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What makes a great graduation speech? Our region weighs in

What advice or encouragement do graduating seniors want and need to hear?
sengchoy/Getty Images
What advice or encouragement do graduating seniors want — and need — to hear?

Graduation speeches are something of an art form. A great one can stick with you for years or go viral online. A bad one can put students — who might’ve stayed up late celebrating the night before — to sleep.

Some of this year’s graduation ceremonies are particularly fraught this year, due to the pro-Palestinian campus protests and school administrations’ varying responses. What makes a great graduation speech? And what does the class of 2024 want and need to hear right now?

Maurice Hall, a provost at Bennington College, has taught public speaking, studied communications and worked a facilitator for challenging conversations around identity. Hall hoped this year’s crop of commencement speakers will encourage students to embrace complexity and the idea that “two very different things can be true at the same time.”

"Students can feel very passionately and faculty can be feel very passionately about what they see happening in the news," he said. "It does not also negate some other really important political considerations."

With a background in theater, Hall also knows what goes into writing and delivering a great speech. In public speaking classes, he stresses to his students the importance of establishing credibility and common ground with the audience.

"I have to believe that you know what you're talking about," he said. "And based who you are and your experiences, you embody the things that you're espousing. I have to feel like I can relate to you."

Another speech-giver who shared advice was the registered nurse and humanitarian Marcelle Leahy. She gave Champlain College's commencement address this past Saturday. Leahy told students that they possess two very important things that can never be taken away from them: their education and integrity, both of which she advised they guard wisely.

Earlier this week, we asked users on Reddit about their graduation speakers, and what advice they would share with this year’s graduates. We got almost 80 responses! Here are some of those, along with a few emails, lightly edited:

  • Mary: Joseph Brodsky, the Russian nobel laureate and poet, delivered a most memorable commencement address at Dartmouth College in June 1989, called "In Praise of Boredom.” His message was: "Prepare yourselves for joining the rest of the human race, which means that someday you'll have to come to terms with boredom and, ultimately, your own insignificance, and hopefully your capacity for passion." I encourage you to read the entire speech. Maybe we should have more poets on the graduation podium.
  • Gary in Irasburg: I gave the graduation speech for the senior class at the high school where I taught. I said nothing about the future and glowing horizons. It was all about, “We made it!” Graduation was a celebration of all the people who had helped the graduates arrive at this day, from friends, teammates, bus drivers, teachers, parents, relatives, etc. It was a celebration of the community that nurtured and believed in these kids. At the end, the graduates were asked to stand, face the audience, and in their best pep rally voices, say a loud and robust “Thank you!” to all who were gathered that day.
  • Colleen in Calais: Mr. Rogers gave the best speech ever at Middlebury College about 25 years ago. It was the year Jim Jeffords flipped the Senate and Vermont approved civil unions. The theme was the best things in life aren’t things. 
  • Zail: I graduated from Revelle College at UC San Diego in 1981 when the founder of the college, Dr. Roger Revelle was still alive and teaching. Dr. Revelle was among the graduation speakers, and got the loudest cheers, with something close to this: ”In thinking about what to say to you today, I consulted my son, who is a professor at Princeton. I have decided to follow his advice. The sun’s out, the surf’s up, let’s get this show on the road!”
  • Fitting for me to respond first since my commencement speaker (UVM class of 2015) was Nina Totenberg from NPR. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much of the speech because it was like 800 degrees and 1000% humidity that morning, plus I was probably quite hungover if I’m being honest. My friend's mom had to come and wake up our entire house so we weren’t late. 
  • My high school speaker was Rusty DeWees, aka “The Logger”, in 2009, at Twin Valley in Wilmington. It was actually really cool. I remember him talking about the importance of not just college but trade schools and gap years and not to focus so hard on keeping up with each other— just keeping up with ourselves. He honored not just the valedictorian but also the kids that were at the bottom of the class - made it a point to tell them that they were worth being there too and worth celebrating. It was inspirational.
  • I remember well. Decatur High School, Martin Luther King’s father, “Daddy King,” spoke at my 1974 graduation. I remember his passion more than his words. I remember my mother being angry that he made some kind of statement about God seeing the harm done to Black people from white people, and that the arc of history is long but bends to justice.
  • For high school, I think Woodstock does it best, or at least did when I graduated. The principal, valedictorian and maybe the class president give short speeches, but the main event is a spoken word performance by the Speak Chorus that recounts the entire class history from middle school through graduation. It briefly summarizes each year and some notable things that happened. Most importantly, it incorporates something about every single graduating senior, usually something funny or embarrassing. It's usually really funny for the graduates and tends to include a lot of inside jokes.
  • I did my undergrad at a small university in Milwaukee, Wisc. The actress Elaine Stritch, who won an Emmy for her role on 30 Rock, was our commencement speaker. I don’t remember a single thing she said (it was also a long time ago), but she was absolutely hysterical, in her signature sarcastic, take-no-prisoners way. I think her speech was basically shaming us all into being better people, but she was so funny that it landed.
  • My brother spoke at his high school graduation. He went to the career center and spoke about his experience struggling with traditional academics. Beautiful speech about not letting grades and academic validation be everything. The local paper wrote about the graduation and called him a "math challenged young man." We still laugh about that.
  • Ben Cohen from Ben and Jerry’s spoke at my high school graduation well over 20 years ago. He spoke about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the proliferation of WMDs. He pulled out a huge container of marbles and big steel bucket and stated that one marble represented a nuclear bomb capable of flattening a city and that he had same same number of marbles as the number of bombs in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Then he asked everyone to close their eyes and he poured the marbles into the bucket. It was loud and took a very, very, long time to pour them all out. It was educational if not terrifying. I had Bernie for UVM graduation. He was great but not as memorable as Ben and his marbles.
  • Dana Morosini Reeve spoke at my college graduation 20 years ago (Middlebury, 2004). It was before her husband Christopher passed away. She spoke of resiliency and strength and of anyone being able to do anything. It was a long time ago for me to remember any more details, but I do remember thinking about how gosh darned strong and brave she was. 
  • UVM ‘02, David McCullough. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much of the speech. It was an unusually brisk day so I was too focused on keeping warm. I do remember someone spoke of resilience as that was the school year that began with the 9/11 attacks and ended in a minor earthquake. Looking back on it now, we had no idea just how much our country and everyday lives were going to change and how different the outlook was going to be. That message of resilience was definitely needed at the time it was delivered.
  • St. Johnsbury Academy, 2006, National Intelligence Director, John Negroponte. Needless to say, when I arrived for the event and noticed men with guns on the field house roof, I knew it would be an interesting graduation experience. 
  • BHS, 2015, we had our German teacher Frau deliver the teacher one, and had two student ones. I remember Fraus being very generous and sweet, wishing all her drama kids and German students, and all the other grad class success, happiness, all the usual stuff that made us love that sweet lady even more.
  • My high school perpetually had the drivers' ed teacher speak at graduation. He was dope. 

Two people wrote about CVU’s graduation in 2000:

  • David Hyde-Pierce [the actor who portrayed Niles Crane from the sitcom Frasier] spoke at my HS graduation (CVU, Class of 2000). I remember the speech being witty, and him ending with an acronym that spelled out CVU. 
  • I don't remember my college graduation speaker but I remember the one from my high school— David Hyde Pierce at CVU in 2000. He told us to use our choice, voice and uvula— as in, speak up so much people can see the hangy thing in the back of your throat. Choice, Voice, Uvula = CVU.

Broadcast live on Thursday, May 16, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.