May 14, 2010— -- As graduation day approaches, dozens of actors, entrepreneurs, CEOs, comedians and political figures will provide words of inspiration to colleges across the country in a time-honored tradition in higher education: The Commencement Speech.
At their worst, commencement speeches serve as the forgettable prelude to the distribution of diplomas. "A graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that 'individuality' is the key to success," comedian Richard Orben once joked.
Still, commencement speeches can offer students hope for the future and help put their four years of hard work into a broader context. Countless graduation speakers have used the platform to deliver words that continue to resonate and inspire. Here are 10 memorable moments in commencement speech history.
1. Steve Jobs, Stanford University: Apple CEO Steve Jobs told three stories during his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University -- about finding a career path, love and loss, and death. After mentioning his 2004 cancer diagnosis, Jobs reminded the graduates that their time on Earth is limited, and they should make the most of it.
"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
2. Jon Stewart, William & Mary: "I am honored to be here and to receive this honorary doctorate," Jon Stewart said to the 2004 class of William & Mary, his alma mater. "When I think back to the people that have been in this position before me, from Benjamin Franklin to Queen Noor of Jordan, I can't help but wonder what has happened to this place. Seriously, it saddens me. As a person, I am honored to get it; as an alumnus, I have to say I believe we can do better."
Jokes aside, Stewart told the students to understand that there are many ways to live a successful life. Stewart said the graduates should not burden themselves with worries about the right path to success. Instead, he said the students should "love what you do. Get good at it ... and let the chips fall where they may."