Graduation Speeches: Influencing Change


We influence, we serve, we care, we love—knowing that we are powerless to force change, but we do it because the value of each human life is worth the effort.

If you don’t happen to know a graduate this year, you can still benefit from the speeches—the online news is full of the wisdom of Oprah (telling Harvard grads to learn from failure) and Ben Bernanke (telling Princeton grads that much has been given to them and much will be required).

As a big fan of the inspiration of graduation speeches, I was in my element during my daughter’s recent commencement weekend. The speeches started on Thursday at convocation, continued Friday at awards ceremonies, Saturday at graduation and culminated on Sunday with the baccalaureate mass. And I was taking notes on every one because I think in many ways, the speeches are not just for the graduates. The practice of reflecting on the past few years and thinking about what is ahead, which is the formula for most graduation speeches, is useful for all of us, regardless of age or season of life.

One speaker, who was addressing students involved in social justice activities, reminded the graduates that even though they strongly desire to make a difference in the world, they can’t control other people’s choices and outcomes. Sobering words for those who might idealistically be pursuing change, but a good reminder for all of us who are involved in leading and influencing people. We can want the best for others, we can work for change and provide opportunities for people to learn and grow, but we can’t make change happen in other people’s lives.

Even with those realistic but potentially discouraging words, this speaker exhorted the students (and all of us) that working for dignity and opportunities for all people was a worthy calling.

As I thought about her words, and the truth that people are worth investing in, even if we can’t change them or make them take positive steps, I was reminded of the risk that God takes with each of us, in giving us free will. He provides opportunities for us to learn and grow, he wants the best for us, he wants us to make good choices, but he gives us the ability to choose—for good or not. And he still risks it all for us.

So we lead, we influence, we serve, we care, we love—knowing that we are powerless to force change, but we do it because of the value of each human life, that each person is worth the effort. That is a truth to reflect on, whether you are a 22-year-old graduate, a 53-year-old mom, or some other person of influence.

Written by By Carla Foote

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