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Grad Time: What Makes a Commencement Speech Memorable?

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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Whether you are an educator or a parent of a high school student, or both, you will be involved in graduations. Most commencement speeches are not memorable. Some, though, contain a good message that gets lost because the speaker goes on for too long. I have been asking people, "Looking back, what would you have wanted someone to say to you at your commencement? What advice would have been good to hear at that point, and on that occasion?"

The consensus answer: "I would like someone to have asked me that question. I would like to have had to think about the advice I would give myself."

And so, this graduation season, I suggest you do exactly that. Ask prospective graduates to give themselves a commencement address, or at least a memorable commencement phrase. Ask them to write that advice on an index card and keep it, looking back on it over time. Certainly, they should put it into their smart phones, save it on their computers, and otherwise record their wisdom electronically. But they also should write it on an old-fashioned index card.

Bill Moyers, noted journalist and author, has given hundreds of speeches and in his book, Moyers on Democracy, shared words he spoke at a commencement address at Hamilton College in 2006. He told students, "Life is where you get your questions answered." But the key point is, you have to have questions. You have to wonder, be inquisitive, not be satisfied, and not be self-centered.

So that would be my second piece of advice: Ask prospective graduates, "What questions about life matter to you? After you graduate, when you go to college or to work, what questions to you hope to find answers to?" Don't be surprised if they don't have a reply ready. Your question is designed to get them to realize Moyers' wisdom -- that life is most fulfilling when we have aspirations and challenges.

There are many messages we would like to give to young people at the time of graduation. But our understanding of their social-emotional and character development tells us that the emotional context of the graduation situation is not the time to deliver serious extensive messages. Best to save the deeper contemplations and inspirational insights for other occasions. Relief and celebration -- with a little reflection -- seems like a good recipe for this graduation season.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

"Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen
would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been
proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no
basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will
dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind.
You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth
until they've faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you'll look
back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can't grasp
now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you
really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.

Don't worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying
is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing
bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things
that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you
at 4 pm on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.


Don't be reckless with other people's hearts. Don't put up with
people who are reckless with yours.


Don't waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you're ahead,
sometimes you're behind. The race is long and, in the end,
it's only with yourself.

Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you
succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.


Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with
your life. The most interesting people I know didn't know at
22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most
interesting 40-year-olds I know still don't.

Get plenty of calcium. Be kind to your knees. You'll miss them
when they're gone.

Maybe you'll marry, maybe you won't. Maybe you'll have children,
maybe you won't. Maybe you'll divorce at 40, maybe you'll dance
the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you
do, don't congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself
either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else's.

Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don't be afraid of
it or of what other people think of it. It's the greatest
instrument you'll ever own.

Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.

Read the directions, even if you don't follow them.

Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.

Get to know your parents. You never know when they'll be gone
for good. Be nice to your siblings. They're your best link to
your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the

Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few
you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography
and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need
the people who knew you when you were young.

Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.
Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you
soft. Travel.

Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians
will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you'll
fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable,
politicians were noble, and children respected their elders.

Respect your elders.

Don't expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust
fund. Maybe you'll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when
either one might run out.

Don't mess too much with your hair or by the time you're 40 it
will look 85.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who
supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way
of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting
over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen."

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