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Commencement Speakers Launch Graduates with Words of Wisdom and Humor


This is college commencement season in the United States. While many schools have already held their commencements in the past few weeks, two major universities -- Harvard and Stanford -- hold theirs this week. Graduating college seniors will be presented with their diplomas and sent out into the world to begin their lives as working, contributing adults. A long-standing tradition of the graduating event is the commencement speech, where speakers share wisdom gained from their experiences, and provide inspiration, motivation, and even a few laughs.

The best commencement speeches have three things in common: brevity -- that is, they don't exceed twenty minutes; wit -- a good thing under most circumstances; and no effort to use the graduating class for a political platform. So says Peter J. Smith, author of the book Onward: Twenty-five years of Advice, Exhortation and Inspiration from America's Best Commencement Speeches. Mr. Smith says these addresses are often reflective of their times, such as the turbulent Vietnam era.

"In the 1970s there were far more politicians being chosen by the classes to speak. Unfortunately they would come on and provide an advertisement for the administration in which they served." Mr. Smith says it was in the 1980s that celebrity "began to take over this country," and, that "more classes began to think, 'Hey, it would be more fun to have (entertainers) Bill Cosby or Alan Alda speaking to us, and more memorable, too.'"

Comedian Bill Cosby, in fact, is one of the most regularly sought out commencement speakers. So is talk show host Oprah Winfrey and Microsoft founder, Bill Gates.

This year, actor John Lithgow will be the commencement speaker at Harvard University, and Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs was invited to present the address at Stanford University.

Stephen King spoke at his alma mater -- the University of Maine -- in the state that he has always called home. The horror fiction writer advised the graduates to, among other things, keep their minds active by reading books; make their careers in the state of Maine; and "don't continue to live on campus."

"If you're a grad student or if you have a few courses to pick up, fine. But if you're still hanging out in Orono (university town where UM is located) 3 years from now, living like an undergraduate in some sleazy apartment or trailer park, there's something wrong with you." Mr. King says for most of the students, it is "time to move on," adding, "if you didn't have a better time here then you did in high school, you're weird. If you want to stay here and keep being an undergraduate, you're very weird."

Perhaps the highest-profile commencement speakers this year were President George W. Bush, who spoke at West Point Military Academy and Vice President Dick Cheney who addressed the graduating class at Auburn University in Alabama.

Democratic Senator Harry Reid of Nevada gave some sage advice to the graduating law students at the school where he earned his law degree, George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "As an attorney, one of the lessons you'll learn in arriving at a fair compromise or settlement is that a fair settlement must cause pain to each participant."

And, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, praised women's institutions like Agnes Scott, for their dedication to higher education for women. "There is a necessity for places like Wellesley and Agnes Scott -- places where for just a few short years you can concentrate on your studies, on developing your mind, on understanding the opportunities for leadership that come from a place such as this." She added, "What I hope we can do is spread women's education around the world -- it could be one of America's greatest legacies."

Many institutions, including Yale and Columbia Universities, pass on the celebrity speakers in favor of their own faculty or college presidents. That's good, too, says author Peter J. Smith -- there is something to be said for any opportunity where students can learn from someone else's life experience. "To have the benefit of any kind of wisdom these days -- because many of us are so disconnected from our families who live far away, and there are very few older people in our lives who we can sit there and listen to," he says. "It makes you realize how much grace and sageness is missing from our life."

Peter Smith says commencement speakers also benefit from their chance to address the graduates. Occasionally they are paid, or even given an honorary degree. But more often, he says, they find it "tremendously flattering" to be invited to give a commencement speech -- and a rare starting out on theirs.

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