Required Reading Topics for Recent Graduates, Topic 1: Commencement Speeches

    You have (or, your student has) just finished a college degree. Congrats! It's a huge accomplishment. And, perhaps best of all, no more assigned homework. However, just because no one is assigning more reading to be done at home doesn't mean you shouldn't devour writings on important topics. Today, we're suggesting the first of five critical topics for recent graduate readings. We may not be your professor, but these readings still count for pass/fail--in real life. Consider these required readings. 

You have (or, your student has) just finished a college degree. Congrats! It’s a huge accomplishment. And, perhaps best of all, no more assigned homework. However, just because no one is assigning more reading to be done at home doesn’t mean you shouldn’t devour writings on important topics.

Today, we’re suggesting the first of five critical topics for recent graduate readings. We may not be your professor, but these readings still count for pass/fail–in real life. Consider these required readings.

Topic 1: Commencement


Let it soak in once more. You’re done. You’ve graduated. Perhaps, if you’re like some of us at College Parents of America, the commencement speech at your graduation was hard to pay attention to–all you wanted to do is to walk across the stage and get your diploma. Well, luckily, there are some really good commencement speeches that you can easily find.

The following are some of our favorites and contain life-directing advice. Some are overtly on ethics and attitude, while others toward lives of practical achievement and efficiency.

David Foster Wallace, commencement speech at Kenyon College (often known as “This is Water”)

  • Memorable passage: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’… It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.” “This is water.” It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., commencement speech at Oberlin College (known as “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution”)

  • Memorable passage: “Let us stand up. Let us be a concerned generation. Let us remain awake through a great revolution. And we will speed up that great day when the American Dream will be a reality. We, in the final analysis, can gain consolation from the fact that at least we’ve made strides in our struggle for peace and in our struggle for justice. We still have a long, long way to go, but at least we’ve made a creative beginning.”

Adam Savage, commencement at Sarah Lawrence College

  • Memorable passage: The other thing that happened to me is that I learned how to work hard. Like bust my ass hard. There’s few things that get you over your own crap more than working hard. Wanna know how to work hard? It’s not complicated. All you have to do is listen. Listen to what’s going on around you. Learn how the project you’re working on fits into the big picture. Learn how you fit in. Pay attention. When you genuinely understand how the big picture works, you start being able to anticipate changes, adapt your behavior, or output. You do this and you will simply do your job better, and you’ll make the job of everyone around you easier. This is my one regret: that I didn’t know until I was in my mid 20s how to truly bust my ass. People who are smart and work hard are, in fact, so hard to find that they stick out like sore thumbs. In the right way.”

Wendy Kopp, commencement at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

  • Memorable passage: “In my undergraduate senior thesis, I declared that I would try to create such a [nonprofit teaching] corps myself, as a non-profit organization. When my thesis adviser looked at my budget, which showed that to recruit 500 new teachers into this corps during the first year would cost two-and-a-half million dollars, he asked me if I knew how hard it was to raise $2,500, let alone two-and-a-half million dollars. Aided by my inexperience, I was unphased by his question. When school district officials and potential funders laughed at the notion that the Me Generation would jump at the chance to teach in urban and rural communities, their concerns, too, went unheard. That year 2,500 graduating seniors competed to enter Teach For America, in response to a grassroots recruitment campaign – flyers under doors since there was no email back then! And one year after I graduated, with two-and-a-half million dollars in hand from the corporate and foundation community, I was looking out on an auditorium full of 489 recent college graduates who had joined Teach For America’s first corps. My very greatest asset in reaching this point was that I simply did not understand what was impossible. I would soon learn the value of experience, but Teach For America would not exist today were it not for my naïveté.”

Biz Stone, commencement at Babson College

  • Memorable passage: “This brings us to lesson number one: Opportunity Can Be Manufactured. Yes, you can wait around for the right set of circumstances to fall into place and then leap into action but you can also create those set of circumstances on your own. In so doing, you manufacture your own opportunities. This is as true for high school sports as it is for entrepreneurism or corporate culture. It has helped me immeasurably.”

Bill Watterson, commencement at Kenyon College

  • Memorable passage: “But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another. Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth. You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them. To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

Over the next two weeks, College Parents of America will post more required reading topics for college graduates.


If you’re looking for more commencement speeches, we suggest this amazing compendium from NPR.