The Best Columbia Graduation Speeches

Graduation is just around the corner, and soon we will be welcoming a new class of Columbians to the alumni community. 

Columbia's Commencement program dates back about 260 years, and the iconic Morningside campus outdoor ceremony began in 1926. By tradition, the Commencement speaker is the University president, while many of the schools within Columbia have keynote speakers at their individual ceremonies -- and most give that distinction only to alumni.

From Barack Obama to Caroline Kennedy, check out our selection of great quotes from Columbia graduation addresses below. 

Leave your words of wisdom for the Class of 2018 by sharing a Grad Gramand have the chance to get your inspiring advice featured on Columbia Alumni Association social media!


"It is time for us to step up and to be contrarian, and to be Columbians, and to be of this world. Live the good life for you, and live to find the good life for others. And if you do so, then this education and this experience won't just be four great years of your life. It will be your life."

- Eric Garcetti '92CC, '95SIPA, current mayor of Los Angeles, 2015 Columbia College Address 


"Don’t just get involved.  Fight for your seat at the table.  Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table...Never underestimate the power of your example.  The very fact that you are graduating, let alone that more women now graduate from college than men, is only possible because earlier generations of women -- your mothers, your grandmothers, your aunts -- shattered the myth that you couldn’t or shouldn’t be where you are." 

- President Barack Obama '83CC, 2012 Barnard College Address


"Trust yourself. Trust that the future can always be better. You will never regret traveling, learning, and sharing your truth and talents with the rest of the world...From now on, success will not be as easy to define. Remember to be open to others and embrace the role of chance in your lives...Find a way to get in the way. Don't be afraid to speak up and speak out for what you believe in. We can't wait to hear what you have to say."

- Caroline Kennedy '88LAW, former U.S. Ambassador to Japan, 2015 School of International and Public Affairs Address



"You have bested long odds to be here today, long odds which I never faced. But you, too, have now entered an exclusive club, graduates of one of the great universities of the world. And with that privilege, you have responsibility, all of you do. Do not shut the door behind you. Each of you has a responsibility to turn around, give someone else a hand up, up the stairs and through the door.”

- Dan Futterman '89CC, actor and screenwriter, 2014 Columbia College Address



"Remember success in life is very simple and very complex. Success in life is to be happy with yourself, with what you are, with what you do. If you love what you do, then you'll never have to go to work...Don't forget the simple pleasures of life. For me, it is still sharing a meal or a bottle of wine with friends, the enjoyment of being with families and friends. To share."

- Chef Jacques Pépin '70GS, '72GSAS, a 2017 Honorary Degree recipient, 2010 General Studies Address


"You’re going to walk off this stage today and you’re going to start your adult life. Start out by aiming high... I hope you find true meaning, contentment and passion in your life. I hope that you navigate the hard times and you come out with greater strength and resolve. I hope that whatever balance you seek, you find it with your eyes wide open.  And I hope that you—yes, you—each and every one of you have the ambition to run the world, because this world needs you to run it."

"There's something beyond oneself. Your art, when it is good, is not simply your own self expression. It's not what you have to say, but what the cosmos says to you. Your voice is shaped by the world around you. Listen to that world. Observe it. Absorb it. And you will become it...None of us can do this alone, folks." 

- Beau Willimon '99CC, '03SOA, House of Cards creator and screenwriter, 2015 School of the Arts Address


"Be yourself, and be true to yourself. As my dear friend and Windsor co-counsel Pam Karlan would say: “You cannot choreograph a lifetime.” So even if you lose a case, or two, or three along the way (as I did), keep on walking across that narrow bridge with as little fear as possible. You are about to enter the noblest of professions. Take on clients and cases because you know in your mind and in your heart that it’s the right thing to do. As far as I can tell, that is what this crazy condition of being both a human being and a lawyer is all about."

- Roberta Kaplan '91LAW, lead lawyer in the historic Windsor v. United States Supreme Court case, 2014 Law School Address


"It’s certainly true that I’m not a doctor. I have a long list of non-qualifications. In the first place I’m not a great fan of blood. I don’t mind people’s having it, I just don’t enjoy seeing them wear it. I have yet to see a real operation because the mere smell of a hospital reminds me of a previous appointment. And my knowledge of anatomy resides in the clear understanding that the hip bone is connected to the leg bone. I am not a doctor. But you have asked me, and all in all, I think you made a wonderful choice...But there is one more thing you can learn about the body that only a non­-doctor would tell you – and I hope you’ll always remember this: The head bone is connected to the heart bone – and don’t let them come apart."

- Alan Alda, actor and writer, 1979 College of Physicians and Surgeons Address 


"Finally and most importantly, following your passion is a very “me”-centered view of the world. When you go through life, what you’ll find is what you take out of the world over time — be it money, cars, stuff, accolades — is much less important than what you’ve put into the world. So my recommendation would be follow your contribution. Find the thing that you’re great at, put that into the world, contribute to others, help the world be better and that is the thing to follow...The world still isn’t flat. There are issues. There are issues with power and issues with water and issues with food and issues with equal rights. But if you contribute, if you put your contribution into the world, if you think for yourself, then I believe that you will be the greatest generation. Because when we look back 50 years from now, 100 years from now, 500 years from now, you will be the generation that unlocked human potential."

- Ben Horowitz '88CC, investor and technology entrepreneur, 2015 School of Engineering and Applied Science Address


"On this very day 24 year ago. I had just graduated from law school. . .I grew up in Maine and was the first person in my family to go to college. So perhaps you can imagine the pride my father felt as we walked across the campus that day. . .He had spent 42 years working for the phone company. He stopped in the center of the quad, paused a long moment and looking up at the statute of Alma Mater said, “Just remember one thing little girl, you've struggled real hard to get this degree. . .Now it is up to you to find work that gives you joy. Anyone can have a job they don't like.” So make sure you don't."

- Cynthia McFadden '84LAW, American television journalist, 2008 Law School Address


"You’ll find a way. You’ll make history. And when future generations read the stuff people like me wrote, they’ll be interested. They’ll take notes for class. But we won’t speak directly to them. But you will. This is the most exciting challenge I can imagine for people who love the written word. Knock them dead. You are going to have such a terrific time."

- Gail Collins '82JRN (Knight- Bagehot Fellow), first female head of The New York Times editorial board2010 Journalism School Address

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