My Last Commencement Speech
(Editor’s note: Although we often think of May as our time of commencement, most of our institutions also offer a December graduation that coincides nicely with the time of renewal on the calendar. It seemed appropriate, then, to end 2015 with a few words of advice on how to give a great commencement speech.)
“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.”
In 2007, professor Randy Pausch presented what he titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” in the “My Last Lecture” series at his university, Carnegie Mellon. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer only a month earlier and had only a few more months to live. With amazing optimism and energy, he gave this lecture to focus on what had been most important in his life: his dreams and his satisfying hard work. He wanted to inform and inspire his students and colleagues so they too would continue to dream and work to find joy in life. His inspirational message led many colleges and universities to establish “My Last Lecture” series to give faculty opportunities to follow Pausch’s example and develop a lecture that summed up the best of their academic careers and the most important things they had learned about life.
Most academic leaders—deans, provosts, and presidents—give many commencement addresses and “farewells to graduates” over the course of their careers. If you had one last opportunity to give such a talk, what would you say to the graduates? How would you organize your speech? I have given many such talks and have just retired from 44 years of service in the same college. I continue to give occasional presentations when asked, so I wonder when my final opportunity will occur.
Like many of you academic leaders, I have developed some techniques and concepts that guide my own commencement speeches and farewells to graduates. Here are some of my ideas, ones I would follow if I had one last chance to say something that college graduates would remember. Perhaps they may be useful to you as you think about your next (if not final!) such talk to your graduates.
Work to capture the students’ wandering attention at the outset.
- Introduce yourself in a memorable fashion. I might say, “I am your provost. If you don’t know what a provost is, you can look it up on Google. One definition says ‘keeper of the jail,’ another says ‘a high-ranking college administrator,’ but the one I like best says ‘like the superintendent of a cemetery; both have a lot of people under them but none of them are listening.’” What, fellow academic leader, makes you worth listening to?
- Say you will be brief. A wise colleague once told me that any speech on any occasion on any subject by any speaker can be improved by making it shorter. What can you leave out of your commencement address?
- Don’t just SAY you will be brief— actually BE brief. Then introduce your message.
Reach for the stars
The message at the heart of your talk is critical. Of course, you can always go to the tried and true, like the two themes mentioned above: dream and work. If you choose those themes, be not only brief but also interesting, and illustrate those themes with something personal. Here is what I might include in a message to graduates should I choose to focus on those common themes.
Reach for the stars. Whatever you do and wherever you go, remember that you take the education you received here with you. As you figure out what life holds for you—and you for it—aim high. As futurist Joel Barker advised, “Do not mistake the edge of your rut for the horizon.” We hope you will become a star. As you contemplate that destiny, reflect on these wise sayings:
- “Not all dreamers are winners, but all winners are dreamers. Your dream is the key to your future. The Bible says that ‘without a vision (dream), a people perish.’ You need a dream if you’re going to succeed in anything you do.” –Mark Gorman
- “Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.” –Louisa May Alcott
- •“Aim higher in case you fall short.” –Suzanne Collins
These are things to think about as you contemplate your future. What dreams encourage you to reach for the stars?
Work hard to achieve your dreams. Surely you have learned by now that success is not handed to you on a silver platter. As the saying goes, you must plan your work and work your plan. Benjamin Franklin noted, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”
In the world beyond college you will encounter people who outshine you in intelligence, personality, and good looks. Sad but true. But no one need outshine you in effort. Too many college graduates wake up to find their dreams have vanished into the morning mist. I hope you will consider these insights from the experience of others as you plan your work and work your plan:
- “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” –Henry David Thoreau
- “Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.” –Newt Gingrich
- “The reason a lot of people do not recognize opportunity is because it usually goes around wearing overalls looking like hard work.” –Thomas Edison
So there you have it: two simple imperatives—reach for the stars, and work hard to achieve your dreams. Dream it, plan it, do it. Let your dreams establish your priorities. Follow that star, and develop your vocational strategies for reaching it. Remember, as Yogi Berra would have assured you, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
My last commencement speech might advance those two ideas and support them with interesting quotations. But a novel message coming out of my own life experience would be even better. What has life taught you that is worth saying with conviction? Experience tells me graduates are much more likely to remember something that was personally important than the wisdom of the ages. Have your education and life experiences made you a better person, citizen, academic, professional? Share such personal wisdom with the graduates. In the process, replace any inclination to brag with genuine humility and gratitude. (If you are using an example from your athletic achievements, you might add, as I do, “The older I get, the better I was.”) That is something they will remember as they navigate the many challenges of their own continued growth.
I think the best way to conclude a commencement speech is with some practical and humorous advice of value to those graduates now going out to make a difference in the world, to succeed in something, to set goals, and to work to make them happen. Author Kurt Vonnegut once advised a graduating college class to floss and wear sunscreen. You can’t get more practical than that! I might finish with some practical but also humorous advice that I have gleaned from that wise academic Forrest Gump:
- “Nobody ever got in trouble by keeping his mouth shut.”
- “Dream, but don’t quit your day job.”
- “Don’t ever pick a fight with someone really ugly.”
- “If you are ahead, shut up and stay there.”
- “Do not park in a place that says ‘Reserved for sheriff’s deputies.’”
- “Always do the right thing, unless your conscience says otherwise.”
Oh, and here, students, is one more piece of practical advice by way of Jack Hill: “Eat a live toad first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day!” Graduates, you can forget about the live toad—but do try to do the right thing, unless your conscience says otherwise.
My last commencement speech on my way into retirement would be concise (shorter than the first draft), substantive (with only a couple of big ideas), and practical (with some humor to leaven the loaf). Further, I would try to make my remarks as personal as possible, knowing that this is my best chance that graduates will remember what I “say here.” Lincoln was famously wrong in predicting that his Gettysburg Address would not be long remembered; I would be happy to learn that my last commencement speech was remembered for at least a few days. I hope you have many opportunities to say something of value to graduates. It is one of the most important services an academic leader can provide to the next generation.
Thomas R. McDaniel was formerly a professor of education and senior vice president at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.