard in 2003

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Whether or not certain musicians, actors, politicians and entrepreneurs have completed college, they’re often asked to deliver commencement speeches at small liberal-arts schools, state colleges and prestigious Ivy league institutions alike. If they accept, their task is simple: Convey a message of  humor, pathos, wisdom and humility, and above all, use this opportunity to collect an honorary diploma in case they need something to fall back on.

As the nation’s collective Class of 2014 collects their diplomas, we’ve selected a handful of celebrity orations from the previous 20 graduation years that  have made us giggle, tear up or want to go get ’em. −By Kenny Herzog

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Bono, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2004

Tone: Self-deprecating, incendiary.
Theme: Don't take yourself too seriously, but never underestimate your potential to change the world.
Key Quote: "I'm not a hippy. I do not have flowers in my hair. I come from punk rock. The Clash wore army boots, not Birkenstocks. I believe America can do this. I believe that this generation can do this. In fact, I want to hear an argument about why we shouldn't."

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Stephen Colbert, Northwestern University, Class of 2011

Tone: Expectedly sarcastic, sneakily reflective and hopeful.
Theme: Don't get so caught up in ambition that you forget to be decent and unselfish.
Key Quote: "No more winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others and hopefully find those who love and serve you in return."

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Bill Cosby, Temple University, Class of 2013

Tone: Good-natured, imploring.
Theme: A degree is not the means to an end, and you'll be up against stiff competition, so get serious and make something of yourself.
Key Quote: "Get out, get a job. For God's sake, get a job." 

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Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane University, Class of 2009

Tone: Daffy, matter-of-fact.
Theme: There is no better voice to listen to than the one inside yourself.
Key Quote: "When I was your age, I was dating men. So what I'm saying is, when you're older, most of you will be gay."

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Will Ferrell, Harvard University, Class of 2003

Tone: Loony, subversive.
Theme: Don't forget to laugh, especially at yourself. And remember, we're all dust in the wind. 
Key Quote: "Many of you will go on to stellar careers and various pursuits. And four of you—and I'm not at liberty to say which four —will go on to star in the porno industry."

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Steve Jobs, Stanford University, Class of 2005

Tone: Cautionary, melancholy.
Theme: We'll all die one day, but the point of our short life is how we live it. 
Key Quote: "All external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure − these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important."

billy joel

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Billy Joel, Berklee College of Music, Class of 1993

 Tone: Introspective, menschy.
Theme: Being a musician is a privileged calling and noble occupation.
Key Quote: "Being a musician is not something you chose to be, it is something you are, like tall or short or straight or gay. There is no choice. Either you is or you ain't."

(A full transcription of the speech is available here.)

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Barack Obama, Wesleyan University, Class of 2008

Prevailing Tone: Hopeful, serious, Kennedy-esque.
Theme In a Nutshell: Change and progress don't happen overnight, but everyone can, and should feel obligated to, make even the smallest contribution toward a better humanity.
Key Quote: "All it takes is one act of service, one blow against injustice, to send forth that tiny ripple of hope."

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Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth College, Class of 2011

Tone: Relentlessly witty, generous.
Theme: You will fail, and it will be the best thing that ever happened to you. Eventually.
Key Quote: "At Harvard, five different guys told me that they would one day be President of the United States. Four of them were later killed in motel shoot-outs." 

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Amy Poehler, Harvard University, Class of 2011

Tone: Pop-culture literate, practical.
Theme: No one gets great at anything alone, all fears are both valid and conquerable, and as long as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is toppling movie villains, everything will be OK. 
Key Quote: "Would it kill you to be nicer to your parents? They have sacrificed so much for you, and all they want you to do is smile and take a picture with your weird cousins."

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Aaron Sorkin, Syracuse University, Class of 2012

Tone: Down-to-earth, anecdotal.
Theme: As an educated young adult, your greatest responsibility isn't to your boss, but to yourself and to the world.
Key Quote: "I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups, but the screw-ups, they're a-coming for ya. It's a combination of life being unpredictable and you being super dumb."

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David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, Class of 2005

Tone: Bracing, laureate-like.
Theme: We can learn a lot by deeply considering not only our own, but other peoples' experiences and points of view, and from being just a little less righteous and self-absorbed.
Key Quote: "If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable."

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Brian Williams, George Washington University, Class of 2012

Tone: Humble, sly.
Theme: This world is what you make it, not what any one person or previous generation tells you it's doomed or destined to be.
Key Quote: "Don't forget that by being here today you have now achieved something I was not able to achieve."

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Oprah Winfrey, Spelman College, Class of 2012

Tone: Authoritative, lyrical.
Theme: Find empowerment in spirituality and self-possession, rather than letting our societal roles define us. And don't be lazy.
Key Quote: "Let excellence be your brand."