Commentary: Words to live by, from the commencement podium

Grads applaud at Morristown High commencement, June 21, 2018. Photo by Alexandra Fisher
Grads applaud at Morristown High commencement, June 21, 2018. Photo by Alexandra Fisher


By Linda Stamato

It’s that time of year again for the special days known, variously, as commencement, convocation, or graduation.

It’s a moving-forward occasion, and those who are assembled for the moment get a lot of advice and, sometimes, some wisdom. Humor is needed and appreciated as well.

I’ve been to many and even delivered a few addresses myself. I’ve saved some of those, delivered by others, that I found worth keeping.

Two years ago, it was Roxane Gaye, the New York Times Work Friend advice columnist, at the Douglass College Convocation:

Today, we are holding a commencement. A celebration. Both an ending and a beginning…Pundits like to call debates about the issues that shape the course our lives, culture wars, as if who we are, who we love, how we hope to live, are merely matters of, well, choice. In a sense, I suppose we are at war, because those of us who are marginalized are constantly fighting for our lives…Our futures are at stake.

Roxane Gay, center, at Douglass College convocation in 2022. Photo courtesy of Linda Stamato

A nice contrast from Taylor Swift, speaking to the graduates of New York University in 2022:

In your life, you will inevitably misspeak, trust the wrong person, underreact, overreact, hurt the people who didn’t deserve it, overthink, not think at all, self-sabotage, create a reality where only your experience exists, ruin perfectly good moments for yourself and others, deny any wrongdoing, not take the steps to make it right, feel very guilty, let the guilt eat at you, hit rock bottom, finally address the pain you caused, try to do better next time, rinse, repeat.

On, next, to President Barack Obama, at Howard University, in 2016:

Change is the effort of committed citizens who hitch their wagons to something bigger than themselves and fight for it every single day.

And, again, in 2016, at Rutgers, here is the former president, starting with much welcome humor:

I come here for a simple reason — to finally settle this pork roll vs. Taylor ham question.   I’m just kidding. There’s not much I’m afraid to take on in my final year of office, but I know better than to get in the middle of that debate.

The truth is, Rutgers, I came here because you asked. Now, it’s true that a lot of schools invite me to their commencement every year. But you are the first to launch a three-year campaign: Emails, letters, tweets, YouTube videos. I even got three notes from the grandmother of your student body president.  And I have to say that really sealed the deal.

That was smart, because I have a soft spot for grandmas.

So I’m here, off Exit 9, on the banks of the Old Raritan — — at the site of one of the original nine colonial colleges. Winners of the first-ever college football game. One of the newest members of the Big Ten. Home of what I understand to be a Grease Truck for a Fat Sandwich. Mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers on your cheesesteaks –I’m sure Michelle would approve.

You can watch Obama’s entire talk here. Switching now to a Wellesley graduate, Nora Ephron, whose words I find especially appealing because, in one way or another, they characterize the spirit of those who attended women’s colleges, as I did:

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.

Martin Luther King Jr. delivered many graduation speeches, of course, but this one on social change, poverty, and brotherhood, at Springfield College, always gets to me, and, not only to me, evidently, as this phrase from it lives on:

We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.

A segue to Molly Ivins. Infamous, to some, beloved by many, Ivins was a newspaper columnist, author, political commentator, and humorist. She made Texas her home and the target of her good-humored vitriol. She was a sought-after speaker at graduation events. In this sample, you can see why:

Now, I have three pieces of advice for you out of my very own life experience. Ready? First, raise hell—big time. I want ya’ll to get out there and raise hell about damned near everything. ..There is a world out there that needs fixing. Get out there and get after it!

..You will be, most of you, citizens of this country your entire life. That is a second job and it’s a job that requires real responsibility.

…We are all of us collectively the heirs to the most magnificent political tradition any people has ever received. ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men (and women) are created equal, that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We hold that governments are instituted among men to secure these rights and that whenever any government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.’

Those principles are so profoundly revolutionary that they still echo with great force around the world after more that 200 years. And in this country we are in some danger of throwing away that entire legacy out of boredom, and cynicism and inanition. And I hear constantly people say, ‘Well, I really just don’t care much for politics; ‘Ah well, they’re all crooks, there’s nothing I can do.’ People have a million reasons for not getting involved. The thing is, you can’t back out of it, it’s not your choice. You can’t look at politics in this country as though it were a television program, or a picture on a wall that you could stand back and look at and decide whether or not you liked it.

Apple’s co-founder, Steve Jobs, was confronting his own mortality when he delivered his thoughts to Stanford University’s graduating class in 2005:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

The Nigerian-born author and MacArthur Fellowship winner, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke to Wellesley College graduates in 2015:

Do not twist yourself into shapes to please. Don’t do it. If someone likes that version of you, that version of you that is false and holds back, then they actually just like that twisted shape, and not you. And the world is such a gloriously multifaceted, diverse place that there are people in the world who will like you, the real you, as you are.

The indomitable darling of Bernardsville, and former member of the United State House of Representatives, Millicent Fenwick, delivered a commencement address at Kent Place School in Summit when my daughter graduated and we have yet to fail to recall her wisdom:

Whatever you choose to do in life, whether you produce works of art, or lead companies, engage in political advocacy, or attend to your garden…get so involved in what you are doing, so committed to it, that you skip lunch.

My contribution, at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University, two years ago:

We end an unprecedented year, one in which we faced a deadly epidemic that set off an economic downturn leaving millions without jobs; we heard anguished cries for racial justice and barely managed to secure our fragile democracy during a presidential election that laid bare the divides in our society, with one side of that divide challenging the very integrity of the vote.

And, we experienced an assault on the very citadel of our democracy, the U.S. Capitol building…When Congress recovered, it met to accept the Electoral College results, ending the challenge to the legitimacy of the incoming president.

We may breathe a collective sigh of relief but as we face the beginning of a new year, it’s clear our work is cut out for us.

Linda Stamato, left, at a convocation at the Rutgers Edward J. Bloustein School. Her colorful garb identifies a tribe in Africa, and was a gift from students from the Educational Opportunity Fund when Stamato was dean of Douglass College. Photo courtesy of Linda Stamato

And, close to last, a transition to the poet and global citizen, Ai Weiwei, exiled from his native China, as he fought for freedom for its citizens. He irradiates with righteousness, and seems to echo much of what we hear today in the United States:

Destroying history—books, maps, papers, photographs and more—forever ‘impoverishes imaginings of family, community, society’

as he tells why he holds to his

commitment to reason, to a sense of beauty—these things are unbending, uncompromising, and any effort to suppress them is bound to provoke resistance.

Never forget that under a totalitarian system cruelty and absurdity go hand in hand.

He admonishes those who “learn submission before they have developed an ability to raise doubts and challenge assumptions.”

And, in yet another striking blow:

Civil society poses a challenge to autocracy, and therefore, in the eyes of our rulers, it is an object of fear….The Chinese government, accordingly, seeks to erase individual space, suppress free expression, and distort our memory.

We too need to remember, and it seems fitting to close with, the words of the remarkable Barbara Jordan. These words, delivered in July 1976, in her keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, appeared in several commencement talks. I give “the original text” here:

A spirit of harmony will survive in America only if each of us remembers…when bitterness and self-interest seem to prevail, that we share a common destiny.


Linda Stamato is the Co-Director of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. She is a Faculty Fellow there as well. Active in the Morristown community, she serves on the trustee board of the Morristown and Morris Township Library Foundation and is a commissioner on the Morristown Parking Authority.

Opinions expressed in commentaries are the authors’, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

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  1. I thought it befitting to add to this column that despite closing a period of a students academic career, graduation is referred to as commencement as it is thought to be the beginning of a scholar’s ability to instruct others. I think the message from all the distinguished speakers above reflect some level of “get out there and be somebody”, but Im surprised you didn’t recall one of the more famous commencement speeches of recent history….Admiral William McRaven’s speech from his University of Texas at Austin in 2014. He went on to publish “Make Your Bed” and it became at NYT #1 best seller. It crushes internet traffic with more than 50 million views. The one point I’d like to focus on is not the first, “Make your bed” to have a sense of task completed, but one of the points later in the list “be your best, even in the darkest moments”. I think there is a lot of insight to those words today.