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Cue The Political Commentary: Grad Speeches In An Election Year

The commencement speech season is underway and grads are soaking up advice and wisdom all over the country.

And since it's an election year, it's hard for speakers to resist stepping onto the soapbox.

Last weekend, President Obama spoke at Rutgers University in New Jersey, one of the nation's oldest higher ed institutions. He appeared to take a jab at Donald Trump — though he didn't call him out by name.

"Class of 2016, let me be as clear as I can be: In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue," he told grads.

Obama continued, "When our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they're not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, when actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we've got a problem."

In Philadelphia, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the mastermind behind the Broadway hit Hamilton spoke at the University of Pennsylvania — asking forgiveness for having just one Philly reference in his musical. He also made his political point in a brief nod to immigration:

In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system. A story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again, immigrants get the job done.

If these political commentaries seem a bit one-sided, it may be because commencement speakers often skew to the left, and this year appears to be .

But these speeches are just the beginning. There are still many, many more to come this graduation season — including NPR Ed's Claudio Sanchez, who delivers the commencement speech for DePaul University College of Education in June.

In the meantime, if you're looking for life advice — like "Do not pick your nose in public," from Sandra Bullock, or job advice — such as, "Try not to get a regular job," from Jay Leno — you should check out NPR Ed's online commencement database.

We sifted through hundreds of grad speeches (dating back to 1774) and compiled our favorites.

We Need Your Help!

In the next few weeks, we'll be updating the database with the best speeches from the 2015 and 2016 seasons. If you see a great graduation speech this month or next month, let us know and we'll put it in.

Here are just a few we're looking forward to:

  • Jessye Norman(May 23) — Oberlin College
  • Atul Gawande(June 10) — California Institute of Technology
  • Seth Meyers (June 17) — Northwestern University
  • David Lynch(June 18) — Maharishi University of Management
  • You can see a more comprehensive list from the blog Graduation Wisdom here.

    Tell us about your favorite graduation speeches — We're on Twitter at @npr_ed. Our Facebook page is here or you can drop us an email at

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    Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
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