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May 20, 2022

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5 college graduation speeches that shocked students and parents alike

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A college career isn’t complete without a notable commencement speaker to cap the entire experience on graduation day as family, friends and other guests watch in person or tune in from a distance (as they did during COVID). 

In some cases, a college career isn’t complete without a few surprises, either.

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Shock-worthy speakers who have tried jolting new graduates as they head out into the real world include Will Ferrell, J.K. Rowling and Steve Jobs. 

Here are five unique pieces of advice delivered to new college grads from the stage. 

Not to be outdone, Robert de Niro and Jim Carrey have contributed their share of choice pointers, too.

With college graduation season upon us already, here are five memorable pieces of advice delivered from the stage. 

Will Ferrell: ‘Keep throwing darts at the dartboard’ 

“Saturday Night Live” comedian and “Elf” star Will Ferrell spoke at the University of Southern California’s 2017 commencement ceremony, mixing in witty quips for laughs.

Ferrell, a USC alumnus himself (class of 1990), joked about how the honorary doctorate he earned in 2017 was the result of various achievements on his part, including “running around in my underwear” as Ricky Bobby in comedy “Talladega Nights.” 

Actor Will Ferrell attends the University of Southern California 134th Commencement Ceremonies at The Shrine Auditorium on May 12, 2017, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images)

But even the comedic legend turned serious in his address, mentioning that building a family (he has three children) and starting his charity Cancer for College with his fraternity brother Craig Pollard are among his proudest. 

The charity gives college scholarships to cancer survivors.

“Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result.”

“You will never truly be successful until you learn to give beyond yourself,” he said. “Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence.”

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Ferrell assured graduates who may not have it all figured out that it’s OK to be unsure, since he was in the exact same seat three decades earlier.

Actor Will Ferrell delivers the commencement speech during the University of Southern California 134th commencement ceremonies at The Shrine Auditorium on May 12, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images)

“Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result,” he said. 

“Trust your gut. Keep throwing darts at the dart board,” he also said. “Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.”

Steve Jobs: Clear out the old to ‘make way for the new’

Apple founder Steve Jobs was Stanford University’s commencement speaker in 2005. The advice he shared that year has been widely quoted since. 

As a college dropout from Reed College, Jobs credited his decision to withdraw as a full-time student — in order to take singular classes of interest instead, such as calligraphy — for his ultimate success in designing tech interfaces.

Steve Jobs speaks during the 114th commencement at Stanford University in California on Sunday, June 12, 2005. (Jim Gensheimer/San Jose Mercury News) (Photo by MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward,” Jobs said. “You can only connect them looking backward.”

Jobs encouraged graduates to find what they truly love in life, since “the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” 

The speaker also challenged listeners to question themselves. If each day were their last, he said, would they want to do what that day held out in front of them?

“Remembering you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose,” he said bluntly. 

“You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Jobs considered death to be the “single best invention” of life — clearing out the old to “make way for the new.”

“You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

“Right now, the ‘new’ is you,” he said. “But some day not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s quite true.”

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“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life,” he also said. 

Jobs passed away in 2011 from pancreatic cancer complications.

J.K. Rowling: ‘My greatest fear had been realized’

When the “Harry Potter” author and creator spoke to Harvard University’s Class of 2008, she largely focused on a message about failure.

Rowling first mentioned her passion for writing — something her parents, she said, did not see value in pursuing.

Author J.K. Rowling delivers an address at Harvard University’s commencement ceremonies June 5, 2008, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Robert Spencer/Getty Images)

“There is an [expiration] date for blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction,” she said to the crowd.

“I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive.”

But Rowling also noted her experience of living in poverty as a single parent — and how she considered herself the “biggest failure” seven years after her own college graduation. 

Failure, she said, helped reveal her will to succeed.

“I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive,” she said. “And I still had a daughter whom I adored. And I had an old typewriter and a big idea.”

Honorary degree recipient and author J.K. Rowling receives her degree from Marc Goodheart at Harvard’s commencement, on Thursday, June 5, 2008. (Photo by Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

“And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

Rowling reminded the Harvard grads that their resumes are not their life — and that they needed tyo have the humility to recognize that.

Robert De Niro: ‘You didn’t get that part? Next’

Award-winning actor and native New Yorker Robert De Niro opened his 2015 NYU Tisch commencement speech with a typically (for him) shocking message: “You made it, and you’re f*****.”

While the nursing and business students would graduate with jobs already lined up, De Niro called out the art school graduates who lacked the “common sense” to set up a stable future for themselves.

Robert De Niro introduces a performance by Bruce Springsteen at the 72nd annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, June 10, 2018, in New York. (Photo by Michael Zorn/Invision/AP)

“But you didn’t have that choice, did you?” he asked. 

“[You] recognized your passion. When you feel that, you can’t fight it.”

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“When it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense.”

De Niro went on in his typical blunt, no-holds-barred style, telling graduates they were about to open a door that leads to a “lifetime of rejection” in the arts. 

“There will be times when your best isn’t good enough … You’ll be OK.”

He reassured them that often, rejection isn’t personal.

“There will be times when your best isn’t good enough,” he said. “But as long as you give your best, you’ll be OK.”

A sea of graduates in the audience. Scores of college graduations are taking place in this month of May 2022. 
(AP)

The speaker preached the mantra “next” to the class, encouraging them to take their rejections and move on to the next opportunity — and to be swift about it.

“You didn’t get that part?” he said. “Next.” 

Jim Carrey: ‘Ask the universe for it’

Funny guy Jim Carrey, famous for his iconic roles in “Ace Ventura” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” sent off Iowa’s Maharishi International University’s Class of 2014 with a reminder to never put a limit on their desires.

Carrey began by cracking jokes. He shared an analogy in which he compared the world after college — filled with endless opportunities — as a wildcat.

Cast member Jim Carrey attends the premiere of “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” in Hollywood, California, on March 11, 2013. (Reuters)

“She’ll rub up against your leg and purr until you pick her up and start petting her,” he said. “And then out of nowhere she’ll swat you in the face!”

Carrey also declared that hardships in the real world can be counteracted with soft-serve ice cream — and the ability to reject fear.

“You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance at doing what you want.”

“So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality,” he said. “What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dared ask the universe for it.” 

“I’m the proof that you can ask the universe for it,” he said.

Joking aside, Carrey told the new grads to take any chance, no matter the scale.

“You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance at doing what you want,” he said.

The comedian also urged graduates to “risk being seen in all of your glory” while believing in the power of manifestation.

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“It’s about letting the universe know what you want and working toward it while letting go of how it comes to pass.”