‘To the class of 2023, I say three words: you poor bastards’: the year’s best graduation speeches

It’s been a typical commencement season across the US, with luminaries from the worlds of journalism, Hollywood and politics offering students the wisdom of their experience. The tradition stretches back over a century, and some of the most famous speeches in US history – from George C Marshall’s revealing of what would become known as the Marshall Plan to David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water – have been given to graduating students.

What’s less typical about this year, the speakers agree, is the environment the class of 2023 finds itself entering, faced with threats to democracy, the climate catastrophe, entrenched racism and a host of other crises. Graduation speeches tackled these concerns while finding reasons to hope – and even make a few jokes.

Among this year’s best lines, edited for brevity:

Patton Oswalt, actor and comedian, William & Mary

To the graduating class of 2023, I say three words: you poor bastards.

Democracy’s crumbling, truth is up for grabs, the planet’s trying to kill us, and loneliness is driving everyone insane.

I breezed into a world full of trivia and silliness and fun. You are about to enter a hellscape where you will have to fight for every scrap of your humanity and dignity. You do not have a choice to be anything but extraordinary. Those are the times you’re living in right now.

It’s been truly amazing to see how your generation has rebelled against every bad habit of mine and every generation that came before me. Everything that we let calcify, you have kicked against and demolished. You’ve rejected that whole 24/7, no-days-off grind. You’ve rejected apathy. You’ve rejected ignoring your mental health because “you’ve gotta muscle through it no matter what”. You’ve rejected alienation and cruelty. You’ve rejected not trying to include everyone. And you’ve rejected not looking out for each other.

And those are hard things to reject. Because accepting them sometimes makes life way easier. If you just shut off yourself from the world, life is way easier. It’s also way less colorful, way less complicated, way less nourishing, and way less memorable.

Isabel Wilkerson, journalist and author, Occidental College

Our country is like an old house. And the owner of an old house knows that whatever you were ignoring will never go away. Whatever’s lurking will fester, whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction.

Many people might rightly say: “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sense of the past. My ancestors never attacked Indigenous people and never own slaves. Not one of us was here when this house was built.”

Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it. But here we are the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect these uneven pillars and joists and beams; we did not install the frayed wiring and the corroded pipes; but they are ours to deal with now, and any further deterioration is in fact on our hands.

If we have learned anything from Covid, it is that an invisible organism without a brain managed to cause upheaval across the planet and overtake a presumably smarter species because it does not care about color. It does not care about nationality or immigrant status or gender or sexual orientation or national borders or passports. Covid sees all humans for what we actually are: one interconnected and interdependent species. It sees what we have in common if humans don’t see it themselves. We are all in this together and it is time we started to act like it.

Raphael Warnock, Georgia senator, Bard College

I know as you sit here – perhaps 21, 22, 23 years old – you say, well, what should I do? What is it that the world needs? My answer, in the words of [the author] Howard Thurman: “Ask not what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

In other words, I challenge you to find your passion. I challenge you to find that thing in the world that feels like such a deep moral contradiction that you cannot be silent. You have to express yourself; you have to stand up and try to make the world better. Find anything that you would do for free except that you have to pay the rent or the mortage. And chase after it with all of your might.

Tom Hanks, actor, Harvard University

Tom Hanks wears red academic regalia as he gazes at a Harvard University emblazoned volleyball.
Tom Hanks left Harvard University graduates with these words: ‘When you make good on your victories and learn from your losses because both are the results of proud and noble efforts, if you don’t, who will?’ Photograph: Cj Gunther/EPA

We all have special powers and abilities far beyond the reach of other mortals. Some of us can repair a screen door with ease. Some of us can take care of a five-year-old kid and a toddler for 24 hours a day and never stop loving them. Some of us make sense of physics and economics and global policy. Some of us survive somehow on minimum earnings. Some of us graduate from colleges despite years of lockdowns and Zooms.

The American way is exampled in both plain sight and in subtle attitude. It’s in moments of routine exchange and in broad expectations. It’s in places of historic weight and import and in the small spaces in which we all stand. The American way could be exampled when you respect the law and the rights of all. Because if you don’t, who will? When your food is brought to you, will you thank the server? Because if you don’t, who will? Would you pick up the litter that has missed the recycling bin? Because if you don’t, who will? When you vote your conscience and make sure your neighbor has the opportunity to do the same with theirs, because if you don’t, who will? When you make good on your victories and learn from your losses because both are the results of proud and noble efforts, if you don’t, who will?

Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary, Rice University

Your road has been long. But here is something that I do believe that I can share – something that I’m partially qualified to give advice on.

Do not allow hardships, personal or existential, to become a barrier to your ability to look ahead with hope. Rather, embrace the challenge and take the building blocks of lessons you’ve learned during your most trying times – times you wanted to quit or run away or thought the path ahead was just too dark to even attempt to find the light. Take these experiences with you. Embrace them and use your experience to face the challenges ahead. Because you are more more than capable. You are enough.

Your past is the proof of that. Getting to this point, graduation day is a validation that even if you fretted about your future or struggled with your past, you still chose to move forward to hope. And that hope is action.

Sanna Marin, Finnish prime minister, New York University

Sanna Marin wears purple academic regalia as she walks to a stage.
Sanna Marin spoke at New York University’s class of 2023 on the expectation of progress. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

For decades, we have lived in a world with an optimistic expectation of progress. We have expected our values such as freedom of speech, rule of law, gender equality and democracy to bloom hand in hand with the expansion of free market economy. We thought that globalization and growth would be enough to benefit everyone. We expected to see less authoritarian rule, more respect for diversity and a better world that does not discriminate against people based on their skin tone, gender, sexual orientation or religion. We have expected the freedom of information and the internet to broaden everyone’s understanding.

But the history did not end.

Freedom of speech and other true elements of democracy are being questioned and limited all over the world. Whether this means diminishing the truth with false balance or using our personal data to influence our democratic elections, the rule of law as well as freedom of expression and the media need active defending.

The swollen amount of inequality and a lack of social mobility are challenging our ideas about everyone having the same possibilities and freedoms in life.

All of these questions are battles of values. And we all must take a side in that battle. There is no middle ground.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, journalist and author, Spelman College

Nikole Hannah-Jones gives a speech from a lectern.
Nikole Hannah-Jones gave these words to Spelman College graduates: ‘Success will not be worth it if you have to sell yourself out to get it. So hold on to who you are.’ Photograph: Paras Griffin/Getty Images

You’re a part of an institution that understands Black excellence should never be disqualified by white institutions. And so I hope that Spelman has imbued into you that it is possible to succeed in those spaces where people don’t think we belong without compromising your values and your sense of self. That success doesn’t mean you have to look or talk or think a certain way. I stand here with this bright red hair, big hoop earrings and Jordans on, telling you that however you present yourself in the world has nothing to do with your intellect, your ambition and your worth.

Success will not be worth it if you have to sell yourself out to get it. So hold on to who you are.

Oprah Winfrey, talkshow host, actor and producer, Tennessee State University

There will never be anything in your life as fulfilling as making a difference in somebody else’s. Everybody here wants to see you take your integrity, your curiosity, your creativity, your guts, and this newfound education of yours and use it to make a difference. Everybody always thinks you got to go do something big and grand. I’ll tell you where you start.

You start by being good to at least one other person, every single day. Just start there. That’s how you begin to change the world.

There will be times when making the next right decision will be scary. I’ll tell you a secret. That’s how I’ve gotten through every challenge without being overwhelmed – by asking: what is the next right move? You don’t have to know all the right moves. You just need to know the next one.

But I can’t just tell you what desperate shape the universe is in, so I’m going to leave you with this instead: the world is weaning itself off Russian fuel. Electric cars are going mainstream across the globe. That hole we punched in the ozone layer is healing. Ukraine is still in there fighting for us all. Finland join Nato. Covid is currently receding and there are human beings who very quietly donate their bone marrow to strangers. And this to me signals that the United States of America may not be united, but we are not a finished product. My point is, anything is possible. The wheels are still in spin.

Lester Holt, journalist, Villanova University

“I don’t know.” It’s a surprisingly difficult thing to say for someone who spends each day providing answers to millions of people on a lot of topics. It’s hard to say, and especially in a society that seems to thrive on sharp opinion and absolutisms and shuns nuance.

Nobody wants to be the guy in the back of the room who feels like they are the only one who hasn’t figured out the answer. But guess what? Chances are neither have the guys in the front rows. Until we can acknowledge what we don’t know, we can’t possibly be asking the right questions.

You don’t have to be the smartest guy in the room. Your aim should be to be the one asking for more information. The one audacious enough to say: “I don’t know.”

Mae Jemison, astronaut, University of Delaware

Look up at the sky, the clouds, beyond the sun, the moon, the stars, when you need to recharge your spirit.

Let the gravity of Earth give you a warm hug. Look up and remember what inspires you, what you were doing this for and why you cared in the first place.