It is that time of the year when business people, artists and politicians go to colleges – not to learn or lecture (at least not in the way one might expect) but to inspire university graduates before they start their professional journeys. These commencement speeches can be energetic, bold, nostalgic and even funny, but most importantly, they are inspiring, because they encourage new generations to improve this world. Some of these speeches are delivered by inspirational figures such as Pharrell Williams at New York University, Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard and William Wang (Founder, CEO and Chairman of VIZIO Inc), at UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business this year. Whether or not these speakers have attained a college degree does not matter, because they have gained valuable experience throughout their lives to succeed. The commencement ceremony is, in an extravagant way, the last undergraduate lecture you will have to attend in the academic year.
Sometimes, you just need a few words of encouragement to make the impossible possible. And having the opportunity to hear those words from someone you admire is a privilege not many people can afford. That is why commencement speeches are remarkably valuable.
In these speeches, you are presented with a problem: the world is a rough place to live in. However, speakers are not being pessimistic or trying to discourage the graduates. It is the complete opposite, as they trust the skills and knowledge of the upcoming generations that will succeed and continue upon their work. In his speech at Harvard, Zuckerberg encouraged prospective professionals to continue his dream of a more connected world where everyone has a purpose. He argued that we are forgetting our purpose because many jobs are disappearing to technology.
Without purpose, he added, there cannot be happiness as purpose “is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for.” Zuckerberg’s message is a powerful one because our society and this world in general have been hindered by unmotivated people who have not been able to reach their potential and contribute to society in the ways they want to. Moreover, having a purpose and not trying to reach our potential is oxymoronic because having a purpose motivates people to excel, and to give back to the community that has helped them.
Like in any lecture, there is a second part in the commencement speeches that presents the students with the tools to try to solve these problems. In this case, these tools are not algebraic formulas, theorems or hypotheses, but the students themselves. Graduating students have come through a four or five-year journey that helped them grow personally and intellectually, and it is not an easy one. These four years are often the most significant in a young adult’s life; the transition from being a high school brat to a college senior is marked by maturity and independence.
Not everyone can get a bachelor’s degree, as Zuckerberg jokingly opened his speech: “I’m honored to be with you today because, let’s face it, you accomplished something I never could.” But it did not stop him from becoming the sixth richest person in the world and co-creating Facebook, the behemoth of social media.
While not all seniors are going to become IT moguls, famous artists or prominent politicians, they will make a change nonetheless. Pharrell Williams, in his commencement speech, treated this possible disillusionment saying that “in this day and age, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it’s the people who serve humanity that make our world go around. Most media and certainly social media would lead you to believe otherwise.” Doctors, therapists, engineers, journalists, teachers, and so forth do not appear on the news, but they change the world. Knowing this is important because it inspires people to pursue real change instead of resigning their dreams once difficulties arise.
Commencement speeches are the perfect event to close the academic year, and for seniors, to finish one journey and start another. Each speaker is unique as he or she provides experiences and insights that might inoculate students with hope and courage in the future and what they believe. Because of this, I encourage the students reading this to attend UCI’s commencement ceremony, or at least listen to it online. As Zuckerberg would say, it will help you find or reinforce your purpose.
Sebastian Suarez is a third-year political science major. He can be reached at email@example.com.