Sampling wisdom from buffet of graduation speeches

This year’s graduating classes of high school and college students have persevered through many challenges, including the global pandemic. With all their obstacles, they persisted. Their personal resilience can inspire others for the better.

Dressed in caps and gowns, the class of 2023 listened to commencement addresses sharing the message to push forward for positive change. The speeches have a double meaning: reflect on the past as a springboard into the future.

In early May, civil rights attorney Ben Crump spoke at North Carolina Central University reminding graduates: “Lift as you climb and never forget where you came from.”

Crump is uniquely suited to deliver this message. He is an attorney representing the civil rights and wrongful death lawsuits on behalf of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, the Flint Water Crisis and others.

His message reminds graduates of the responsibility to share their learning with others: “Education is of no value if we keep it amongst the educated. You gotta take this education back to your ‘hood. Back to your homeboys, back to your homegirls. Back to your cousins. You gotta take it, and you gotta share it with them.”

Continuing this theme of inspiring others, “Abbott Elementary” actress Sheryl Lee Ralph delivered the Rutgers University commencement address. She is an Emmy award winner and Rutgers graduate, who was recognized with an honorary doctorate.

Ralph gave an emotional address: “Our country and the world took a tragic and difficult turn. Kobe died, George Floyd was killed and then the world and everything changed when COVID-19 … shut down the world.”

She applauded the graduates, “But you stayed the course, you never gave up, you kept doing. We need people who have been through something and still have so much to give and share — that’s you.”

On a global front, Oksana Markarova, Ukrainian Ambassador to the Unites States, spoke to the Boston College graduates. She reminded them that common purpose knows no boundaries.

“Freedom is not a given. Opportunities are not a given. Democracy is not a given,” Markarova said. “We all have many battles to fight in, many obstacles to overcome, many challenges to see through. Where will we get the strength? It’s our responsibility to take action for what we love.”

Markarova encouraged the graduates, “Choose to do that, and in that moment, you will become truly extraordinary.”

Markarova was recognized with an honorary doctor of law degree for her “courageous and unwavering devotion” to her country and the Ukrainian people.

The theme of making a difference continued at George Washington University. The commencement speech was given by Bryan Stevenson, the author of the memoir, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” the basis of the movie, “Just Mercy.”

Stevenson’s speech emphasized hope and addressed injustice. He is an attorney and founding director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit providing legal representation for people wrongly convicted or denied a fair trial.

“Hopelessness is the enemy of justice,” Stevenson said. “Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.”

“I believe we have to create a generation of people like you, who are not just engineers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, teachers, business leaders but are people who are also committed to doing things that increase the justice quotient in our world.”

This priority on standing up for bigger ideals continued with Tom Hanks speaking at Harvard University: “We could all use a superhero right now.”

Hanks’s main message was safeguarding truth: “If you live in the United States, the responsibility is yours. Ours. The effort is optional, but the truth is sacred, unalterable, chiseled into the stone of the foundation of our republic.”

Collectively, these graduation speeches are a time capsule of the events the graduates have lived through, including a tumultuous pandemic and intense social change. Their common history made them aware that they are not bystanders; they can encourage others to not take anything for granted.

Making a positive impact is an ongoing challenge against many obstacles. The speeches remind us that small steps taken toward a bigger purpose can inspire others.

Commencement represents new beginnings for a better tomorrow that can influence our collective future.

(Margo Bartsch founded College Essay Coach, a full-service college admission business and has been an adjunct professor in business at Champlain College and at Middlebury College.)