Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

What makes a memorable commencement speech?

Listen to

Download this 0.0MB

The college commencement season is in full bloom. But not all of the speeches end up smelling like a rose.

Clichés kill the commencement speech. Ron Solorzano has heard plenty in 15 years teaching at Occidental College. Like: “Find something you enjoy doing and pursue it. This is the beginning of your career. Make sure to network. You can pursue your dreams.”

Solorzano says Motown founder Berry Gordy nailed it six years ago when he concluded his speech with the R&B classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” as background music.

Most of the people surveyed for this story didn’t remember their college commencement speaker. Leigh Shelton does: “I graduated from college in 2006. And I went to Louisiana State University and our commencement speaker was Dick Cheney."

Shelton’s Texas Democrat grandparents couldn’t listen to him — they led the family out of the ceremonies a few minutes after Cheney took the microphone.

Joe Smoke, of Los Angeles, recalls a theologian gave the commencement speech to his class at Princeton University in 1987.

“But frankly the entire day was overshadowed by the paparazzi who had come to photograph Brooke Shields,” he says.

Only a handful of the speeches live on, such as Apple founder Steve Jobs’ inspiring 2005 address to the Stanford graduating class.

“Stay hungry, stay foolish. And I’ve always wished that for myself. And now as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you,” Jobs told graduates.

That same year, writer David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College that he titled “This is Water”: “The capital T truth is about life before death. 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.”

This year’s Southern California graduates got life advice from Hilda Solis, Jimmy Iovine and Walter Isaacson, of the Aspen Institute. Whether or not they follow it is another matter.