Just before college graduates traipse across the stage to claim the fruits of their years of study, they are subjected to one final lecture: the commencement address. Most often the speaker is a CEO, politician, celebrity, or even just a member of the school’s administration who attempts to confer some measure of guidance to those leaving behind the relative protection of academia to venture forth into the real world.
Some of this guidance goes viral, like when a Chicago newspaper columnist advised young people to “wear sunscreen” and it somehow got made into a hit song by Australian film director Baz Luhrmann. Some, like Admiral William McRaven’s exhortation to “make your bed,” become best-selling books. Others come with welcome surprises, as when Austin billionaire Robert Smith announced he’d pay off the student loans of this year’s Morehouse College class. But much, much more of it goes in one ear and out the other, since many of the grads are just waiting to hear their own names get called.
With more than 200 colleges in Texas, there was a lot of wisdom bestowed across the state this graduation season. We’ve rounded up the best bits so that you too might be inspired to take the world by storm.
The University of Texas at Austin
CEO, Dell Technologies
Dell never made it to his own college graduation. He dropped out of the University of Texas when he was a 19-year-old successfully selling the computer parts that eventually made him the billionaire founder of a massive technology company. Near the beginning of his speech to this year’s grads, Dell joked, “When a college freshman says he’s dropping out because he’s selling something out of his dorm room … it’s probably not 10MB hard drives.” He went on to remind Longhorns of the need to serve others and acknowledged the importance of failures along the road to success:
“Many people never realize what they’re capable of, because they’re afraid to make mistakes. Many people don’t stand up for what’s right, because they’re afraid to be wrong. But that’s not how changing the world works. Unless you’re willing to take risks, you won’t have a chance to use your talents when and where they matter most … The world needs your talents now. The world needs you now. The eyes of Texas— and the world—are upon you.”
UT-Austin College of Fine Arts
Ribon has been a prominent blogger, a best-selling novelist, and, most recently, a screenwriter who worked on Disney’s Moana. As a UT undergraduate, though, she was an acting major. While she was studying in the BFA program, a teacher noted how strong her writing was. It took a while for her to appreciate the compliment. At the time, she told the commencement crowd, she thought, “Are you saying I am ugly?”
Her speech was by turns hilarious, poignant, and full of biting bits of truth:
“Tomorrow you’re a baby again. Taking baby steps and learning what you like and what you don’t like and who to trust, and you get to ask a million questions—what is that, and why and how? You get to say ‘gimme’ and I want and I need, and you sleep at weird hours and fall on your face and get right back up because you are driven by an unstoppable forward momentum to learn and get better and get bigger and stronger. You are the newest, the youngest, the worst, the least informed. Headstrong, brave and bold. You get to try new things, meet new people, see new worlds.
But here’s the thing for everybody here, not just the graduates: You can always be this way. You should be this way. Life should be filled with new starts and fresh beginnings because this is the stuff that makes us sing, that makes our bodies sizzle with the thrill of finding the point of it all. You know what you love now, but you don’t know what or whom you’re going to love next, and it can knock you out. Say yes to the scary. Book the flight. Try the class. Shake the hand. Put on the roller skates. Dance at the wedding. Pack the bag. If it’s calling you, it’s because it’s asking you to take action.”
The University of Texas at El Paso
Natalicio might not be a household name beyond El Paso, but for students at UTEP, she’s nothing short of legendary. (As is her vast t-shirt collection, which was featured in the June 2019 issue of Texas Monthly.) This was the university president’s 31st commencement and also her last. Under her leadership, UTEP’s research expenditures increased from $5 million to $95 million, and in her final commencement address before retiring, she discussed the Paso del Norte region, the area nearly 90 percent of UTEP students call home:
“Class of 2019, a majority of you are from this region. You are proof that great things happen in communities where talented young people from a broad range of backgrounds are afforded respect and authentic opportunities to achieve their dreams, and where educators from school districts, the community college, and the university work collaboratively to create conditions for all talented young people to achieve their full potential.”
Southern Methodist University
Chairman and CEO, American Airlines
Parker started his speech by thanking everyone who’d flown in for the festivities, and airplane jokes were sprinkled throughout his address, in which he called for graduates to be mindful of the polarization that plagues society today. He said he was worried that his message should be framed more positively: rather than focusing on division, he could say the students must focus on making society more united. “But for some reason,” the American Airlines CEO said, “I couldn’t bring myself to say ‘united’ that many times.” Ba-dum-ching. This other piece of his advice was similarly on brand:
“There’s this old classic movie that I’m sure most all of you have not seen, called The Graduate. And, in that movie, a young Dustin Hoffman is cornered at his college graduation by an older family friend who excitedly leans in and whispers, ‘I just want to say one word to you. Just one word: plastics.’ Now that might have been decent advice in 1967, but it’s probably not the best advice in the environmentally conscious world of 2019. But I do have my own one word advice for you all today: travel.
Travel makes our world smaller. It brings people together. Travel broadens our horizons. It introduces us to new people and cultures and teaches us that we all have much more in common than we have differences.”
University of Houston Law School
Janet Langford Carrig
Retired Senior Legal Executive, ConocoPhillips
The graduates of Houston’s law school would do anything for a resume like Carrig’s, who was most recently ConocoPhillips’ general counsel. She retired last fall, but not before being named one of National Law Journal’s 50 Most Influential Women Lawyers in America and receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Texas General Counsel Forum. The secret to a career like hers, she told students, was to stay true to themselves and never lose sight of their personal beliefs:
“Another reason it’s important to be authentic is so you can bring your special talents to the world. This is why I say know yourself without false humility. You have a special gift, and the world needs it. It may not seem like a lot, but it is. The second reason to know yourself is so that you will make good decisions—by which I mean decisions you are happy with in retrospect.”
One last piece of advice for you: If you’re ever in need of inspiration, spend a couple of hours watching commencement speeches online. You’ll be savoring the moment, taking risks, and embracing failure in no time. Oh, and remembering to wear sunscreen.
What did we miss? Which of this year’s commencement speeches did you find most memorable?