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Commencement Speakers Familiar Faces Offering Advice, Idealism and Humor


The following story ran in the June 17, 2012, edition of the The New York Times. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was SMU's Commencement speaker on May 12, 2012.

June 22, 2012


Alongside the statesmen, tycoons and artists who addressed the class of 2012 at commencement exercises this spring, a popular choice of speakers seemed to be “people we’re used to seeing on television,” offering a dose of comforting familiarity to young people headed into a parlous world.

Prospects looked bright when these graduates were filling out college applications, but they started classes the month Lehman Brothers disintegrated, financial markets panicked and everyone wondered whether 2008 would turn into 1929. They emerge to an anemic economic recovery, when even for those with a bachelor’s degree, the unemployment rate is 4 percent, double what it was five years ago, and many more people can find only part-time work.

Brian Williams, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, Oprah Winfrey, Fareed Zakaria, Bob Schieffer and Steve Carell, to name a few, had their turns dispensing wisdom. And like their perhaps somewhat less recognizable fellow speakers, they offered warnings of challenges ahead, and some gallows humor.

“The world outside of Harvard has asked me to make a quick announcement,” Andy Samberg, a “Saturday Night Live” cast member, said at that august institution. “The following majors are apparently useless, as of tomorrow: history, literature, all things related to art, social studies, East Asian studies, pretty much anything that ends with studies, Romance languages and, finally, folklore and mythology.”

“Unless,” he added, “you can somehow turn them into an iPhone app. Math and science majors, you guys, are cool. Finally.”

But uplift and idealism still ruled. Graduates were exhorted to do great things, look out for others and maybe, just maybe, put aside their electronic devices for a few minutes. The nearest to universal advice was that graduates should chase what they love, and heal what ails humanity.

There was considerable talk of pre-college education, as speakers like Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, Wendy Kopp of Teach for America and Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone appealed to people to devote themselves to the needs of children.

Clearly, composing a commencement address is a challenge, but certain conventions must be followed. So drawing on a sampling of this year’s speeches, here is a template: ...

Do what moves you. Stick with it through adversity.


 Southern Methodist University

 “Find and follow your passion. Now, I don’t mean just any old thing that interests you, or your career. I mean something you really believe is a unique calling to you — in other words, something that you can’t live without. ... Fortunately, I wandered into a course in international politics taught by a Soviet specialist,  a man named Josef Korbel who had a daughter named Madeleine Albright. And with that one class, I was hooked. I discovered that my passion was Russian — things Russian, things international, diplomacy. Needless to say, this wasn’t exactly what a young black girl from Birmingham was supposed to do, but it was like finding love. I couldn’t explain it, but I knew it was right.” ...