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Our Best Advice

From Ruth Bader Ginsburg to John McCain, we’ve collected highlights from some of the best Northwestern Commencement addresses.

wynton marsalis
Wynton Marsalis plays the trumpet during his rain-shortened Commencement address in June 2009.

June 1, 2020
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Stephen Colbert ’86, ’11 H

June 17, 2011

“Now there are very few rules to improvisation, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if they are the most important people in the scene, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is you're in the scene too. So hopefully to them you're the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading, you're all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv. And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what's going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along. And like improv, you cannot win your life.”


Sen. Barack Obama ’06 H

June 19, 2006

“There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit — the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us: the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”


Sen. John McCain ’05 H

June 17, 2005

“I have long believed that the true worth of a person is measured by how faithfully we serve a cause greater than our self-interest, that encompasses us but is not defined by our existence alone. The same holds true for the conduct of nations, particularly in this unique era, when America stands astride the world with unmatched power… We must use our power and influence not only for security and prosperity, but to promote the concepts we hold dear, including democracy and the panoply of human rights. By doing so we help create a world of recognized norms and rules, and if we are successful, we will have established a set of expectations for domestic behavior that will endure long after the unipolar moment is passed.”


Billie Jean King ’17 H

June 16, 2017

“Your happiness should drive your future. You can follow the money, which is not bad actually —money, money, money is not bad — but only if you never lose sight of your moral compass. Do not lose sight of your moral compass. If you do tiny acts of kindness every day, there will be a ripple effect of positivity, because it's contagious. You will find happiness if you open your heart and your mind to those who are different than you. Be receptive to those who don't look or sound like you. These people will challenge you. You will learn from them. We are all immigrants. Every single one of us is an influencer, every single person.”


Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’98 H

June 19, 1998

“I continue to gain encouragement from people who appreciate what feminism really means. It is not a pejorative. It means freeing people, men as well as women, to be you and me, allowing people to pursue the talents and qualities they have without artificial restraints.”


Seth Meyers ’96, ’16 H

June 17, 2016

“I cannot express to you how special it is to be at this place today. Forty-two years ago, I was born down the street at Evanston Hospital. Twenty years ago I graduated in this very same spot, and today I speak to you. Basically every 20 years or so a major life event happens to me on Central Street, which is why I’m so looking forward to 2036 when I finally start my dream job at Mustard’s Last Stand.”

julia louis-dreyfus commencement address

Julia Louis-Dreyfus at Commencement in 2007 

Julia Louis-Dreyfus ’83, ’07 H

June 15, 2007

“You have managed to do something today spectacular, something important, something I never did after years of trying. You have graduated from Northwestern University.”



Mikhail Baryshnikov ’13 H

June 21, 2013

“Intense focus, thought and the pursuit of excellence are certainly part of what it takes to be an artist, but they can be applied to anything. Each one of you can focus and work to excel at something that makes you think about the world and your own life in the most challenging way. As [Joseph] Brodsky said, it isn’t always comfortable. You might see things in yourself that are unpleasant. You might think about things that are easier to ignore. But that’s life. The more you see life as something complicated and full of contradictions, the better you will understand yourself.”


Wynton Marsalis ’09 H

June 19 2009

“From birth to the grave, in our ultimate pursuit of meaning, the deepening of our humanity, and the intensification of our life experiences, let the constant as you pass through life be your dream of who you are. Tend to your dream and sing your song. That song is there to educate us. It’s there to hold our hands. It’s there to entertain us and nourish us in the best and the worst of times, in the sunshine and in the rain. And hear, as your fortunes rise against the turbulent horizons of uncertain times, always the homing pitches of your song, of your dream. It tells us everything’s gonna be alright.”

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