There’s no doubt about it: White dudes who write know their shit when it comes to commencements. “This is Water,” David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon commencement speech, is one of the most oft-cited graduation addresses of all time, and Neil Gaiman’s was so good it inspired — you guessed it — a book. And while these men’s words are undoubtedly inspirational, there’s more to college graduation speeches than the frequent quotes you see posted on Facebook walls around this time of year. In addition to the George Saunderses and John Greens of the world, female writers have thrown down with commencement addresses of their own.
In the spirit of getting an education and realizing there’s way more to life than what white guys have to say, here are seven female authors telling it like it is in graduation speeches from colleges across the country. These words aren’t meant for women only; they’re about social responsibility, the value of hard work and how weird graduation robes look. And don’t worry: If you still want to gift Gaiman’s book as a graduation present, no judgement.
1. Barbara Kingsolver at DePauw University (1994)
Explaining how she attempted to get out of her own graduation years ago, Kingsolver explains, “I was 22, and I was way too cool to put on a goofy batman outfit and a paper plate on my head and march down to East College and listen to a bunch of boring geriatrics tell me about how it was up to the youth of America to save the world.” Despite her hilarious opening anecdote, Kingsolver did manage to graduate (from DePauw) and went on to write best-selling novels like The Poisonwood Bible and The Bean Trees. Her commencement speech is an ode to personal responsibility and social change through movements like environmentalism. “I blame my liberal arts education,” Kingsolver explains. “I know just enough about the world to believe in my own position in it. And I think you do, too.”
2. Susan Sontag at Vassar College (2003)
Sontag’s commencement address gives a well spoken shout-out to women (“Don’t allow yourself to be patronized, condescended to — which, if you are a woman, happens and will continue to happen all the time”). Mostly, though, Sontag’s speech is made up of tidbits of beautifully composed advice applicable to everyone, like her remark, “You’ll notice that I haven’t talked about love. Or about happiness. I’ve talked about becoming — or remaining — the person who can be happy, a lot of the time, without thinking that being happy is what it’s all about. It’s not. It’s about becoming the largest, most inclusive, most responsive person you can be.”
3. Yvonne Thornton at Tuskegee University (2003)
Not only is Dr. Thornton an accomplished OB-GYN (she’s a professor of clinical Obstetrics at Cornell), but she’s a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author as well. (Her memoir, The Ditchdiggers’ Daughters, has been translated into over 13 languages.) In her 2003 commencement address, Thornton shared the secret to her success: determination. “If my sisters and I, who were written off because we were dark-skinned black women, can rise to levels of success against all odds, so can you,” she reminded listeners.
4. Nora Ephron at Wellesley College (1996)
Ephron’s speech gave a powerful message to female graduates that still resonates almost 10 years later: “Don’t let the number of women in the workforce trick you. There are still lots of magazines devoted almost exclusively to making perfect casseroles and turning various things into tents.... One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don’t take it personally, but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Park organized her commencement address for Mount Holyoke around 16 suggestions for graduates (suggestions 9 through 13: “Eat your vegetables, floss your teeth, try mediation, get some exercise and sharpen your seven senses” — ESP and sense of humor included). Each of her ideas was important, but her final moment of wisdom resonated most strongly: “... believe that the sort of life you wish to live is, at this very moment, just waiting for you to summon it up. And when you wish for it, you begin moving toward it, and it, in turn, begins moving toward you.”
6. Tracy Chevalier at Oberlin College (2013)
Chevalier, author of historical fiction novels like The Girl with the Pearl Earring, offers the ultimate validation for English majors: Her speech comes in the form of five writing tips. Some, like “Use adverbs and adjectives as little as possible,” might initially seem applicable to only would-be novelists, but Chevalier has you covered even if you were pre-med: “Life is about nouns and verbs. It’s about action, about people doing. When you cut out adjectives and adverbs, you cut out the things that qualify action or interpret or analyze action. You reach the pure essence of experience.”
7. Toni Morrison at Wellesley College (2004)
Morrison’s speech is another one for writers: Using the analogy of the novelist, she instructs graduates to “be your own story,” saying, “From my point of view, which is that of a storyteller, I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art.”
Graduation is a time to commend hard work (like the fact that you aced that enlightenment literature class without reading a single book), but as these speakers prove, it’s also a moment to take a deep breath, let it all out and realize how little you still know about the world. One way to find out more? Read the words of those who haven’t always had their voices heard.
Let us know in the comments below which one of these commencement speeches is your favorite — and be sure to mention any that aren’t on this list as well! And if you have any advice for graduates reading this, be sure to post that, too.
Adina Applebaum is Michigan native studying English and creative writing at Barnard College. Her crowning achievements in life are memorizing all the lyrics on The Slim Shady LP and eating an entire gallon of chocolate-covered raisins during orientation week of college.
About the Book:
Hypnotizing us with the deceptively simple rhythm of the ordinary, We Were Flying to Chicago offers a moment of change: the view over the cliff, the breath before a decision, a sidelong glance of impending news. Award-winning writer Kevin Clouther skillfully slows time to note the visceral, emotional impact of an everyday moment.
A man drives to the wrong mountain, a hubcap cleaner moonlights as a karaoke star and a woman trusts a stranger on the bus. Each of the 10 stories in We Were Flying to Chicago is contemporary without being ironic or glib, offering a glimpse of stark vulnerability, faith and shared experience.
About the Author:
Kevin Clouther was born in Boston and grew up on Cape Cod and in South Florida. He holds degrees from the University of Virginia and Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he completed his thesis under Marilynne Robinson and won the Richard Yates Fiction Award for best short story. He has worked at The Iowa Review, Meridian and The Virginia Literary Review, where he served as fiction editor. He teaches creative writing at Stony Brook University, where he coordinates the Program in Writing Reading Series, and at John Hopkins. He has previously taught at Bridgewater College in Virginia, the University of Michigan Dearborn and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in Floral Park, New York with his wife and two children.
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