The Most Interesting Commencement Speakers of 2011

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No matter how exciting it is to graduate, both students and family members have a hard time getting psyched for graduation processions.  On the family’s side, commencement is hours of waiting through names, speeches and formalities just to cheer for 10 seconds when their grad’s name is called. For students, these ceremonies can be an absolute snooze fest, made all the more difficult by the previous night’s senior activities. 

Thankfully, students at these ten lucky schools can at least look forward to some salvation on graduation day, in the form of what promise to be top-notch addresses. Here is a list of 10 speakers guaranteed to keep audiences wide awake and the schools that lured in these buzz-worthy orators:

1. Coast Guard Academy and Miami Dade College -- Barack Obama: Both Coast Guard Academy and Miami Dade College nabbed the chief for their ceremonies. Regardless of your political beliefs, no one can deny the fact that this guy is charismatic, engaging, and one of the most excellent speakers of our time. As far as commencement ceremonies go, there is no beating Obama.

Coast Guard Academy and Miami Dade College Barack Obama speaking

2. Northwestern University -- Stephen Colbert: Could you get a funnier alumnus than Colbert? Whether the 1986 graduate delivers the address himself or as his show’s satiric alter ego (can anyone tell the difference between the two anymore?), Northwestern graduates won’t have to worry about falling asleep during this year’s speech.

3. Yale University -- Tom Hanks: Talk about star power. After winning countless awards and already having one commencement under his belt (Vassar in 2005), speeches must be an old hat for someone like Hanks. And if his Oscar acceptance speeches are any indication of what the Yalies can expect, the 2011 seniors are in for a profound, heartfelt treat.

4. Harvard University -- Amy Poehler: Whatever Poehler decides to talk about during Class Day at Harvard, her speech is guaranteed to be an upbeat riot. Hopefully Poehler will be able to bring the same fresh, topical funniness that she delivered so well on SNL Weekend Update, giving the soon-to-be graduates a new and out-of-the-ordinary outlook on the world they will soon be entering.

Harvard University Amy Poehler speaker

5. Barnard College -- Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg: Older family members might feel a little bit out of the loop with her tech-savvy speech, but the woman behind Facebook is a perfect choice for today’s generation of graduates.  Sandberg is also a big advocate for women’s leadership, so women in the audience should be especially excited to hear a few words on female empowerment coming straight from one of America’s most influential female executives.

6. UPenn -- Denzel Washington: The Academy Award winner is set to speak at UPenn, where his son Malcolm is currently a sophomore. Washington’s address is sure to be insightful and encouraging, but after watching him deliver lines like Coach Boone’s Gettysburg speech in “Remember the Titans”, how could you expect anything less than total inspiration?

Denzel Washington University of Pennsylvania speaker

7. NYU -- Bill Clinton: Having served as America’s President for eight years, Clinton brings a unique perspective on the world in its current state. Plus, the guy is literally a pro – In 2006, he earned $450,000 for ONE London speech for the Fortune Forum. Guaranteed success? I think so.

8. Emory University -- Chelsea Handler: Comedian and host of “Chelsea Lately” is scheduled to speak at Emory University for the seniors’ Class Day. The pre-commencement celebration is attended by the senior class only – which is probably a good thing, as most of Handler’s irreverently raunchy jokes would undoubtedly make most of the parents in the audience cringe.

Chelsea Handler speaker Emory University 2011

9. Michigan State University – Steve Wozniak: Sometimes referred to as “Woz” or the “Other Steve”, Wozniak is one of the three cofounders of Apple Computers (the others are Ronald Wayne and, of course, Steve Jobs). Woz is a true nerd and, as such, will serve as living proof to Michigan’s grads that geekitude equals success.

10. University of Northern Iowa, Spelman College and U.S. Military Academy at West Point -- Michelle Obama: The first lady will have to tailor her speech to fit each school, but one thing these institutions all have in common is a dedication to service. As a big proponent of national service, Mrs. Obama’s speeches will most likely touch on this shared theme and urge the graduates to continue in their efforts to give back to their communities.

Michelle Obama speaker

Other notable Commencement 2011 speakers:

  • Toni Morrison will speak at Rutgers University. Morrison is a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, best known for her works Beloved and Song of Solomon.
  • Hamilton College will bring Former VP and environmental activist Al Gore to speak at the 2011 commencement.
  • Director of Peace Corps Aaron S. Williams will speak at UCLA’s ceremony.
  • Brooke Shields was chosen to speak during Class Day at Princeton University.
  • Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is the 2011 commencement speaker for Washington State University, University of Oklahoma, and University of Notre Dame.
  • Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was chosen as USC’s commencement speaker.
  • Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will give the speech at Harvard’s ceremony.
  • Nobel prize-winning author Elie Wiesel will speak at Washington University in St. Louis.
  • Aron Ralston, the mountain climber who became the real life inspiration for 127 Hours (2010), will deliver the address at Carnegie Mellon’s ceremony.
  • House Speaker John Boehner was chosen to deliver the address Ohio State University.
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will speak at the ceremony for Eureka College.

Know of an awesome 2011 commencement speaker we left off our list?  Leave a comment!

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About The Author

Lynne Carty is in her freshman year at Northwestern University, studying journalism in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Originally from a suburb of Boston, Lynne traveled to the midwest in pursuit of a career in entertainment journalism. Some of her favorite things include painting, pop culture, and talking about anything and everything 90s. After graduation, she hopes to work in New York City or abroad.

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