Every spring, students who withstood the test and rigor of their studies cross the stage to receive degrees of honor. Part of the ceremony is one last speech to set the tone for life after graduation. Whether the advice is to stay hungry for success or remain humble through the triumphs, each and every student who departs their college or university receives new wisdom to guide their journey. 

Commencement speeches can put a big moment into perspective. For the 2023 graduation season, trailblazing Black women addressed graduates with honest, funny, and powerful words meant to inspire the nation’s future leaders. Here’s what they had to say: 

1. Oprah Winfrey, Tennessee State University

Media mogul Oprah Winfrey graced the stage of her alma mater, where she encouraged listening to the small voices within, combined with the legacies of those who came before, to make the best decisions. 

“Life is always talking to us, and this is what I do know: When you tap into what it’s trying to tell you — when you can get yourself quiet enough to listen, I mean really listen — you can begin to distill the little, small voice which is always representing the truth of you from the noise of the world, and you can start to recognize when it comes your way,” Winfrey said

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2. Quinta Brunson, University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education

Quinta Brunson, writer and creator of the sensational Hulu series “Abbott Elementary,” graced graduates of Penn GSE. In her commencement speech, Brunson shared her journey as a comedian and emphasized the importance of embracing failure, pursuing passions, and leveraging education to make a positive impact on society.

3. Sheryl Lee Ralph, Rutgers University 

Before the celebrated actress, singer, philanthropist, and Emmy-award winner Sheryl Lee Ralph took the mic, her alma mater’s audience screamed and cheered as the facilitator listed Ralph’s lifetime of achievements, many of them being record-breaking accomplishments for Black women. She encouraged the graduating class to pursue their passions and emphasized the importance of perseverance and resilience.

“Be open to change in your life journey because the only thing constant in life is changes,” she said.

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4. Karine Jean-Pierre, Rice University

White Press House Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre illuminated Rice University’s stage with her brown hair sitting in a perfectly coiled updo. She encouraged graduates to face hardships with hope, embrace challenges, and recognize the support of those who have believed in them along the way.

“Through everything we have been through, your class, your generation, gives me hope. Infinite hope. Hope is one of the most powerful tools we have,” she said.

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5. Yamiche Alcindor, Georgetown University College of Arts and Sciences

A seasoned journalist and seeker of truth, Yamiche Alcindor stood on the Georgetown University stage after graduating from the university nearly 15 years ago. When she addressed the class of 2023, she referenced her current pregnancy and spoke on the power of what it means to graduate with a degree in arts and sciences. 

“For the parents out there, I know you’re nervous,” she said. “Parents, just know that these Hoyas will not let you down.”

6. Ketanji Brown Jackson, American University Washington College of Law

With her personality and big, white smile that stole the hearts of millions of Americans after her nomination, Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson focused her advice to the American University graduates on the long-running television show “Survivor,” which has reworked and rewired modern-day reality television. 

“As you leave this wonderful institution and embark on your careers, you will sometimes face difficult choices about how to spend your time, as you balance work and family and all of the other things that are important in your life,” she said. “But no matter how busy you get, you can and should find time for the things that you love, and I love that show.” 

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7. Ketanji Brown Jackson, Boston University School of Law

Justice Jackson also addressed Boston University’s School of Law. With a hint of humor and honesty, she took the class through three lessons from three different musicals she has watched over the course of her career and offered advice. 

“You have to understand what you’re dealing with and why something is the way it is, or you’ll often find yourself on your back foot,” she said.  

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8. Dr. Salamishah Tillet, Moore College of Art and Design

American writer, scholar, and feminist Dr. Salamishah Tillet took graduates through stories of several great authors who have shed light on her own life and work. 

“As I look out to you today, all I see are storytellers: brave artists who have dedicated the past few years, and countless caffeinated nights, and trips to Chipotle, apparently,” she said. 

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9. Mae Jemison, University of Delaware

As the first woman of color to travel to outer space, Mae Jemison highlighted the significance of diversity in achieving innovation and progress, emphasizing the need for inclusive thinking to solve complex global challenges. She inspired the graduates from the University of Delaware to be open-minded, curious, and inclusive as they embark on their future endeavors.

10. Gayle King, University of Maryland

As the voice behind countless monumental interviews, broadcaster and author Gayle King had not been back to her alma mater since she graduated in 1976. This was the first commencement speech she delivered in her career, telling graduates to embrace challenges as opportunities for growth and to never let setbacks define them.

“I also believe you’ve got to take smart risks,” she said. “If you’ve done your homework, you develop the ability to react to the unknown, then go out and give the unknown a try.” 

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11. Ruha Benjamin, USC Rossier School of Education 

Award-winning author, founding director of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab, and Princeton University professor Ruha Benjamin addressed this year’s cohort of graduates at the USC Rossier School of Education. Benjamin spoke directly to the importance of educators, and the role they play in ensuring those they teach have their own imagination and seek knowledge in a world where both are being challenged.

“We are all gathered here today because we believe in the power of education, the necessity for research, and the importance of facts,” Benjamin said. “The stakes of these commitments are even greater now that the teaching profession is under such sustained attack.” 

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12. Dr. Frances “Toni” Draper, Johns Hopkins School of Education

Word In Black collaborative member, Rev. Dr. Frances “Toni” Murphy Draper, the CEO and publisher of the AFRO American Newspapers, took grads from the Johns Hopkins School of Education to school. Filled with the same passion and fire today’s teachers need to have — Draper, who earned her M.Ed. from the university 50 years ago —  emphasized the need for students to have a well-rounded understanding of history, particularly of Black history. 

“As we all well know there is a vigorous debate and controversy in this country surrounding the teaching of Black history in schools…However, advocates for teaching Black history — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and I count myself in that number, argue that the teaching of unfiltered and uncensored Black history is an essential component of a comprehensive and accurate understanding of American history.”

This post has been updated.