Commencement speakers give advice to graduates

Published 7:30 am Sunday, May 21, 2023

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Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington once was invited to give the commencement address to the graduates of Dillard University in New Orleans.

Washington shared four life goals with the 218 graduating seniors and the audience as well. “Number one, put God first in everything you do. Everything that you think you see in me and everything you think I’ve accomplished…everything I have is by the grace of God, understand that. It’s a gift.

He told them that God had kept him centered throughout his life. “I’ve been protected, I’ve been directed, I’ve been corrected. I’ve kept God in my life and it’s kept me humble,” he said. “I didn’t always stick with him, but he’s always stuck with me. Stick with him in everything you do,” he recalled.

“Fail big” was his second point. “Do what you feel passionately about…Don’t be afraid to fail big, to dream big. But remember, dreams without goals are just dreams…to achieve goals you must apply discipline and consistency.”

The actor illustrated his third point. “You will never see a U-haul behind a hearse. I don’t care how much money you make, you can’t take it with you…It’s not how much you have, it’s what you do with it.” He emphasized giving back to one’s community and helping others. “That’s where the joy is, that’s where the success is.”

Before his final point, Washington said, “I pray that you put your slippers way under your bed tonight, so that when you wake up in the morning you have to get on your knees to reach them,” Washington said. “And while you’re down there, say, ‘thank you. Thank you for grace, thank you for mercy, thank you for understanding, thank you for wisdom, thank you for parents, thank you for love, thank you for kindness, thank you for humility, thank you for peace.”

He concluded with, “Don’t aspire to make a living, aspire to make a difference.” Listening to Denzel Washington’s message gave me an idea to research other speakers’ advice to graduates during commencement speeches.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts shared unique advice during a commencement speech at his son’s graduation several years ago. “From time to time in the years to come, I hope you are treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty…I hope that you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted……”

His last bit of advice was simple. “Once a week, you should write a note to someone. Not an email. A note on a piece of paper. It will take you exactly 10 minutes…” He added that the people who receive a note from you will feel a little more special because you did.

Suppose the wisest man who ever lived were to give a commencement speech today, Solomon would remind graduates of Proverbs 3:5 & 6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths.” The prophet Jeremiah would tell graduates that God has a plan for every life, to give them “a future and a hope” (29:11).

— Jan White has compiled a collection of her columns in her book, “Everyday Faith for Daily Life.”