The Best Commencement Speeches to the Class of 2021

As graduation season comes to an end, many graduates are preparing to enter the working world for the first time in their lives. At ZipRecruiter, we spend a lot of time helping job seekers find their next great opportunity and sharing tips and how-tos on how to find jobs. (Find some of them here!

While resumes, networking, and interviews are a big part of the job search, so are words of motivation and inspiration. One area we’ve found those words are in this year’s college commencement speeches. Sure, they’re meant for graduates, but according to NBA legend and activist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “graduate” is a title that can apply to anyone:

“Life is an endless series of graduations, during which you feel the same anxious uncertainty, that roiling feeling in your stomach that you experience as the roller coaster goes up, up, up, anticipating curling over the top and the sudden, face-yanking plummet. Graduation is both thrilling and nerve-wracking.”

As new graduates, and everyone else, looks to the future, we hope these words stick with you.

Words of Boldness

One common theme this year was the importance of being bold and facing adversity head-on. Some might think that means not being afraid, but Carolina Contreras, an entrepreneur dedicated to social change and the Founder/CEO Miss Rizos Salon, disagreed: 

“You don’t have to be fearless, you just have to learn to do it afraid.”

Vina Venkataraman, Director of Global Policy Initiatives at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, elaborated on that idea:

“Look for heroes not on the silver screen or the pedestal or even at this podium — but at eye level and within reach: the people in your life who have been afraid but done the right thing anyway, who have shown you by example how to be bold.”

Bob Iger, Executive Chairman and Chairman of the Board of Directors at The Walt Disney Company, shared stories of boldness from his own career:

“One of the most valuable things I’ve learned from my own experiences, as well as from mentors and friends is that the only way to accomplish meaningful things in life is by acting boldly. Being timid has never gotten anyone anywhere.”

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell added that she has learned that boldness is the antidote to living with regret:

Try that risky thing, be a part of something exciting. I don’t want to imagine what my life and career would be like had I said no.

Words of Love

While being bold is important, many graduation speakers admitted that practicing boldness is easier said than done, especially when you aren’t sure what the “right” course of action might be. A common response: Love. 

Singer-songwriter and philanthropist, John Legend, told seniors: 

When you feel lost in this tangled web of problems, know that in truth, the way out of it is simple. Instinctual, really. It’s love. Love should be your North Star. Let it guide you.

Dr. Marie Lynn Miranda, Professor at Notre Dame, echoed that sentiment: 

As much as I want to highlight the importance of the expertise you have developed, I also want to make the point that you will face situations in the years ahead where you will have no relevant expertise; you will have no evidence base to rely upon; your intellect will not be able to supply a needed answer. In those situations, I would like to suggest that you respond with love.

Other speakers focused on the importance of doing what you love, in order to have an impact and feel fulfilled. Philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs told fellow alumni at the University of Pennsylvania: 

The only way to do great work is to love what you do. And while you’re doing it, love who you do it for, and love who you are while you do it.

Words of Hope

Speakers reflected on the unique challenges faced by the Class of ’21, who spent a significant amount of their college years facing a pandemic, political turmoil, and more. But in all the challenges they faced, they also learned the importance of hope.

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay saw the positive in those challenges:

“In a year that brought so much pain… I hope that for you – as you embark on the next chapter of your lifethat it also brought… Clarity. Perspective. And Hope.

Civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson saw hope as more than just a feeling, as he told MIT graduates:

I believe that hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists…hope is our superpower.

And social justice activist D’Artagnan Scorza let the class of 2021 know that they were the embodiment of that superpower:

You’re not just the class of transformation, 2021. You’re not just the class of justice. You are also the class of hope.

To wrap things up we’ll leave you with the order that the United States Coast Guard—and everywhere else—were given from the President and Commander in Chief, Joe Biden

Class of 2021: It’s time for you to go out and be the future, to make the future.