For countless college graduates around the world it’s a time of excitement, stress and a world of opportunities opening up, as commencement ceremonies kick into high gear.

Whether students are excited about life as certified adults or nervous about their prospects, inspirational speeches and words of encouragement that come from the heart are more important than ever.

Don’t confuse what is legal with what is moral, because they are entirely different animals. So do the right thing, especially when nobody’s looking.

Oprah Winfrey

Whether it’s about pursuing your dreams, seizing the moment, embracing diversity, living with the power of the vote or simply using common-sense social media etiquette, here are the most important lessons delivered by this year’s star speakers.


Photo Credit: Kathy Hutchins /

1. Oprah Winfrey – University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

The queen of television and media encouraged graduates to embrace the power of voting and take active part in the country’s political life at all levels.

“People died for that right. I think about it every time I cast a vote, so don’t let their sacrifice be in vain,” Winfrey told an enraptured audience, adding stern warnings about living responsibly, being upstanding and being kind.

“You have no idea what your legacy will be, because your legacy is every life you touch. Pick a problem, any problem, and do something about it. Because to somebody who’s hurting, something is everything.”

2. Justin Trudeau – New York University

Entertaining a grand audience at New York’s Yankee Stadium, the Canadian Prime Minister urged graduates to avoid intellectual and opinion eco chambers: “Make a point of reaching out to people whose beliefs and values differ from your own. I would like you to listen – truly listen – and try to understand them and find that common ground.”

Retaining the themes of diversity, tolerance and acceptance, the Prime Minister spoke of all the valuable lessons that people can offer. “Your teachers will come from every station in life, every education level, every belief system, every lifestyle. I hope you will embrace that.”

3. Chance the Rapper – Dillard University

The Acid Rap author spoke of his icon – Michael Jackson, the man and persona who inspired his career. The musical legend who gave him life lessons he still carries with him: never setting any limitations to yourself and work hard.

The artist also encouraged his audience to push forward and persevere in the face of adversity, to ground one’s work in links to the past, but in a way that always build on it, improves it, changes it and expands it.

“The highest form of respect that we can pay to the people who came before is, the people who sacrificed for us and gave us everything, is to be better than them. Our parents, grandparents, ancestors sacrificed not so that we could keep doing the same thing that they were doing, but so that we can be better. To simply copy them would be almost an insult to their sacrifice.”

4. Nikki Haley – Clemson University

The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and Clemson alumni warned of the dangers of social media. The all-too-perfect lives it portrays, the envy it creates, and how it erases real life connection and expectations. And most importantly, the way social media interacts with gratitude – not just as a feeling, but as an intention and a guiding light.

“Gratitude as a determination to take the things that have benefitted us and pay them forward. The institutions, the ideas and the people. Gratitude is ensuring that they’re preserved, protected and passed onto others.”

5. Sarah Drew – University of Virginia

Actress and UVA alumni Sarah Drew knows one or two things about performing, whether it’s onstage, on social media or our private lives. Which is exactly why, she encouraged UVA graduates not to focus on the (often fake) image of ourselves we put in front of the world and online, but on our true selves and living our own lives.

“Who are we out of the spotlight, when we’re not performing for an audience?” she asked.  The former Grey’s Anatomy star also emphasized the importance of building strong communities – both for discovering ourselves and giving back to others. “We are not meant to live on our own private islands. We are a tribal species. We are built for community. And it is only in community where we uncover our true value and our deepest worth.”