Photograph by Johnnathan Tshibangu via Unsplash

Graduation speeches are wasted on the young

June 25, 2024

You need some graduation speeches right about now. Who couldn’t use some Jeremiah 29:11 thinking? “I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.” (MSG) I know graduation speeches are aspirational, but they also help us lift our heads and they provide simple answers that move us forward. So this time of year, I Google the new crop and revisit some oldie goldies.


I first watched Kylie Kelce, wife of pro footballer Jason Kelce. Kylie, an alum, spoke at the final commencement of Cabrini University. She told the graduates that people will inevitably ask you, “What’s next?” She told them: “‘I don’t know’ can be an honest and sufficient answer,” adding, “…uncertainty probably won’t end after college.”

Isn’t that a Christian answer as well? The Apostle Paul told us to “walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). I am retired and people still ask me “What’s next?” My new answer is going to be “I don’t know.”

Then I watched Father Michael Schmitz from “The Bible in a Year” podcast that I listened to for 2 years. He spoke at Ave Maria University, recalling an outdoor leadership training program in his youth. During the first few days, the equipment was provided, the trails were wide and well-marked, and everything was explained to the group. Soon the trails had forks. Decisions had to be made. Eventually, the trails came to an end, and they were told to bushwhack their way to the next destination. Father Mike pointed to the guided paths the graduates relied on so far in life, but now they would be bushwhacking into the future. I was picking up a common thread here.

Then I heard historian Ken Burns speak at Brandeis University, not about his infamous decision to now give up being politically neutral, but for one sentence. “The opposite of faith is certainty.” If we are certain about everything, we no longer need faith.

I needed to hear those things again.


Every good commencement speech reminds me that life is going to have challenges—thick undergrowth according to Father Mike, and grief according to Ken Burns. Jesus tells us that in this world there will be tribulations, but good lessons can come out of them. Yes, we want our God to take away all the stuff we want to avoid. We want a God who will always make our paths straight. Father Mike compared it to Zamboni parenting. The Zamboni goes ahead of the skaters and smooths out the rough places so you don’t have any ruts. If you have known God for more than a day, you know that the Christian life isn’t like that.

Dr. Seuss’ graduation classic, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” shares the hopeful “Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest…” One page later you find, “Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t…. I’m sorry to say so, but, sadly it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you…”[i]

Chief Justice John Roberts gave a classic graduation speech to his son’s Cardigan Mountain School class in 2017. He not only pointed out the challenges ahead, but wished them upon the grads.

“I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice…I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either…I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”

I needed to hear those realities again.

Graduation speeches are aspirational, but they also help us lift our heads and they provide simple answers that move us forward.


And many a graduation speech looks back at how unrelated pieces and people came together. God works in mysterious ways. When Steve Jobs spoke at Stanford in 2005, he talked about dropping out of college to take classes that interested him, like calligraphy.

“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts…Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”

Or as Conan O’Brien reflected on being fired as a late-night host when he spoke at Dartmouth in 2011, “…there are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.”


Finally, all addresses mention thankfulness for the school, the teachers, and for parents. We don’t make it through life without a lot of help. Moses cautions: “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18 NIV). Moses would not have made it without Aaron, David without Jonathan, Paul without Timothy, Barnabas, and Lydia among others.

The Gospel according to Graduation Speeches provides simple answers that change things and move us forward. As TIAA CEO Thasunda Brown Duckett told this year’s Howard University grads:

“Don’t dwell too long on that rearview mirror. Use it to take a quick glance backward to ensure that you can get to your destination safely. But I want you to…be reminded [that] the windshield is a lot wider than the rearview mirror.”

Rev. Dr. Paul Bailey retired in 2021 from the Eastwood Baptist Church in Syracuse, NY. In addition to over 40 years of pastoral ministry, he was an adjunct instructor in Communications at Onondaga Community College for 15 years.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Random House, 1990.

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