As the Class of ’21 — and in many cases ’20, finally — walked at college and grad school graduations in person this spring, after a year or more like no other, the messages they heard in commencement speeches were as diverse as the members of the graduating classes themselves. Here are a few selected excerpts:

“Look for heroes not on the silver screen or the pedestal or even at this podium — but at eye level and within reach: the people in your life who have been afraid but have done the right thing anyway, who have shown you by example how to be bold.”

Bina Venkataraman, editorial page editor of The Boston Globe, at the University of Southern California


“You see, Class of 2021, opportunity comes packaged in many boxes and it often shows up with no return address. The sender is history, and she does not accept returns. Once the package is opened, you accept the gift, and you embrace the demands attached to it.”

— Ruby Bridges, civil rights activist, at Tulane University

“There is a difference between your job and your work. Your job is what you do to pay the bills and your work — with a capital W — is the work of justice seeking, of community upliftment and building.”

— U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley at Boston University  

“Disappointment can be one of life’s hidden advantages. It is the fear of failure that creates a culture of inhibition and prevents us from taking risks. Set aside that fear of rejection and you’ll be much more ambitious.”

— Noubar Afeyan, co-founder, Moderna Therapeutics Inc. at Boston University

“Our nation is at its best when we realize that we all do better when we all do better.”

— John Legend, singer-songwriter, at Duke University

“Ask the big questions, the ones that move your field, the questions that challenge the norm and that have the greatest impact. The answers are often slow to come and the path frustrating. Try to be undeterred by the failures. Instead, love the pursuit. It is the pursuit of those answers that is your mission.”

— Rochelle P. Walensky, CDC director, at Northeastern University

“So many of you have been allowed to do the things you’ve done because someone wrapped their arms around you and affirmed your value and worth. That same gift that you’ve been given, I want to encourage you to give it to others.”

— Bryan Stevenson, lawyer, at the University of Michigan

“When we serve as an instrument for a cause that’s greater than ourselves, we experience a sense of community, solidarity and a spree that is profound.”

— Michael Brown, co-founder of City Year, at Gettysburg College

“Whether in times of comfort or convenience, times of challenge and controversy, you know you have it within you; you can do these small acts of courage. You can change lives, you can change communities, you can change the world.”

— Adm. Michelle Howard at Fordham University

“We are sorry for what you have missed, we are grateful for what you have sacrificed, we are so proud of what you have accomplished, we are here to help you achieve your dreams, and we are so hopeful for the lives that you will lead.”

— Bob McKinnon, author, at Pennsylvania State University


“Don’t look for just a job. Look for that horizon, that if you do not discover it, it will forever remain a secret. Look for that treasure, that if you do not uncover it, it will forever remain just X marks the spot. Look for that mystery, that if you don’t unravel it, it will forever remain a mystery.”

— André De Shields, actor, director and choreographer, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison


“Success is waiting for you, achievement is waiting for you. That next rung on the ladder has been waiting for you to arrive, so climb it.”

— Stacy Abrams at The University of Colorado Law School

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