It’s graduation season, which means stifling caps and gowns, frantic last minute phone-calls and e-mails to administration (been there, done that), and just, I don’t know, finishing an important chapter of your LIFE and not going insane in the process. Graduating is supposed to be a rewarding experience, and that experience is definitely influenced by the ceremony itself and who your school chooses as a speaker. You want somebody to motivate you, to gently push you into a pool of This Is Real Life Now, to guide you, and position you to go forward and live life fiercely and fully.
When I graduated, the CEO of Baskin Robbins gave a commencement speech where he talked about his son named River (or maybe he was actually talking about a very important river, I couldn’t tell) and what it was like being surrounded by ice-cream (awesome, I guess). It wasn’t very thrilling or inspiring, and I could have come up with a million other speakers who would have done a WAY better job, such as these influential individuals:
1. Mindy Kaling
The summer after I graduated college, I was kind of hopeless. I got into grad school, which was great, but other than that I had NO idea what I wanted to do. Write a book? Teach English? Move to New York and beg Cosmo to let me write for them for free? I bought Mindy’s book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? thinking it would be a light-hearted beach read about relationships, but it was mostly a memoir that detailed how Mindy worked her ass off to get what she wanted. And this was before The Mindy Project aired, too. Mindy, in her book, describes how she went from sharing a tiny studio in New York with a friend, to getting her gig with The Office. I liked how it wasn’t a Cinderella story, it was a story of determination and straight up hard-core work ethic. Every college grad needs to hear her story, because it doesn’t matter what they want to pursue: it’s going to take all-nighters, bad days, bad weeks, and boundless ideas to be successful.
2. Kelly Oxford
Kelly Oxford’s Twitter success story may seem like a fluke, but Kelly wrote every single day before she became a Twitter celebrity. She ventured into blogging before blogging was even a thing, and she wrote a bunch of TV scripts which she pitched to various networks. Some rejected her, which is what happens when you want to make it as a writer. You get rejected A LOT. But she recently sold a screenplay to Warner Bros, so it definitely pays to keep trying. No, Kelly Oxford never went to college. But so what? She’s one of the smartest, funniest, and most innovative people I have never met. College grads (well, everyone, really) need a fresh perspective. They need to hear that success isn’t linear; it can sometimes take many paths and journeys to finally arrive to your ultimate goal. Also, it helps if you put yourself out there. And I’m not just talking about writing. Any career requires networking and strong, clear communication.
3. Danielle Fishel
Danielle Fishel, who played the eccentric and crushable Topanga on Boy Meets World, is an awesome role model. Danielle worked her way from small community plays to a couple of episodes of Full House, to Boy Meets World. After the show ended, she was in a few small projects, like MSN’s Last Night on TV and MTV’s Say What? Karaoke, but Danielle has kept it pretty low key these last several years. She took that time to go to college in Orange County, proving that college has no age limit, and you can go back whenever you want to get that degree. She graduated last year, so hooray Danielle! Danielle Fishel never sought fame the way others did. Maybe this was intentional, maybe it wasn’t. Who’s to say. Her humbleness as an actress is truly inspirational.
4. Ellen Page
Ellen isn’t just influential because she’s an incredible actress. She’s also hilarious, intelligent, genuine, and a total philanthropist. In 2008, she participated in an online ad series for the US Campaign for Burma, which called for an end to military dictatorship in the region. She has proudly stated that she’s pro-choice and a feminist, and she bravely came out at the Human Rights Campaign, which was not only huge for her, but also served as inspiration for so many in the LGBTQ community. Ellen is super relatable and a really important voice for our generation.
5. Clay Aiken
Clay Aiken is known for gracefully losing to Ruben Studdard in the second season of American Idol, but he’s also written a New York Times best-selling novel, recorded a bunch of albums, founded the National Inclusion Project, accepted a UNICEF ambassadorship, sang on Broadway, among a trillion other projects which put me to shame. He’s also running for Congress; no big deal or anything. Clay did run into some trouble when his sex tape surfaced, but it goes to show that we ALL make mistakes, and they don’t have to define us. In college, many of us did something stupid, whether it was forgetting to buy a scantron for a major exam, or drunkenly professing our love to a roommate’s boyfriend. Stuff happens. You can get through anything.
6. Jamie Foxx
Jamie Foxx is kind of perfect at everything he does. He was the top student of his class in high-school, he sang in a band called Leather and Lace (sounds pretty sexy!), and went to United States International University on a scholarship where he studied classical music and composition. And then basically Jamie Foxx went on to a career as a successful comedian, actor, and singer. If Hollywood had an honor roll, Jamie Foxx would be on it. Beyond his talent, he just seems like a really cool guy who would not only crack up an audience filled with over-heated, anxious college seniors and their families. He would also probably give them honest advice. Work hard, and be passionate. Be bold.
7. Jenji Kohan
In an industry saturated with men, Jenji Kohan stands out not because she’s a woman, but because she’s amazing at what she does. She created, produced, ran, and wrote Weeds, which ran on Showtime for eight seasons (and was arguably one of the best shows in the world). She’s also the creator, writer, and executive producer of one of our favorite shows, Orange is the New Black. She’s a total powerhouse, but she didn’t get there over night. She started out working for her brother on Will & Grace. Unlike her brother, Kohan stated, “I was always a little darker personally, and not terrific within the system. I had to make my own way.” If you’ve seen any of her shows, you’ll know she’s the queen of dark humor. Her message to college grads? Embrace your weirdness and individuality. Take your own road, not somebody else’s.
8. Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan isn’t exactly a celebrity, but he is a god among food journalists and writers. If you haven’t read anything by him, start with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and go from there. You’ll be horrified, but I promise this horror is ultimately a good thing; we all need to know what’s in our food! Anyway, sorry for a mini-rant there. Michael Pollan is an incredibly brilliant activist, as well as a professor. His Twitter handle is pretty on point, too. Michael Pollan’s advice to a graduating class would be to continuously question everything. Read non-fiction — read daily as a matter-of-fact, no matter what it is. Be aware of your surroundings, because no matter how miniscule they seem, they probably play an important part of your existence.
9. Mark Ruffalo
Did you know that Mark Ruffalo has a Tumblr and he personally answers your questions on it? Anyway, that’s beside the point. I first discovered Mark Ruffalo my freshman year of college when I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and fell in crazy love with him. I later watched him in Brothers Bloom where he was fantastic, and in more commercially successful films like The Hulk as well. In 2002, he was diagnosed with acoustic neuroma, a type of brain tumor. He had it removed, but he had partial face paralysis for awhile. He fully recovered, and went on to perform in and direct a host of major films. Unfortunately, he faced another obstacle; this time it was the murder of his brother. This must have been monumentally difficult for him, since his family was really close-knit. Mark continued doing what he loved, which is acting. I think if Mark Ruffalo were to give a commencement speech, he would highlight the fact that life is far from perfect. It will be ruthless. You will get hurt. But at the end of the day, it’s up to you and only you to get back up and keep going.
10. Tracy K. Smith
Okay, Tracy K. Smith is not a celebrity at all, but she is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet whom I absolutely adore, and so that makes her a literary celebrity in my book. If you feel like getting into poetry this summer, read her collection of poems called Life on Mars. I think just reading poems out of her book alone could symbolize the vastness of opportunity we have as young adults. And sometimes speaking in metaphors is the only way to describe the feeling of letting yourself go out into the world. No matter how small you feel, you are tremendously important. You’ll make a difference because you are you.
To everyone who is graduating this year, congratulations! You’ve all heard this before, but it’s true: it’s only the beginning.