13 Things You Never Knew About Commencement Speeches

The word commencement isn’t the only relic from graduation ceremonies of yore. We’ve also kept the caps, the gowns, and, yes, the speeches.

Why is it called a “commencement” speech?

The historical answer is that students in medieval times entered universities as apprentices and left able to “commence” their professions. The word commencement isn’t the only relic from graduation ceremonies of yore. We’ve also kept the caps, the gowns, and, yes, the speeches.

The earliest commencement speakers were graduating students who delivered their speeches in Latin

At Princeton University, the senior chosen to give the salutatory ­address still does it in Latin. The graduates receive special copies of the speech with instructions—in ­En­glish—on when to laugh, in the hope that the rest of the audi­ence will be impressed with the students’ Latin “fluency.”

They often make history

While a commencement speech is meant to be significant to the graduates, sometimes it actually makes history. In 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall gave an address at Harvard University’s graduation that outlined a program to help European nations devastated by World War II. We know it today as the Marshall Plan.

Prominent speakers come at a premium

Matthew McConaughey raked in $135,000 for the address he gave at the University of Houston in 2015. Katie Couric banked $110,000 at the University of Oklahoma in 2006. For a ten-minute speech, that comes to more than $600,000 per hour.

That said, only 30 percent of universities pay their speakers

The rest rely on alumni or famous friends who will do it for free. Some forgo a paycheck in exchange for an honorary degree, but certain schools, such as Cornell University, don’t award any—the board of trustees thinks they cheapen a hard-earned education.

It can be a last-minute scramble

Many colleges extend invitations to coveted speakers a year or more in advance, but securing a speaker early doesn’t make a school immune to a last-minute scramble. Just a month before its 2015 ceremony, Temple University announced that ESPN anchor Kevin Negandhi would give the commencement address in place of the school’s original pick—Bill Cosby.

You don’t have to be human to give a graduation speech

Kermit the Frog gave the commencement address at Southampton College in 1996 and received an honorary doctorate in “Amphibious Letters” from the school. In 2012 at the University of Vermont, Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke delivered their speech as a dialogue between their better-known characters, SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick Star.

One speaker pledged to pay off student debt

One of the most celebrated commencement speakers of late was billionaire investor Robert F. Smith, who gave the address at Morehouse College last year. Smith offered more than just words of ­encouragement. He pledged to pay off the student debt of all 396 graduates. Months later, Smith announced he would also foot the bill for the federal student loans their parents had taken out.

Another promised college tuition

Another famous benediction benefactor was Eugene Lang, who promised the 1981 sixth-grade class at his old elementary school in Harlem that he would pay their college tuition as long as they graduated from high school. More than half of those 61 kids pursued higher education. Since then, Lang’s national “I Have a Dream” Foundation has helped 18,000 disadvantaged students go to college.

A speech for one

When eighth-grader Gwen Lynch graduated from her one-room schoolhouse on Cuttyhunk Island in Massachusetts last year, she was the only student in her class. She still got a big-time commencement speaker—actor Jenny Slate, who lived nearby. Slate later said of Lynch, “She goes to school by herself and still has more friends than I had as a teenager.”

Lauren Graham talked about her library fines

In her 2017 speech at Langley High School in Virginia, actor Lauren Graham recalled that her own graduation from the same school felt like “an empty victory.” In fact, the folder she received that day was empty. Graham didn’t receive her diploma until she paid her library fines (she never returned Robinson Crusoe). These stories of 11 crazy overdue library books that were finally returned will make you chuckle if you’ve ever committed the offense, too.

Even if you miss the ceremony, you can still enjoy a good graduation speech

NPR created an archive of more than 350 addresses, called “The Best Commencement Speeches Ever.” But you’ll have to read some of them, as NPR—get this—doesn’t have all the audio files.

So what was the best commencement speech ever?

There’s a lot of support for Steve Jobs’s address at Stanford University in 2005. Months after receiving a cancer diagnosis, Jobs told the graduates, “Remembering I’ll be dead soon helps me make the big choices in life, because almost ­everything—­expectation, pride, fear of embarrassment or failure—fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest