Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Words of Wisdom: 10 Inspirational Graduation Speeches

July 11, 2012 6 min read

Recently, Education Week and Education Week Teacher asked readers to send us 2012 high school commencement addresses that inspired them. Below you’ll find graduation remarks delivered by a superintendent, a judge, a school board member, a corporate executive, and, of course, students. In addition to the speeches submitted by readers, Education Week Commentary Intern Ellen Wexler scoured the Internet for stirring language from other high school commencement speakers. Read on, and feel free to add your own advice for the class of 2012 in the online comments section below.

BRIC ARCHIVE

I challenge you all to take everything you’ve learned from every experience, conversation, and lesson plan with you into the real world and make the best of it. No, it’s not going to be easy, nor will success knock on your door tomorrow night, but I want for you all to continue to make PROGRESS. Whether it be in school, at work, or just becoming a better person in life, always, always, always continue to make progress.

Gavin Barner
Student
Greensboro College Middle College, Greensboro, N.C.
May 18, 2012
Read the full speech. (PDF)

Always remember, good ideas may come at you very rarely in life. Seize them, grab them, and act on them.

William A. Clark
Manheim Central School District Superintendent
Manheim Central High School, Manheim, Pa.
June 8, 2012
Read the full speech. (PDF)

First, I believe that the world is not as ugly as it sounds. There is undue pressure put upon graduating classes that they need to go forth into society and fix it completely. We are led to think that we’re being sent off into a sick and tired planet Earth, full of chaos and disaster, on the brink of destruction, and we are supposed to roll up our sleeves like an old World War II poster and clean up the mess. But while we do owe a service to the world, I believe in a brighter outlook.
The world is not ugly, or broken. It is just much older than us, and has aged accordingly. ... It is easy to be scared by the horrors of the daily news, but I believe that it is our job to seek the good of it all—the good that will always exist amidst opposition.

Jenna Donahue
President, Class of 2012
Avon High School, Avon, Conn.
June 15, 2012
Read the full speech.

Complexity, diversity, and pace of change will characterize the business environment of the future, and you will necessarily have to compete in that environment by embracing change. It cannot be assumed for a minute that what was done, or was relied upon yesterday, will be viable tomorrow. ...
Don’t be satisfied with answers that are correct. Instead, train yourself to always look for better ways, better answers. Don’t settle for just being a good and competent employee. Be creative. Be innovative. See the big picture. You will have a huge advantage in the new industrial world. ...
Finally, make sure you learn to communicate well. Communication is perhaps the least-emphasized skill set in most educational programs, but I guarantee you that communication will be the ultimate key to your success.

Tom Brady
Chairman, Plastic Technologies Inc.; Chairman, TECHS Governance Board
Toledo Early College High School, Toledo, Ohio
May 25, 2012
Read the full speech. (PDF)

I’d like to share with you just four recommendations on how to maximize the experience of college and prepare for later success in life:
1. Be the first one to ask a question in class, and even more importantly, in large lecture halls. You’ll get noticed by your professors ... and, eventually, develop a relationship with your professors.
2. Exercise every day.
3. Take the lead to form study groups for one or more of your classes: The annual Harvard freshman study shows that students in study groups are happier and achieve higher grades than those who do all their work alone.
4. Be a hero to someone. ...
Remember the words of Horace Mann in his last commencement speech in 1859: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

Patrick F. Bassett
President, National Association of Independent Schools
Fountain Valley School of Colorado, Colorado Springs, Colo.
June 26, 2012
Read the full speech. (PDF)

Character is not created with a single act, no matter how brilliant or bold. It is forged in the smallest of struggles, the product of a thousand, thousand strokes. Your tool for carving your character’s template lies, in the words of the poet Robert Lowell, within your “peculiar power to choose.” Ultimately, it is the choice of the fundamental over the frivolous, preferring what is true over what’s accepted, the choosing of what is right over what is easy.

Gary Brochu
President, Berlin, Conn., Board of Education
Berlin High School, Berlin, Conn.
June 17, 2012
Read the full speech.

You’ve learned who you are and what needs to be done to build a better tomorrow. ... And it doesn’t have to be what we’ve done. Soccer players have stopped civil wars. The Innocence Project is ending wrongful imprisonment. Doctors stopped smallpox. Start an art studio, write inspiring folk music, build a soup kitchen. ... [M]ake a billion dollars and give it away. Just do something that makes you happy.

Elliott Witney
School Leader, KIPP Academy
KIPP Houston High School, Houston
June 2, 2012
Read the full speech.

We were only in 2nd grade when the planes hit the World Trade Center, and we were only teenagers when the economy started to collapse. It’s hard to be so sure about your own future when the world doesn’t seem to know its own future.
But it is the generations that faced the most that turn out to make the biggest difference. We are one of those generations.

Will Eichhorn
Co-valedictorian
Perry Hall High School, Baltimore
June 1, 2012
Read the full speech.

Is it really that difficult to find in ourselves the motivation and perseverance to keep fighting for a brighter future? All it takes is to believe that it is possible—that it is possible for us to achieve our goal, our dream. Our past is crucial for our future. We must use our past experiences to transform ourselves into an intellectual, responsible man or intellectual, responsible woman. ...
I believe that a person who endures unexpected challenges and hardship, yet emerges with an undefeated smile and a modest character, is a great leader. We must believe that we can be like those leaders and surpass what life gives us. Believing in ourselves is the greatest challenge. But believing in ourselves can also be our greatest accomplishment.

Fatima Salgado
Student
John Hancock High School, Chicago
June 8, 2012
Read the full speech.

It was easier for me, nearly 50 years ago, than it is for you today, to believe in some basic and unchanging truths, to aspire to a code of conduct that was largely accepted as setting the standard for governing one’s actions, and to hold fast to traditional concepts of integrity and honesty. Fifty years ago, there was something akin to a generally accepted social compact, defining what was expected of people in their personal lives. The lines between right and wrong, between morality and immorality, between acceptable conduct and conduct that was to be condemned, were brighter and clearer and more easily drawn in 1965 than they are in 2012.
... You can accept personal responsibility for your actions and for your life. You do not need to be dependent on others to care for you, to protect you, to provide for you, and most importantly, to make decisions for you. Once you become dependent on others, you will discover that it is the caregiver, not you, who will determine not only how to satisfy your needs but, ultimately, what your needs are. You will sacrifice for perceived security your personal freedom to choose and chart your own course. You must not accept a life of dependency and mediocrity and forgo the opportunity to achieve great things by accepting the challenge of self-reliance.

Victor Ludwig
Staunton, Va., Circuit Court Judge; President, Robert E. Lee High School Class of 1965
Robert E. Lee High School, Staunton, Va.
June 2, 2012
Read the full speech.

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Deputy Commentary Editor Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2012 edition of Education Week

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