Pulitzer-Prize winning author and social and political commentator
Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
For those of you who have not prospered academically, let me give you a bit of good news - you are being addressed by someone who was in the bottom half of his class at Harvard. Or, in fact, if you want to be a didactic about it, the bottom third of his class. So there is life after college; I'm proof of it.
Let me jump ahead to the mandatory part of the speech - words of direction from the old to the young - the requisite geezer wisdom.
Other than the choice of a lifetime partner, nothing determines happiness so much as choosing the right kind of work. It is a choice about what is good for you, not what is good for others whom you greatly respect - your parents, an admired professor, a significant other. The choice is not about what makes them happy, but about what makes you happy. Not what brings you the biggest salary and the biggest house or the greatest respect from Wall Street, but what makes you feel complete and happy and makes you feel, for this is no small thing, like a part of something larger than yourself, a part of a community.
Do not be afraid to take chances when you are young, to choose the unconventional over the conventional. Often it is experience in the unconventional which prepares you best for the conventional. Be aware that it's all right to make mistakes, and it is all right to try at something and fail.
House minority leader, highest-ranking woman in the history of the United States Congress
Simmons College, Boston
I sit at the table of power with the President of the United States and top leaders of Congress. At that table, national security, the economy, and other vital national issues are discussed. And I am astounded that in more than 200 years in our nation's history, no women had ever had a seat at that table. We need to change that.
I can tell you from firsthand experience that any discussion of the most serious issues facing our country is enhanced by diversity at the table - diversity of gender and ethnic diversity. The more the tables of power reflect the beautiful diversity of our country, the more their policies will reflect the aspirations of all the American people. We need more women leaders in government because it takes the full spectrum of human talent to administer our complex society. Men and women each possess distinctive gifts and insights. What is that difference? It's that special strength that comes to us because women must deal with complexity, day by day in our own lives and, increasingly, in public life as well.
Not only are we changing the world, but we also bring with us the best of our identities. We bring family. We bring compassion. We bring sensitivity and care. And we bring our communities. Because women are loyal to their communities, our communities are turning to us increasingly for leadership.
Actor, director, and activist
Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
When I started the Sundance Film Festival, I was advised against it. I was told nobody's going to come. Who cares about independent film, it's a subject that's DOA and I said I just want to do it. So we did ... and no one came. And then I said we're going to do something to draw attention to it, we're going to put it in the winter, we're going to put it up in the mountains. And they said, "Sure, Bob, good, enjoy your lonely time up there." And I did, for a while. There I was standing out there with a staff pulling people in off the streets to go see the movie and they said, "I will if you sit in there with me!" So it was a hard time and yes, I'm happy to say, it's gone to new and better places. But like anything when you are trying to do something new, there is going to be a struggle and you have to have a lot of passion behind it.
And I had discovered already by that time, obviously, that art in my life was important, because in addition to my own soul's vocation, it was going to represent the most accessible path that I could find to independence and the spirit of independent thinking.
I feel really strongly right now that we are in such an important time. Yes, it's dangerous, but it's also a time of enormous promise and it's going to be put to you. Don't be hindered in times that can be full of angst, confusion, and chaos. And considering what this country can instill and present to you, you can shape and play your role in your very own future. It is a wonderful, beautiful country - still capable, still capable, despite what's been going on lately, of reaching its potential to itself and the world, and is ever capable of truly expressing the virtues of democracy and freedom.
US Senator (R) of Arizona Former naval aviator and POW
University of Southern California, Los Angeles
You might think that I'm now going to advise you not to be afraid to fail. I'm not. Be afraid. Speaking from considerable experience, failing stinks. Just don't be undone by it. Move on. Failure is no more a permanent condition than is success. "Defeat is never fatal," Winston Churchill observed. "Victory is never final. It's courage that counts."
I'm sure you're all aware of the inspiring story of Pat Tillman, who gave up a successful professional football career to enlist in the Army after September 11th. He served one combat tour in Iraq, and then another in Afghanistan, where he was killed in action. He was a good son, brother, husband, and friend; an excellent student, an overachieving athlete. Few of us will have occasion to need the physical courage that Pat Tillman possessed. Nor must we serve in the military to need or prove real courage. We all need and can possess moral courage.
We must, as Eleanor Roosevelt - a woman plagued by feelings of insecurity - put it, "do the thing you think you cannot do," and "you gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience."
If you do the things you think you cannot do, you'll feel your resistance, your hope, your dignity and your courage grow stronger every time you prove it.
Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
It wasn't such a good idea to have the four 4.0 people up here and then announce all of the other things they are doing besides studying, because when you are a 2.2, you don't have an excuse anymore. When you hear that a 4.0 was doing about nine other things with the community and flying over on weekends to work for Mother Teresa and you are trying to explain to these people, "Well, I want to have a full campus life. I don't want to be a person in the books all day studying." Well those 4.0s don't appear to have done that. As a matter of fact, they had more fun than you had.
All you 2.2s that applauded when you heard 2.2, first thing you need to do is get a paper and pencil and apologize to every professor you ever turned in a paper late to or you tried to argue for a C for the D you got.
I know, these people around you now, they'll support you. Just remember one thing - if you're going back home, you're going back to live with them and the car you have, they bought. And the money that went to this education, they paid for. The credit cards you were given and you maxed out, they bailed you out. You're going to pick up your degree here, but those of you who are going back home, understand this: You're homeless. The good news is that 20 years from now, someone coming to get an honorary degree will not necessarily be the 4.0 person that was honored today. It may be a 2.2, so that means you have a chance. Don't stay your mother's son too long.
This is family day here. They brought children to see this. Think about that. You were today's entertainment and what did you do? You sat out there and then you walked across here and they brought little babies to see this. You must be special; I don't understand it. Nobody should be here because they are all broke. What they should show up for is the day you go to work.
Host of 'The Daily Show' on Comedy Central
The College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, Va. (Class of 1983)
When I left William and Mary, I was shell-shocked. Because when you're in college, it's very clear what you have to do to succeed. You knew what you had to do to get to this college and to graduate from it. But the unfortunate, yet truly exciting thing about your life is that there is no core curriculum. The entire place is an elective. The paths are infinite and the results uncertain. And it can be maddening to those that go here, because your strength has always been achievement. So if there's any real advice I can give you, it's this.
College is something you complete. Life is something you experience. So don't worry about your grade or the results or success. Success is defined in myriad ways, and you will find it, and people will no longer be grading you, but it will come from your own internal sense of decency which I imagine, after going through the program here, is quite strong. Although I'm sure downloading illegal files ... but, nah, that's a different story. Love what you do. Get good at it. Competence is a rare commodity in this day and age. And let the chips fall where they may.
And the last thing I want to address is the idea that somehow this new generation is not as prepared for the sacrifice and the tenacity that will be needed in the difficult times ahead. I have not found this generation to be cynical or apathetic or selfish. They are as strong and as decent as any people that I have met.
National Security Adviser
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.
If you look closely around you at the crowd of faces, it's a very different crowd than you would have seen even 50 years ago. Represented among us today are students and faculty of both genders, all races, numerous ethnicities, every major religion, and many different nationalities.
I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., before the civil rights movement - a place that was once described, with no exaggeration, as the most thoroughly segregated city in the country. I know what it means to hold dreams and aspirations when half your neighbors think you are incapable of, or uninterested in, anything better.
With all that you have learned and all that you've been given, you have no excuse to be pessimists. You should know that progress is not only possible, but an unfolding story in which you have an obligation to play a part.
Second, you have an obligation to work to close the cultural gaps that divide our nation and our world. The intellectual foundation of terrorism, like the intellectual foundation of slavery and segregation, rests on arbitrarily dividing human beings into friends and enemies, even into human and nonhuman. The perpetrators of September 11th were people who believed that difference was a license to kill. Because the education you have had has privileged you to be with those who are unlike you, you know better than most that difference is not a source of fear but an opportunity to learn.
Your third obligation is to work to further the same democratic progress here and abroad that has made your own opportunities possible. All people are bound together by several common desires. Never make the mistake of assuming that some people do not share your desire to live freely - to think and believe as you would like to see fit, to raise a family and educate children, boys and girls.
The need for idealists eager to do the hard, yet necessary, work of furthering peace and justice and democracy has never been greater, but neither has the opportunity to do good and change the world. With all of the images of troops and tanks and military operations, it's hard to remember that this is primarily a war of ideas, not armies. It will be won by visionaries who can look past the moment to see a world in which freedom is not only the birthright of all but a reality for all and who will work to make that day come true.
Roll up your sleeves. And let the work begin.