Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Getty Images
Pour one out for the class of 2020, which will not only take its final classes over Zoom — and, in the case of college students, likely spend its final days of school away from campus — but will miss the celebration of an in-person commencement. While many schools will hold virtual ceremonies, and some have planned in-person festivities for the fall or spring, it’s still a pretty anticlimactic ending. That’s where our nation’s biggest celebrities — the Obamas, Oprahs, Hankses and Gagas — come in. Spurred by one senior’s popular request for a virtual speech by Barack Obama, celebrities have come together to give some much-needed words of encouragement to the graduates. And, yes, that includes three (three!) Obama speeches. Choose your own virtual 2020 graduation adventure from the celebrity commencement events below.
Trust director John Waters to tell it like it is when it comes to the pandemic. The outspoken film director and icon of queer culture will remotely give the School of Visual Arts’ commencement address on May 27 at 1 p.m. ET, which will be open to watch on Facebook.
Teen Vogue has brought together a lineup of inspiring women for its high-school and college commencement event, taking place May 31. Stacey Abrams, Jameela Jamil, Tracee Ellis Ross, Aly Raisman, and Noor Tagouri will speak, along with Anna Wintour, the iconic Vogue editor who oversees Teen Vogue as Condé Nast’s artistic director. Teen Vogue is also inviting graduating students to submit two-minute speeches, and two winners will speak during the livestream. The magazine is also putting on a prom featuring JoJo, Chloe x Halle, Beanie Feldstein, Becky G, Ava Max, and others on May 16 at 8 p.m. ET.
Barack may be making the virtual-commencement rounds, but YouTube’s “Dear Class of 2020” will be the only event during which you can also catch Michelle Obama. Along with the former president and first lady, speakers will include Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Bill and Melinda Gates, Condoleezza Rice, Malala Yousafzai, John Green, Sundar Pichai, and Robert M. Gates. BTS will headline an after-party, also featuring Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat and CNCO, while Camila Cabello, Chloe x Halle, Lizzo, and Maluma will perform throughout the ceremony. Other guest appearances during the six-hour event will include Kerry Washington, Alicia Keys, Zendaya, Kelly Rowland, the Try Guys, AsapScience, Mr. Kate, Dude Perfect, Jackie Aina, and Zane Hijazi. Catch it June 12 at 3 p.m. on YouTube.
Adult Swim is streaming a series of commencements that promise to “avoid the insulting simplicity of year-end platitudes and instead provide refreshing insight to help every American clarify the challenges ahead and encourage transformative progress for all humankind. Or something.” The speeches happen on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on YouTube and the Adult Swim app. Eric Andre kicked the series off on May 18, telling students, “God and Satan are now one. Rewrite the Bible and the Constitution. Sublimate the sublime. Join a Sublime cover band.” Future speakers will include Killer Mike, Maria Bamford, J.B. Smoove, Jena Friedman, Xavier, Renegade Angel, and Carl Brutananadilewski, with more to be announced.
LeBron James’s commencement event, for high schoolers only (college students, if you watched, we won’t tell), featured Obama giving his second commencement speech of the day, after appearing at an earlier event for HBCU graduates. After cracking some Tiger King jokes, Obama told students, “All of those adults who you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? Turns out, they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions. So, if the world is going to get better, it’s going to be up to you. That realization may be kind of intimidating, but I hope it’s also inspiring.” He added, “You’re going to have to grow up faster than some generations. This is your generation’s world to shape.” Support came from a stacked cast that included Pharrell Williams, the Jonas Brothers, Malala Yousafzai, Megan Rapinoe, Lena Waithe, Bad Bunny, Ben Platt, Yara Shahidi, Chika, YBN Cordae, Loren Gray, H.E.R., Brandan Bmike Odums, and Charli D’Amelio. Timothée Chalamet even pointed viewers toward a treasure from his own high-school days. The LeBron James Family Foundation and its I PROMISE School spearheaded the event.
The former president delivered his first of three virtual commencement speeches specifically for graduates of historically black colleges and universities earlier on May 16. “Even if half this semester was spent at Zoom University, you’ve earned this moment,” Obama told students on May 16. He later added, “More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge. If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you.” The two-hour event also featured appearances by Debbie Allen, Steve Harvey, Chris Paul, Vince Carter, Vivica Fox, and Thasunda Brown Duckett, and performances by Wyclef Jean, Anthony Hamilton, and Omari Hardwick, among others.
Who could inspire us more in these trying times? Oprah was the main speaker for Facebook and Instagram’s #Graduation2020 event on May 15, joined by guests Kristen Bell, Cardi B, Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Jackman, Awkwafina, Simone Biles, Malala Yousafzai, and others. “Even though there may not be pomp because of our circumstances, never has a graduating class been called to step into the future with more purpose, vision, passion, and energy, and hope,” Oprah told the class of 2020 in her speech. She later asked, “What will your essential service be? What really matters to you? The fact that you’re alive means you’ve been given a reprieve to think deeply about that question. How will you use what matters in service to yourself, your community, and the world?” Miley Cyrus also performed her song “The Climb,” an emotional throwback for the high-school and college classes of 2020 alike.
Twenty years after he graduated from Georgetown University, Mike Birbiglia was supposed to come back to the College of Arts and Sciences to give the commencement speech. “I was not meant to be giving [this speech] to you through my iPhone in New York, and you were not meant to be at your parents’ house, who you were trying to avoid by going to college in the first place. This wasn’t plan A,” Birbiglia said on May 15. “So often, the things that you love the most were not your plan A.” Later, he added, “The challenge of this moment will be what defines you for the better. You’ve been robbed of this moment, and that might be the best-case scenario because you’ll be forced to create this moment for yourself, which is what you are meant to do.”
A hero on college campuses across America, Natural Light hosted a celebrity commencement event on social media on May 14. Actress Amanda Cerny hosted, while speakers included Adam DeVine, Jane Lynch, Ludacris, Mark Cuban, Stephen A. Smith, and Erika Nardini. “I understand that there’s crazy pressure to figure things out, to have a game plan and to know what you’re going to do next, but I’m here to tell you, you just don’t have to, man,” DeVine said in his speech. “When life throws you a curveball and instead of hitting it with the bat you just bat it down with your hand and run the bases: That’s a home run!” Dashboard Confessional and Machine Gun Kelly also performed for the event.
Now fully recovered from COVID-19 and ready to give the world his blood in the name of science, America’s dad, Tom Hanks, gave a virtual commencement for Wright State University’s department of theatre, dance, and motion pictures. “Congratulations to you, chosen ones,” Hanks said for the school’s May 2 ceremony. “I am calling you ‘chosen ones’ because you have been chosen in many ways. First, by the temperament and discipline you’ve lived by, by the creative fires that are inside of you, and the instinctive lunges of your desires.” He added, “The future is always uncertain, but we who celebrate what you have done, who celebrate all of your achievements, we are certain of one thing on this day: You will not let us down.”