The academic year is coming to a close, and what a devastating year it has been. More than 591,000 people have died of COVID-19, and even in the thick of graduation season as vaccinations are on the uptick, the pandemic has been difficult to escape. It’s been a resounding theme of commencement speeches.
But even amid the sorrow, speakers throughout the country, including those in the White House, offered hope to the class of 2021.
First lady Jill Biden shared her personal story of overcoming tragedy with the 2021 class at George Mason University on May 14. “A few years ago, I had to tell my class that I would miss the next session for personal reasons,” she started. “Now, my students have never suffered from a lack of curiosity. So, they immediately began shouting, ‘Dr. B, Dr. B, where you going?’
“My sister was having the first of her cancer treatments, and she would be in a hospital room for six weeks,” Dr. Biden said. “I tried to explain with as much composure as I could muster, but the words caught in my throat. So, I turned to face the whiteboard, hoping to hold back my emotions. And when I turned back around, the entire class was standing. They lined up and gave me a hug, one by one.”
She added: “Until that moment, I didn’t realize how much I was struggling, or how much I needed their strength. Sooner or later, we all suffer heartaches—some unimaginable. Some that we might think we can’t survive. In my life, I never could have imagined the ways my heart would be shattered. Sometimes our strength comes from within us … and sometimes it can’t. Sometimes we carry the weight of our lives … and sometimes our knees buckle beneath us. But in those moments, remember: You’re not alone. Let the people who love you help carry that weight.”
Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter John Legend also emphasized the importance of overcoming obstacles in a commencement speech for Duke University on May 2. He said during the speech that it was his first time in front of a live audience since last February. “Your class lost a lot,” Legend said. “Some lost job offers. Some lost loved ones, and all of you last a whole year those little moments that make college so special. I feel your pain. You’ve lost something that you won’t get back. I won’t sugarcoat that. It sucks.” But the musician also highlighted what the class has to gain and the opportunity it has to learn.
“America’s story has always been marred by efforts to exclude, to dominate, to subjugate, to keep certain groups of people with no voice, no power and no opportunity—workers, women, indigenous people, Black people, immigrants, the LGBTQ community. All because of a fear that if those people did better, somebody else would have to lose,” Legend said. “But the miracle of our story is that as we expanded opportunity, in our best moments, we proved that those fears were unfounded.”
During a CNN special that aired on May 23, Vice President Kamala Harris included in her congratulations for the class of 2021 an acknowledgement of all students have withstood. “You now know, that you have what it takes to get through pretty much anything,” she said. “So when you come up against an obstacle, when you experience a setback — and you will, we all do — remember the resilience that you showed this past year. The determination. Remember, that you have the strength to get through anything.
“You do not have to get through anything alone. You are not alone. We are all in this together and when we look out for one another, everybody is better off.”
President Joe Biden delivered a similar message to the graduating class of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy on May 19. “No class gets to choose the world into which he graduates,” he said. “The challenges you’re going to face in your career are going to look very different than those who walked these halls before.”
But, the president said, “we’ve proven there’s not a single thing we cannot do as a nation when we do it together.”
Take a look at a few more graduation speakers with words of hope for the class of 2021: