Graduation 2019 – Our Recap of the Most Memorable Speeches

By Susie Adams

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This year we’re highlighting graduation speeches that were unique, unusual, and special in a variety of ways.

“Make Your Heart Your 20”

Actor Matthew McConaughey is rarely traditional.  And his graduation speech at his old high school, Longview High School, he stayed true to form.  He left the podium and turned and faced the graduating class behind him. And he moved around. I think at one point he tossed one of his finished pages on the ground. Why not.  He spoke with heart and he talked about heart. And he picked up the diploma that he had left behind 31 years ago.

He talked about being the underdog and loving that feeling. And using it for motivation. He said, “I’ve out-hustled people who have more talent than me and I still do it.”

“The one thing that we have that should never be for sale. The thing that we give the most of and should protect with our lives.  That thing is our heart.”

He uses the military term “What’s your 20?” which means “what’s your location?” as a metaphor for where your heart is. “Follow your heart; own your heart; make your heart your 20.

“Can’t Stop the Feeling”

Justin Timberlake — Berklee College of Music

Vocal artists Justin Timberlake and Missy Elliott received honorary doctorates from the Berklee College of Music

Timberlake began his remarks in the graduation speech by saying, “Ya’ll messed up.  Can’t tell me nothing now. I’m a Doctor.” “I don’t do surgeries, but we probably can work out some prescriptions. Holler at me.”

He got a little more serious, “When I was young I felt like a weirdo. I felt like I didn’t belong. I look around this room and I feel like I found all the rest of the weirdos. We’re all here.”

And he talked about failure and success, “You are sorta taught that there’s going to be ups and downs and failures. But I don’t subscribe to that – as a doctor, I don’t prescribe to that. You are defined by what you define failure as.  It is not a thing if it leads you to your success. It is all a part of the journey.” And this “You have to dare to suck. You will never make something great if you are afraid that it is going to suck.”

The Winding Road

Stacey Abrams – American University School of Public Policy

Stacy Abrams, former candidate Governor of Georgia, talked about preparing for success by knowing what you believe, what you want, and realizing that you may fail in her graduation speech.

On Belief

“For today, at least, I urge you to lay aside your labels and explore what your principles say about the world you wish to serve.”

On Knowing What You Want

“When you aim high, when you stretch beyond your easiest conceptions, the temptation to pare back your ambitions will be strong. But do not edit your desires: want what you want, regardless of how big the dream – you may have to get there in stages, but the journey is worth the work. Do not allow logic to be an excuse for setting low expectations: This occurs when we allow ourselves to be less because we think if it were possible, it would have happened. The fact that no one has, doesn’t mean you can’t.”

And On Being Realistic About Failure

“Opportunity is not a straight road and to take full advantage, you must be prepared to fail, to stumble or to win in a way that looks nothing like you imagined.”

Speeches Not Spoken

There were two noteworthy speeches not delivered as speeches.

Bismarck High School (North Dakota) graduate Sydney Helgeson sang her message to the tune of Lady Gaga’s hit “Shallow.”

These funny lyrics, “Sick of the homework, watching our grades drop.  We thought we’d never be done,” helped the song go viral, but the entire song is quite sentimental. Elbie Seibert was the 2019 valedictorian at Columbia High School in Nampa, Idaho. The son of a janitor and homemaker mother with cerebral palsy will attend Brown University in the fall on a full-ride scholarship.

He was not able to speak at his graduation due to the death of his father.  The text of his message to his classmates highlighting the lessons he learned during the six months of his father’s illness is worth a read.  It details the real struggles of a working-class family experiencing a tragic loss and offers gems like,

“The challenges don’t define us; how we respond to them does.”

Making Dreams Come True

Morehouse College – Dr. Robert F. Smith

Billionaire Robert Smith might not have been a household name, but he became one after he announced that he was going to pay off the approximately $40 million in debt that the 2019 Morehouse graduating class had. His announcement was woven so deftly into his speech that many of those present weren’t even sure what they had just heard

“On behalf of the eight generations of my family that has been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” he said during his graduation speech. “This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

Smith, a former engineer and investment banker and current founder, chairman and CEO of private equity firm, Vista Equity is the richest African American man in the United States.  He is the 163rd richest person in America with a net worth of almost $5 billion.

This is not his biggest contribution, but it certainly got the most attention, partially because of the national political and policy conversation about student debt.  And it has motivated others.

Locally, WBTV did a story about a local barbershop that raised the funds to pay the $4500 in fees of East Mecklenburg students (for overdue books, unpaid lunches, band fees, etc.) that could have kept some students from graduating.

Headlines Barbershop and owner, Season Bennett stepped up.  I hope that Smith’s gesture will continue to inspire others to step up in their own way.

Recognize, Inspire and Challenge

Graduation speeches recognize, inspire and challenge. This year’s crop of speeches was no exception.

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