Weekly Feature

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
First Lady Michelle Obama addressing the UC Merced
Class of 2009 in Merced, Calif., on May 16, 2009.

Memorable Commencement Addresses of 2009

May 30, 2009
by Liz Colville
The past academic year was a landmark: Graduates saw the first black president elected and watched as a global recession unfolded, making their futures uncertain. Commencement speakers had the difficult task of synthesizing these powerful events in an inspiring and motivating way. Here are just some of the addresses that succeeded.

A Second “Greatest Generation”?

Longtime news anchor and author Tom Brokaw spoke at the College of William & Mary, where he opened with a few jokes, including a dig at school rival the University of Virginia. He then launched into a more serious discussion of the Great Depression and today’s recession.

Referencing his 1998 book “The Greatest Generation,” Brokaw inspired the class with a reminder of how the young people of the Great Depression suffered financially, then went off to war, then returned to marry and have children in record numbers. Rather than turning inward, they “got involved in science and industry and gave us the life that we have today and they did not whine and they did not whimper. They didn't ask for credit, because they thought that this was their responsibility as American citizens.” Read a transcript of Brokaw’s speech on William & Mary’s Web site.

When the Class Inspires the Speaker

First Lady Michelle Obama’s role is up there with her husband’s in influence and ability to inspire. In her first address in this role, Obama answered a call from the community of the University of California, Merced, which wrote letters inviting her to give their commencement address.

Such a letter-writing campaign inspired Obama, she said, and echoed Merced’s letter-writing push to make its town the next UC campus. It clearly succeeded in doing both, and this 10th UC school now calls itself “the first new American research university in the 21st century.” Watch a video of Obama’s speech on the UC Merced Web site.

Making Light of Life's Obstacles

Ellen DeGeneres gave the commencement address at Tulane University in New Orleans, where she celebrated the “Katrina Class” for returning to their campus after the hurricane and admitted in the first two minutes that she didn’t know what “commencement” meant (it’s a combination of two words, she decided, “common” and “cement”). Born and raised in New Orleans, DeGeneres said she had no idea who she was at 21, quipping that “When I was your age I was dating men.”

DeGeneres tells a great story about a tragedy that ironically gave way to her career as a comedian. Then, after warning the class not to take anyone’s advice, DeGeneres gave some anyway. “The most important thing in life is to live your life with integrity. Never follow someone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, then by all means you should follow that.”

A Champion of the Earth

At the University of Portland 2009 Commencement in Portland, Ore., Paul Hawken acted as a kind of company recruiter, only his company was Earth. In an address called “The Earth is Hiring,” Hawken, an environmental activist, author and entrepreneur, told the graduating class: “Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.”

He encouraged the graduates to work for organizations that “place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals.” Hawken invoked Emerson and the founders of the abolitionist movement and referenced the current recession when he said: “You can print money to bail out a bank but you can't print life to bail out a planet.”

A Champion of the Arts

Renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns gave an address at Boston College this year that was one of several highlighted in CBS News’s roundup of 2009 addresses. Burns memorably said, “Insist that we support the sciences and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the defense of the country; they just make the country worth defending.”

Burns gave a powerful analysis of America post-9/11, encouraging Americans to come back together instead of “retreat[ing] behind false ramparts of mindless consumerism." Read highlights of his address at Boston College’s Web site.

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