Top 10 Coolest Commencement Speakers of 2011

For a lucky few, graduation was marked by extraordinary guests

Today the dream, tomorrow the job search. Photo: Photo: NazarethCollege /Creative Commons via Flickr

As the month of June draws to a close, so does graduation season. Years from now, when today’s seniors reminisce about their big day, most won’t remember who delivered the commencement address, let alone what was said.

But for a lucky few, graduation day was marked by an extraordinary guest whose coolness factor was off the charts, and whose words were unforgettable.

So here are 2011’s Top 10 Coolest Commencement Speakers:

10. Malcolm Gladwell: The celebrated journalist and best-selling author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking delivered The Cooper Union’s commencement address. He also received an honorary degree from the University of Toronto, where he talked about technology’s limitations in solving human problems.

9. Conan O’Brien: Behind the wit and humor of the talk show host’s speech to the graduates of Dartmouth College was a wise lesson learned from experience: Don’t be afraid to fail because few things in life are more liberating than having your worst fear realized.

8. Steve Wozniak: “The Woz,” co-founder of Apple, traveled up to Montreal, Canada, to accept an honorary doctorate from Concordia University. His message to science and engineering grads: Always strive for excellence and innovation, and don’t let anything stand in the way of your dreams.

7. Stevie Wonder: Tulane grads were treated to an impromptu concert by the legendary music man, who sang and played the harmonica during the school's graduation ceremony. Wonder also recited the lyrics to his new song “Ten Billion Hearts.”

6. Bill Clinton: The former U.S. President addressed a crowd of NYU graduates from a podium at Yankee Stadium. His speech touched on many of the world’s greatest challenges, and called upon those listening to commit to making a difference.

5. Denzel Washington: University of Pennsylvania grads heard a 23-minute speech by the Oscar- and Tony-winning actor. Washington talked about the importance of taking risks and failing forward. He peppered his address with humor, and alluded to favorite local hang outs that he had learned about from his son Malcolm, a UPenn sophomore.

4. Amy Poehler: In one of the funniest commencement addresses this year, the Parks and Recreation star had Harvard grads squirming with laughter. Her keynote was filled with personal anecdotes and a fair bit of wisdom and advice.

3. Tom Hanks: In his playful address to students at Yale, the beloved movie star talked about everything from faith and fear, to fancy hats and Facebook.

2. Michelle Obama: The First Lady had a busy commencement schedule this spring with the University of Northern Iowa, Spelman College, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on her list. Students at Quantico Middle High School were also thrilled to have Mrs. Obama speak at their graduation, listening intently as she addressed some of them by name and celebrated their achievements.

1. President Barack Obama: To reward the students at Booker T. Washington High School for their extraordinary academic accomplishments, the Commander in Chief delivered their commencement address. He spoke about the lessons he learned growing up, and the importance of education. President Obama was also the commencement speaker at Miami Dade College—one of the largest in the country.

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