On the Light Side: Past Commencement Advice

Mia Farrow, actress and advocate, speaks at the School of Fine Arts Commencement Ceremony at Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts.
Amid the mix of advice and reflection, commencement speeches often include some light moments.


Mia Farrow, actress and advocate, speaks at the School of Fine Arts Commencement Ceremony at Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts.
Mia Farrow, actress and human rights advocate, speaks at the School of Fine Arts commencement ceremony in 2011. (UConn File Photo)

Commencement speeches are an opportunity for distinguished individuals to impart wisdom to the newest crop of graduates headed out into the world. A mix of advice and reflection, their words are intended to inspire the next generation. Since the first commencement ceremony at the University of Connecticut in 1882, speakers have included theologians and politicians, authors and academics. In one early ceremony, students gave addresses; many times alumni have taken the stage.

But serious as they are, commencement speeches often include a smattering of light moments too. Some of those moments are captured here.

2011, Mia Farrow, actress and human rights advocate

“I should probably start by acknowledging your disappointment that I’m not Jon Stewart. But look at the bright side – your disappointment will only last 10 minutes – whereas I am disappointed every single day that I’m not Jon Stewart.”

2007, Fay Weldon, British novelist, essayist, and screenwriter

“You will have photos taken today, and you will show them to your children on their graduation day, and they will look at the clothes you were wearing and your haircuts, and probably fall about with mirth. Imagine them, the youngsters of 2030, their sideburns shaking with laughter.”

2005, Robert Ballard, president, Institute for Exploration at Mystic Aquarium and director, Institute for Archaeological Oceanography, University of Rhode Island

“I have discovered that if you climb a mountain that is say 1,000 feet tall and fall off that mountain and break your neck, you are just as dead as you would be had you fallen off a mountain that is 30,000 feet tall. You’re dead all the same, so why did you pick a small mountain to fall off?”

2003, Les Payne ’64 (CLAS), journalist and columnist with Newsday

“I did an Internet search on the history of the commencement address and found that the very first one was allegedly given in the 12th century … in Italy … in the city of Bologna. Since that time, the city of Bologna has been linked not only to commencement addresses but also to inexpensive sandwich meat.”

2000, Rita R. Colwell, director, National Science Foundation

“Today, most people can anticipate four or five job or career changes after graduation. View those changes as a chance to live many lives in a lifetime. Cats aren’t the only beings with nine lives these days.”

2000, Christopher Dodd, U.S. Senator

“I remember the first time I was asked to speak at a commencement. I was a young congressman from New London, and I was nervous. A friend of mine, an Irish priest, shared a piece of advice that I have never forgotten. He said, ‘Now, Christopher, a commencement speaker is much like the guest of honor at an Irish wake. They need you in order to have the party, but nobody expects you to say very much.’”

1999, David McCullough, historian, biographer, author, and host of the PBS program The American Experience

“If information were learning, you could become educated by memorizing the World Almanac. Were you to memorize the World Almanac, you wouldn’t be educated. You’d be weird.”

1998, George H.W. Bush, former President of the United States

“I’ll tell you what I really think about long graduation speeches. But as my friend, Dana Carvey would say, ‘Not gonna do it! Wouldn’t be prudent!’ … [But] I will give you 15 minutes on why Dennis Rodman should never be Secretary of State.”