University speeches: some of the best in history

Article _universityspeeches 01

Listen up

If you are just applying to uni, or even just thinking about it, the day of your graduation will probably seem impossibly far off. But that day will come and when it does, you will probably have to sit and listen to a speech. Many universities try to get in some sort of celebrity – a politician, an ex-student who has achieved something interesting or a sports personality. When it happens, don’t let you mind wander as some of these speeches go down in history.

We’ve put together a collection of some of the most memorable that we’ve heard about – some funny, others moving and thought provoking, but all still very relevant to college and university students now.

Sir Winston Churchill

Churchill was Prime Minister of Britain from 1940 to 1945 and later 1951 to 1955. He is probably the most recognisable British politician from the era of the Second World War. Churchill was invited to make speeches at many universities in the UK and in the USA over his lifetime. At Harvard University in September 1943, he said: “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.” In 1946, speaking at Westminster College, Missouri, USA, he coined the term ‘Iron Curtain’ to represent the barrier between the West and the Soviet Union. He was known for being an excellent orator, full of passion and elegant phrases. But perhaps his most meaningful speech for his student audience was later in the 1940s at Oxford University, UK. He went to the podium said just three words. “Never give up”.

Michelle Obama

Wife of Barack Obama and First Lady of the USA, Michelle Obama made a solo trip to the UK in 2011 and spoke to secondary school students who had just completed a day finding out more about studying at Oxford University. She touched on her own background, a fairly modest one in Chicago, from where she went to study at Princeton, one of the foremost universities in the USA, encouraging the students to aim high and to not worry that they were not ‘good enough. She stressed: “'I realised that if I worked hard enough I could do just as well as anyone else. I realised that success is not about the background you’re from; it’s about the confidence that you have and the effort you’re willing to invest.”

Henry Winkler

Henry Winkler probably won’t mean much to UK students today but ask your parents about ‘Happy Days’ and ‘The Fonz’. He starred in a major US sitcom in the 1970s and was quite a sex symbol. Now in his late 50s he spends a lot of time campaigning for dyslexia awareness, having discovered he was dyslexic when he was in his early 30s. Previous struggles with learning then started to make sense. This is what Henry Winkler told a group of 7000 students at Yale in 1996. “"Allowing negative thoughts to live in your mind and body is powerful and addictive. Those negative thoughts that live in your mind and in your soul, they pervade every part of your life. And you know those thoughts: 'I'll never get that job ... I'll never achieve ... I'll never ... I won't be able to ... I can't. When those thoughts come into your mind, you say 'I'm sorry, I have no time for you now.'"

Conan O’Brien

Not well known in the UK but a bit of a phenomenon across the pond in the USA, Conan O’Brien is a TV host and comedian, fronting late-night chat shows, the latest of which ‘Conan’ started to air in 2010. He was asked to give a graduation speech at Dartmouth College, a famous USA naval college and was on a stage with former president George HW Bush (Bush Senior and father to later president, GW Bush). He observed "I must point out that behind me sits a highly admired president of the United States and decorated war hero. And I, a cable television talk show host, have been chosen to stand here and impart wisdom. I pray I never witness a more damning example of what is wrong with America today."

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was one of the founders of Apple, the company that makes Macs. He started it as a student and within 10 years it was worth $2 million. In his speech he tells how he dropped out of his first university course and ended up on a course studying calligraphy. If that had not happened, Apple computers would never have had the cool typefaces that made them famous and we wouldn’t have ipads and phones or iTunes. He continued this opportunity out of adversity theme by then recounting his public sacking from Apple and how he then went back to square one, formed a company called NeXT. This developed to form Pixar, the animation company that made the film Toy Story and that was later bought by Apple, bringing Steve Jobs back be CEO of his original company before his untimely death in October 2011. His advice: “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.”