Commencement speakers are tasked with a tall order: Give memorable, life-changing advice to college graduates—all in one short speech.
A great commencement speech reminds students that their purpose in life is to “love and lead, teach and serve, chase a dream, find a calling, make a family, know oneself,” Daniel Porterfield, then-president of Franklin and Marshall College, wrote for the Washington Post in 2016.
In my dream graduation ceremony, playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda delivers the address—and an impromptu In the Heights performance. Miranda’s work on Broadway celebrates experiences that many soon-to-be grads know well, like being low-income, a minority, first-generation, or an immigrant.
I can easily imagine how Miranda’s warmth and humor would quiet those graduation-day jitters and rally students around the classic Hamilton motto: stay young, scrappy, and hungry.
But choosing—and landing—the right commencement speaker can be difficult.
I asked a few of our higher ed experts who they want to hear deliver a commencement address. Their recommendations range from a comedian, to a chef, to a Supreme Court justice.
Read their picks below.
Leslie Jones, writer and cast member of Saturday Night Live (SNL)
Ann Forman Lippens, Practice Manager
Alma Mater: Harvard University
For the non-SNL fans out there, Leslie Jones quickly became the reason to watch the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. She is a congenial, unabashed comedian with a wide-ranging Instagram account (if you need workout inspiration, Leslie’s your girl). In a campus and political environment where tensions are often running high, Jones would undoubtedly deliver a message that reminds us all that there are still things to look forward to in the real world—like the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Julia Child, chef
Kristin Tyndall, Senior Editor, EAB Daily Briefing
Alma Mater: Mercer University
Julia Child succeeded in a number of male-dominated fields—she was not only America’s first celebrity chef, but also a researcher in the agency that eventually became the CIA. The attitude she brought to cooking is an excellent one for life in general: Have fun, make mistakes, and stop worrying whether you measure up to someone else’s standards.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
Emily Arnim, Senior Staff Writer
Alma Mater: Washington & Lee University
Not only is Ruth Bader Ginsburg a feminist icon, but she is also a voice of tolerance and resilience. Her story would inspire graduates across the country to persist and follow their dreams.
The authors Toni Morrison and David Sedaris; Bill McKibben, an environmental activist; and Gillian Welch, a singer-songwriter. – submitted by Bill Diskin, director of admission and financial aid at Canon School