7 Inspiring Columbia Graduation Speeches Worth Revisiting

From chefs to presidents, listen to the wisdom of some of Columbia's greatest graduation speeches. 

Acacia O'Connor
April 12, 2021

After a year of pandemic stress and uncertainty, we could all use some words of wisdom in our lives. Luckily, Columbia graduation and class day speeches from days of yore is exactly what the doctor ordered. Listen to these seven speeches, from chefs to actors to presidents, and take their guidance and humor with you in your day-to-day life. Some of our favorite quotes from their speeches are excerpted beneath the videos. 

And don't forget to check out this updating list of the 2021 Class Day speakers. Make sure you save the date for Friday, April 30, at 10:30 a.m., as we celebrate the class of 2021 with a university-wide Commencement ceremony, streaming virtually. 

Public Radio Personality Ira Glass, Columbia Journalism 2018

“Commencement addresses are kind of a ridiculous form. I oppose them. It’s a kind of speech that’s doomed to failure. Because nothing can be said that is up to the task at hand. You are being launched from this training phase of your life into the vast exciting unknown that is to come in your life. What words can I or anyone else say to make that any better? Seriously. What poncey little speech makes the liftoff of a rocket better?”

Chef Jacques Pepin GS’70, GSAS’72, GS Class Day 2010

“I had to learn how to study again because I had left school at 13 after primary school to begin my cooking apprenticeship... I’m still amazed at my luck, to be in my mid-20s, with only a primary school education, to be accepted at Columbia University was nothing short of miraculous. I believe it could not have happened in any other country, and it could not have happened in any other school but General Studies.” 

Actress Meryl Streep, Barnard Commencement Speaker 2010

“If you have been touched by the Success Fairy, people think you know why. People think success breeds enlightenment and you are duty-bound to spread it around like manure, really. Fertilize those young minds. Let them in on the secret. What is it that you know that no one else knows? The self-examination begins, one looks inward, an interior door. Cobwebs. Black. The light bulbs burned out. The airless dank refrigeration of an insanely overscheduled unexamined life.”

President Barack Obama CC’83, Barnard Commencement 2012

“Making your mark on the world is hard. It takes patience. It takes commitment. It comes with plenty of setbacks and plenty of failures. But whenever you hear those voices that say you can’t make a difference, whenever someone tells you to set your sights lower, what previous generations who have come before should give you hope.” 

“If you’re willing to do your part now, if you’re willing to reach up and close that gap between what America is and what America should be, I want you to know I will be right there with you. If you’re willing to fight for that brilliant, radically simple idea of America that no matter who you are or what you look like, no matter who you love or what God you worship, you can still pursue your own Happiness, I will join you every step of the way.”

Restaurateur Judy Joo SEAS'97, SEAS Class Day 2018

“What you have to realize, though, is that everyone is scared. What’s going to set you apart is how you can deal with that fear, how you can power through it. And if you have the relentless determination, fortitude, and sheer tenacity to transform all of that nervous energy and anxiety into courage. Courage to try, courage to take risks, and courage to face failure.”

Broadway Star Brandon Victor Dixon CC’03, Columbia College Class Day 2019

“Admitting one’s privilege isn’t an indictment of oneself, but ignoring it in the face of those without, is. And I believe the purpose of what we do with our time here, with our resources, if it is not in support of all the life around us, than what we are doing, what we are engaged in, it’s not worth anything at all. That’s where the bar is now.” 

“Change and unity are created from the ground up by coalitions of neighbors and friends. You can wield all the reason and logic in the world but sometimes the only way to change someone is to literally touch their lives.” 

President Joe Biden, Law School Class Day 2020

“From this pandemic, you can remake the world as it should be. To see COVID-19 as a force majeure that compels us to rewrite the social contract that’s been scrambled by nature’s fury and human failures. You can set the terms for an economy, healthcare system, education system, immigration system, and a justice system that uplifts more people of every race, gender, and generation. You can build a truly representative democracy with more facts than lies, less money, and more people in the voting process. You can win the race against climate change.”