Words of wisdom from commencement speeches

9 of UC's most compelling speakers, from Alfred Hitchcock to Michelle Obama.

Toss your cap! Commencement is a time of celebration after years of hard work, marking the release of thousands upon thousands of students into the real world. But wait — we're not about to let you go without a few words of wisdom, from celebrities, historical figures and even a fellow student. Here are our top 9 favorite UC commencement speeches, ever:

Michelle Obama on fear

“When times get tough and fear sets in, think of those people who paved the way for you and those who are counting on you to pave the way for them.”

UC Merced’s graduation ceremony in 2009 was historic on many fronts. For starters, it was the first commencement the school held, given that its inaugural undergraduate class started in 2005. It was also Michelle Obama’s first commencement address as First Lady. The student-led initiative to have her speak included a YouTube video, Facebook campaign and more than 900 Valentine’s Day cards. She said she accepted as she was moved by the sincerity and creativity of the appeal.

Mike Judge on crooked paths

“So I’ll tell you a quick version of my humble story of my crooked path from graduating with a degree in physics here in ‘85 from this fine university — to creating what is widely considered one of the dumbest shows in the history of television. Hopefully there will be a lesson in there somewhere.”

“Beavis and Butthead,” “King of the Hill,” “Silicon Valley,” they all sprang from the mind of—a UC San Diego physics major? Mike Judge’s education may not seem to add up, but without it, his satirical takes on tech life might not exist, as he explains in his 2009 speech. (And do you really want to live in a world without Bill Lumbergh?)

Rep. John Lewis on courage

"I gave a little blood on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. I thought I was going to die.  But somehow, some way, a group of lawyers wrote the Voting Rights Act. Congress passed it, and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law. As young lawyers you have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate to get in trouble."

Arrested 40 times for his actions on behalf of civil rights, including leading the infamous “Bloody Sunday” Selma march, Rep. John Lewis was uniquely qualified to speak on courage in 2016. His advice to a group of graduating young lawyers? Get in trouble.

Greg Louganis on flexibility

“[Flexibility is] more than just a physical state, it’s a mental and spiritual state as well.”

UC Irvine has had its fair share of luminaries, from then-President Barack Obama to civil rights icon Sylvia Mendez. But no one has done a handstand on stage to demonstrate their point, as did Olympic diver and LGBT activist Greg Louganis in 2015.

Dr. Zubin Damania on ... taking care of expensive shoes?

“Wear shoe covers. This is the most crucial piece of advice I could give you. The hospital is a dangerous place for expensive shoes.”

When you watch the speech, you'll realize it's important advice. Nervous about his public speaking debut in 1999, Dr. Zubin Damania tears up his original speech and ends up delivering what NPR calls one of the best commencement speeches, ever.

Sheryl Sandberg on resiliency

“You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but how you survive.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s 2016 speech at UC Berkeley immediately went viral. It was the first time she spoke publicly about her husband’s death, and her message around the power of resilience resonated with those across the nation who had experienced grief themselves.

Alfred Hitchcock on ... himself

“Who is this man? Who is the real Alfred Hitchcock?”

UC Santa Cruz's Class of 1968 may not have received any particularly uplifting wisdom from the master of suspense, but they did get a speech full of character and anecdotes (including a yarn about Cary Grant, Mount Rushmore and Lincoln's nose). Hitchcock's speech upon receiving his honorary doctorate of fine arts is a dry, dishy (mostly on himself) commentary from the world-class filmmaker. Hitchcockian. 

Ralph Bunche on openness

We know ourselves only as we know other selves.

If you were looking for early clues that Ralph Bunche would one day win a Nobel Peace Prize, this commencement speech would be a good start. The first African American valedictorian of UCLA, Bunche took the stage in 1927 and reflected upon the need for modern man to overcome his worst impulses and connect with the larger world outside himself: a prescient cry given its delivery between the two world wars. Read his full remarks here.

Maya Angelou on heroes and sheroes

“And then I realized that my people could not give me the great names that bring shivers in the marketplaces ... the land that people barter their souls for sometimes, nor money, nor power. But what they gave me was a hero/shero that allowed me to walk as tall, and be free enough to accept other ideas, ideas other than those that generate within my own community.”

Writer, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou was known for her distinctive voice and great stature (both physical and in reputation). It must have been such a treat to hear her recite poems, and sing, at UC Riverside in 1977, to demonstrate that heroes and sheroes are often very different from what we imagine. Alas, we don’t have a recording, but you can read her words of wisdom here.