27 May 2023
Musicians, actors, politicians, business leaders, writers, and Nobel Prize winners were among the commencement speakers in 2023.
At Howard University in Washington, D.C., graduates heard from U.S. President Joe Biden. Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin spoke at New York University. And the actor, Tom Hanks, visited Harvard University to offer his words. Other speakers included Nobel Peace Prize-winner Maria Ressa, who spoke at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee; the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis at the University of Michigan; and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Carolyn Bertozzi, who spoke with medical students at Stanford University in California.
In most cases, students cheered advice and encouragement from the speaker. But in at least one case, they called out in protest.
That happened on May 21 at Boston University to David Zaslav, the head of the media company Warner Brothers Discovery. As Zaslav talked, the students called out, "Pay your writers!" so often he had to stop speaking. The students were supporting striking film and television writers.
Not all the events at Boston University caused disagreement.
Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black female member of the U.S. Supreme Court, spoke to law school graduates. Brown Jackson discussed her legal career and her love for musical theater. She mentioned the famous show Hamilton and said students should work to "find something you care about, and get yourself into the room where it happens." The Room Where It Happens is a song from the show.
"Meet the moment"
At New York University, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told graduates that it is not enough to want change. "To change things, you have to take over," she said.
Marin told the students they must not wait for others to solve the world's problems. She talked about the war in Ukraine and climate change. She expressed her concerns about artificial intelligence. And she told the graduates to take charge and make changes if they are concerned.
"These are challenges that need to be solved," she said. "And there is no one else to do that, other than you."
Sabrina Vazquez was one of the graduates who gathered to listen to Marin on May 17. She agreed with the message and told VOA:
"Through our ... education and our experiences, we were like given the tools to be able to enact change, maybe not immediate because change never happens overnight, but it's something that if we work towards consistently and it's always a goal that we are trying to reach, we can enact change."
Just days earlier, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with students at Howard University, an HBCU, or Historically Black College or University.
Jheannelle Johnson is the first person in her family to graduate from college. She said she was honored that the president wanted to speak to her and fellow graduates.
Johnson told VOA that Biden's message was similar to what he might have used in the campaign. But he also told the 2023 graduates that they have a chance to "change the trajectory of the country."
The president then added, "... and I know you will meet the moment."
"This is something that I want to take with me, that the President could come here to my university, and say that we have the power to change things in a climate where it feels like sometimes change isn't moving as fast as we want it to. It's knowing that the future is still bright."
Both Johnson and Vazquez agreed that they, and fellow graduates, have a chance to change people's lives, even if it is just in a small way.
"It's an important message for us to understand we can be change-makers, even right now," Johnson said.
Commencement is an English word that means "the beginning." So while both Vazquez and Johnson celebrated the end of something, they also know the next part of their lives is coming fast.
"It's important to know that my work shouldn't stop here," Johnson said.
I'm Dan Friedell. And I'm Jill Robbins.
Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English.
Words in This Story
commencement –n. a ceremony during which degrees or diplomas are given to students who have graduated from a school or college
graduate –n. a person who has completed the requirements of a school program
encouragement –n. something that makes someone more determined, hopeful, or confident
challenge –n. a difficult task or problem to solve
enact –v. to put something into action, to make something real
consistently – adj. something done on a regular basis
trajectory –n. the direction something is moving, the small steps that make up something's larger path
meet the moment –(expression) to stand firm in the face of something difficult, to live up to expectations