May and June are great months to work in education. For the last several weeks, our news feeds have been full of inspiring photos and stories of students successfully launching into the next phase of their lives. It’s a great thing to witness.


So many things come to mind when we think of graduation season – the emotional reactions of family members, the caps and gowns, the toss of said caps into the air and even the diploma itself. But now, as students begin looking ahead towards college, career and the rest of their lives, they can turn to another ubiquitous element of graduation season: commencement speeches.

Such speeches are simply a chance for graduates to hear a little life advice from someone, often an influential or successful figure in the local, national or even international community. And schools are sometimes able to draw some pretty big names (I think we were all a little jealous when President Obama spoke to the Rutgers University class of 2016, for example).

Common themes of these speeches include self-honesty and reflection, embracing failure and challenging prejudice. And thankfully, even if we don’t have the privilege of hearing these speeches in person, recordings and written formats allow students to revisit these words and be inspired by them, even long after they’ve graduated. Many of these lessons take a lifetime to perfect, after all.

We can’t promise a famous commencement speaker for New Jersey graduates. But we can offer some of our favorite commencement address quotes for encouragement. Whether you’re a student, parent of a student or lifelong learner looking for inspiration, we hope you enjoy them!

Congratulations to the class of 2019!

“We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

J.K. Rowling, Harvard, Class of 2008

“I’ve found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks. Nothing. Nelson Mandela said: ‘There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that’s less than the one you’re capable of living.’ I’m sure in your experiences—in school… in applying to college… in picking your major… in deciding what you want to do with life—people have told you to make sure you have something to “fall back on.” But I’ve never understood that concept, having something to fall back on. If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything, except my faith. I want to fall… forward. At least I figure that way I’ll see what I’m about to hit. Fall forward.”

Denzel Washington, UPenn, Class of 2011

“I hope that you live your life—each precious day of it—with joy and meaning. I hope that you walk without pain—and that you are grateful for each step. And when the challenges come, I hope you remember that anchored deep within you is the ability to learn and grow. You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are—and you just might become the very best version of yourself.”

Sheryl Sandburg, UC Berkeley, Class of 2016

“But my dear graduates, let me be frank, the best years are very much ahead of you. And they can be whatever you want them to be. Your work, your life, your weekdays, your weekends, can all be filled with as much meaning as you dictate. As you go off now to start new jobs or new graduate programs, or maybe you already have a career or maybe a million followers on Instagram and you don’t even need my advice. But whatever chapter, whatever your next chapter is, define it by being true to your authentic self. Fill it with meaning.”

Octavia Spencer, Kent State, Class of 2017

“Graduates, the fact is, when your time comes, and it will, you’ll never be ready. But you’re not supposed to be. Find the hope in the unexpected. Find the courage in the challenge. Find your vision on the solitary road. Don’t get distracted. There are too many people who want credit without responsibility. Too many who show up for the ribbon cutting without building anything worth a damn. Be different. Leave something worthy. And always remember that you can’t take it with you. You’re going to have to pass it on.”

Tim Cook, Stanford, Class of 2019

Have you heard an especially good commencement speech? What was some of the best advice you received when you graduated?


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