Madam Vice President Kamala Harris added to her extensive list of firsts when she spoke at the U.S. Naval Academy graduation commencement.
Madam Vice President Kamala Harris added to her extensive list of firsts when she spoke at the U.S. Naval Academy graduation commencement. [Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons]

This year’s commencement speakers had a tall order to fill in a year when graduating college was no easy task. 

But the slew of speakers — celebrities, racial justice activists, and the Vice President of the United States — didn’t merely congratulate the Class of 2021. Rather, the many women who took the podium encouraged graduates to show the same courage it took to make it this far in a pandemic, and to become agents of change. To fight the crises of the world, be it racial injustice or climate change.

As Vice President Kamala Harris put it in her speech at the U.S. Naval Academy — where she was the first ever female speaker — this past year has proven that “our world is fragile,” making it that much more important for the generations of tomorrow to demonstrate bravery. 

“A gang of hackers can disrupt the fuel supply of a whole seaboard,” Harris said recently. “One country’s carbon emissions can threaten the sustainability of the whole earth. This, midshipmen, is the era we are in — and it is unlike any era that came before.”

Courage, humility and community were recurring themes in 2021 commencements across the country. At the University of Pennsylvania, Laurene Powell Jobs, philanthropist and widow of Steve Jobs, emphasized the value of being helpful to others, and to do so without pride. 

“Even as we use our heads, we must learn to bow them,” she said. “Humility and ambition need not contradict each other. We should all be ambitious to be good stewards of our planet, and good caretakers of one another during the brief time we have together.”

With vaccines rolling out and death tolls decreasing, we’re beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel. But the fact is, for many, the light is still a long ways away. “The problems we face in this world are deep and trenched and complex,” American civil rights lawyer Deborah Archer said at the New York University virtual commencement

Hunger, war, oppression of women and the LGBQT+ community, and the dehumanization of Black bodies were just a few of the issues Archer mentioned. But, she added, “as big as those problems are, there is no problem in this world, no crisis, no injustice that we cannot solve together.”

Archer pushed the Class of 2021 to be grateful to be alive during a time when their service is so terribly needed. “If history tells us anything, it is that the impossible is possible. Your accomplishments today are proof of that fact,” she said.

Maria Taylor, a seventh-season ESPN host, analyst and reporter who received degrees from the University of Georgia, left four guidelines for the graduating class at her alma mater: “Speak your truth. Live your purpose. Walk in grace. Inspire with your legacy.”

“I can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to see the bloom of your seed in the next generation, but I can absolutely promise you that your legacy will live on forever,” Taylor said. 

And Grammy Award-winning powerhouse Celine Dion, who spoke at Berklee College of Music, reminded us that we can be heard through our art and our voices: “Years from now, the music we create will still be around to speak on our behalf.”