Advice to college graduates from Obama, McCain, and Souter

It's the time of year for advice and inspiration for college graduates. Former Justice David Souter, who rarely makes public speeches, is among those offering words of wisdom this year.

Josh Reynolds/AP
Retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter spoke to college graduates at Harvard May 27. Meryl Streep took an honorary degree.
Danny Johnston/AP
First lady Michelle Obama touted high ambition at The George Washington University in D.C.

It's the time of year for advice, inspiration, calls to service, and more than a few clichés. At colleges and universities across America, politicians, actors, writers, activists, and scholars have drawn from their experiences as they speak to college graduates. Here are a few of their words of wisdom.

Michelle Obama

First lady

The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

You remind me of something President Wilson once said. He said, "Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that's the way I know I'm an American."

Even so, you've probably also run up against people who love your idealism, but warn you to lower your sights, to scale back your ambitions a bit, to settle for something less.

And you know their hearts may be in the right place. They may be worried that you're in for a letdown once you realize that it can take years and even decades for your best efforts to bear fruit. See, we live in a culture, after all, that tells us that our lives should be easy; that we can have everything we want without a whole lot of effort.

But the truth is – and you know this – creating anything meaningful takes time.

IN PICTURES: Graduation 2010

John Grisham


The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

When a writer finds the voice, the words flow freely, the sentences become paragraphs and pages and chapters, and the story is told, the writer is heard, and the reader is rewarded.

In this respect, writing is a lot like life itself. In life, a voice is much more than the sound we make when we talk. Infants and preschoolers have voices and can make a lot of noise, but a voice is more than sound.

The voice of change, the voice of compassion, the voice of the future, the voice of his generation, the voice of her people. We hear this all the time. Voices, not words….

To be heard, you must find a voice. For your ideas to be accepted, for your arguments to be believed, for your work to be admired, you must find a voice.

John McCain

US senator, Arizona

Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware

I have faith that you understand that assaults on the dignity of others are assaults on the dignity of all humanity. You will not look upon tyranny and injustice in faraway places as the inevitable tragedy of mankind's fallen nature. You will see them as a call to action – a summons to devote your time and talents to a just cause that is greater than yourself, the cause of human rights and dignity. Make this your legacy, and 20 years from now, maybe longer, you will be able to know that you made history and made our country and world better. Not perfect, but better.

Jamie Dimon

CEO, JPMorgan Chase

Syracuse University in New York

There's some very thoughtful people out there, and reading their views and analysis will help educate you. If you think you are socialist, read Milton Friedman, the famous capitalist. If you think you are capitalist, read Karl Marx. If you think you're Republican, listen to the Democrats, and vice versa. Look for the kernels of truth in what they have to say. Don't reject it all out of hand, and be willing to change your mind. Do not fall into the trap of being rigid and simplistic. It's OK for us at times to blame and be dissatisfied with others and hold them responsible, but it's not OK to oversimplify and paint everyone with the same brush.

Juan Williams

Journalist, NPR and Fox News

Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.

This is no time for retrenching in terms of your plans or changing plans to somehow take into account this very tough moment. In fact, if you want to make God laugh, let me suggest that you tell Her your plans.

So this is a moment to go beyond expectations, to reach inside and do the unexpected. Surprise your parents. Surprise your teachers. Surprise your friends (they never thought you'd get here anyway). But most of all, surprise yourself. Go beyond what makes you comfortable. Open yourself to ideas, events, relationships that make you uncomfortable. Travel places where you know no one. Learn another language. Create art, even though you're not an artist. Argue with people. Fall down. Get up. Read books, all sorts of books.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Pulitzer Prize winners

Middlebury College in Vermont

We may not be able to solve the problems of global poverty, or of illiteracy, or of human trafficking. But we can help individuals. And that's a legitimate way of changing the world. It's also a way of changing you.

There's been a great deal of research over the last 20 years into what makes us happy, in neurology, in social psychology, in economics. And the lessons are complex, but one of the answers is that after you've fulfilled your material needs, one of the ways to elevate your happiness level is to connect with some cause larger than yourself.

Another way of putting it is this: Our efforts to give back by helping others have, frankly, a somewhat mixed record of success. But they have an almost perfect record of helping ourselves.

David Souter

Former Supreme Court justice

Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

The tensions that are the stuff of judging in so many hard constitutional cases are, after all, the creatures of our aspirations: to value liberty as well as order, and fairness and equality as well as liberty. And the very opportunity for conflict between one high value and another reflects our confidence that a way may be found to resolve it when a conflict arises. That is why the simplistic view of the Constitution devalues our aspirations and attacks our confidence and diminishes us. It is a view of judging that means to discourage our tenacity (our sometimes reluctant tenacity) to keep the constitutional promises the nation has made.

IN PICTURES: Graduation 2010


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At George Washington University, graduates received their commencement address on Sunday, from First Lady Michelle Obama

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