Graduation Can Provide Inspiration for the Start of a New Future

Why Every Student Needs to Attend their College Commencement Ceremony

The graduation season is upon us. Will you be among the graduates attending the ceremonies at your school this year? Almost every graduate has an opportunity to attend a commencement ceremony, even those students who have graduated from an online school. As I talk to students I’m always surprised at the number of them who do not want to attend the event, often due to a belief that it will not be interesting or worth the time required to participate. I’ve attended ceremonies as a college graduate and a faculty member, and this event provides a powerful opportunity to reflect on valuable lessons learned.

It is important to recognize and celebrate what you’ve accomplished, feel inspired by the commencement speech, and then become motivated to start the next phase of your life, which is often associated with career goals and plans. You can build from this momentum by utilizing career resources that allow you to continue working towards the purpose you had in mind for earning a degree.  

How a Commencement Speech Can Inspire You

At the heart of the graduation ceremony is the commencement speech. Some are memorable and others, not so much. A USA Today article, 8 Keys to a Graduation Speech with Pomp & Significance, provided a list of elements that highlight for me what an effective commencement speech should consist of and what it should do for graduates.  

1. Inspire us … but lose the clichés. This is not a time for students to be given phrases such as “thinking outside of the box” – they have now accomplished much more.   
2. Talk about yourself … but make it meaningful to us. This is central to effective storytelling – when the speaker connects with the audience through relevant personal experiences.
3. Make us laugh … but leave stand-up routines to the pros. Students often feel anxious during the ceremony and laughter can help create a comfortable tone.
4. Practice … but don't sound practiced. I’ve discovered that the best speakers talk from the heart, not from their notes.
5. Make us think … but don't make us seethe. I agree because the commencement ceremony is a time of encouragement, not a time for the speaker to present a political agenda.
6. Do your homework … because details matter.
7. Hope for a sunny day … but even then, have pity.
8. Finally, keep it short. Period.

The Wall Street Journal article by Charles Wheelan, 10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won't Tell You, provided another perspective on commencement speeches as a means of offering advice. Wheelan, who also authored 10½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said, believes that something important that will never be said in a commencement speech is: “Don't try to be great. Being great involves luck and other circumstances beyond your control. The less you think about being great, the more likely it is to happen. And if it doesn't, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being solid.” While those actual words may not be spoken, students experience a feeling of accomplishment as they learned how to maintain self-determination throughout the process of working on their degree and the most memorable speeches are those that encourage students to aspire to attain personal greatness.

Examples of Inspiring Commencement Speeches

Time Magazine developed a list of the Top 10 Commencement Speeches and it included a speech by Steve Jobs on June 12, 2005 at Standford University’s 114th Commencement. The video below provides his commencement speech.

This speech by Steve Jobs has appeared within many lists of the best commencement speeches of all time and the most popular quote from that speech is this: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition … Stay hungry, Stay foolish." You can also read a full transcript of the commencement speech given by Steve Jobs.

I would add the following commencement address by the Honorable Alexis M. Herman to the list of outstanding speeches. The following video presents her speech to the 2011 Kaplan University Commencement Ceremony.

I was present as a faculty member at this graduation event and what made Herman’s speech so memorable was her warmth and ability to connect with and relate to the graduates. Herman discussed challenges she overcame in the workplace while living in Mobile, Alabama – including racism. She eventually rose to the position of Secretary of Labor, the first African American to be nominated and the fifth woman appointed for that position. One of the points Herman made during the commencement speech was about employment and that “what's not reported in the news is that the unemployment rate for those with college degrees is four percent.” Students were inspired and deeply moved by this speech.

A Time of Reflection on Lessons Learned

You’ve taken the time to attend your graduation ceremony and listened to a meaningful speech. Take this opportunity to reflect upon the academic journey, and consider what lessons you learned. First, you accomplished something that many college students fail to do – complete their degree. At present, the College Board estimates the college graduation rate is 38 percent.

You have also learned that this is a time of optimism and hope, because of your determination. Sitting among a group of graduates and then walking across the stage is a moment of personal empowerment that you are likely to remember for quite some time. You’ve also learned the value and importance of developing a support system and networking, as you have likely made many connections throughout your degree program. Finally, you’ve learned that this is “your” time to shine and now you can capitalize on this momentum and accomplish whatever you decide you want to do. The greatest lesson of all is self-belief and the memories created because of being present for the graduation will be associated with this feeling and inspire you to do more.

Career Resources for Graduates

After becoming inspired by your graduation ceremony, now is the time to move forward and explore what resources are available to help you put the degree to work. One of the most valuable resources offered by your school is the alumni association, as there may be career resources and networking opportunities available. In addition, there are networking opportunities available through social media, including Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. If you haven’t already begun to use those sources, now is the time to explore these options and consider how it may assist your career or job search strategy.

The following is a list of additional career resources you may want to consider:
Vault: Information about industries and professions, along with career advice, and job listings.
Career Shift: An integrated application that searches through all job websites for you. They offer a free 24-hour trial membership.
TweetMyJobs: Employers share their jobs and you can receive notifications via Facebook, Twitter, email, or mobile applications.
LinkUp: Job search engine that looks for job openings from 23,760 company websites.
Indeed: A search engine that will search job sites, newspapers, associations and company career pages. The website indicates that 660,598 new jobs were added in the last 7 days.
Simply Hired: A search engine that allows you to conduct a job search and create a job alert to receive notifications by email.
DoNanza: A website strictly for freelance work.
USAJobs: A website devoted to Federal jobs. The Pathways program will launch during the summer of 2012 and includes a resource for recent graduates. If accepted, you would be placed in a two-year career development program.

Take the Time to Attend Your Graduation

You should feel pride in your achievement, and attending your graduation ceremony will empower you to continue to work hard and accomplish other goals you’ve established. You may be surprised by the powerful sense of achievement you experience and how it helps provide an ongoing source of motivation. Commencement is a time of reflection and inspiration, so don’t miss out and take time to attend your graduation. It’s an importance step as you focus on and work towards your new future.    

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

Photo © Ronnen Eshel/CORBIS

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