A Message to Graduates

From where I sit, I can hear the celebratory sounds in the air. It’s graduation season. Every year around this time, I get a flutter in my belly. And it’s not the good kind. 

Years ago, when asked to give commencement speeches as a nonprofit leader working with youth in the community, I made the grave mistake once of assuming the mere five minutes I had to address graduates wasn’t going to count for much. I was sure my message would be washed-out by the slate of speakers delivering their wishes to the Class of 2010 before me.

I had given several speeches by then; for this one, I thought I could easily consolidate my previous addresses. As I stepped onto the stadium stage, I took in the massive crowd packed full with flowers and smiles and people waving to their loved ones in caps and gowns.

My speech fell flat. 

The condensed version came across as generic, unlike my other speeches where I had the time to connect specific points and people in the school to the larger ideals that propelled purpose and life.

Talk about regrets!

I assumed the order and roster of speakers would flood the students with advice by the time it came for me to address them, and they would tune out my message.

Never again.

Here’s what I would say today if I had two minutes to address graduates:

Dear Graduating Class of 2022,

As you think about the future and what you’d like to contribute to the world, remember to be a kind person. Contrary to what you may have heard, and not to be confused with being a pushover, kindness is not a sign of weakness. I would say it is the opposite. Anyone can be mean or disparaging – that’s easy. It doesn’t take much to spew an insult or respond without considering feelings. But anyone who can evoke kindness as a character trait demonstrates empathy, emotional intelligence, and the ability of discernment, all of which are complex and embody strength.

Expressing kindness helps others feel seen and heard. It results in improved connection to others, where the chance of reciprocation is greater. Conversely, being dismissive and aggressive shadows the potential for better understanding, progress, and unity. It communicates narrow-mindedness, unwillingness, and self-service.

Kindness, like a muscle, can be developed when we consciously exercise it. It is a choice – to either build up and empower or to strip down and erode – and a step toward self-actualization where we fully step into our potential.  

As you make your mark in this world, choose kindness as a super strength.  When used authentically, it has the power to unlock amazing possibilities. 

What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau


May this season of hope for our future leaders find you in the warm embrace of the early summer sun.

What message would you share with our graduates if you had the opportunity?

Published by

Nancy Roldán Johnson

Author of La Mariposa: An Empowerment Program for Adolescent Latinas, Co-Founder of Together for Latinas, Inc., Co-Chair of the One Circle Foundation

8 thoughts on “A Message to Graduates”

    1. Hi, Karen. Your message to graduates is invaluable. We hear so many stories about people’s last regrets, and it’s a reminder to nourish our souls in the most personally meaningful way so we can live intentionally and with purpose. Thank you for sharing!

  1. Hi Nancy,

    Having now sat through Maya’s graduation, I really feel you on this. But I do believe that what is retained by high school seniors may not be as rich of a memory as what is heard and absorbed by the families in the stands – many of whom have lived longer lives and can fold these words into their experiences and memories in a significant way. How do you craft a message that makes an impression on young minds distracted with such a daunting transition AND life veterans who are… distracted by their young loved one’s daunting transition. 🙂

    When young people speak well, we tend to celebrate their speaking skills, their ability to relax into a moment that, if they truly understood how momentous it is, would have them shaking in their boots – or at least questioning every word they utter. When mature and accomplished people speak, we hear the words and we celebrate them when they give us nuggets of wisdom that we help us, or that we hadn’t thought of on our own. What an impossible audience! What a situation rife with challenge!

    If what you’re saying is true, we should exercise kindness when we listen to anyone speak. We should not assign ourselves the judge of a performance. Instead, we should see the speaker as our reflection – sometimes stellar and full of clarity, sometimes not quite that, but always striving.

    I’ve always wondered what I would say at a commencement ceremony if I were ever invited to speak. I don’t know how at this point in my life that opportunity would ever come my way. But I’m so happy you were invited to speak, because you are such a gem, and whether you shone that day on the stage or not, you gift the world with your words. I’m happy to call you my friend!


    Sent from my iPad


    1. “We should not assign ourselves the judge of a performance. Instead, we should see the speaker as our reflection – sometimes stellar and full of clarity, sometimes not quite that, but always striving.”
      Dear Glynn,
      Such an empathic response! The opposite of self-serving. ❤️
      Your reflection demonstrates how authentic kindness can open us up to perspectives that may be dormant or new to us. Thank you for reminding me of the depths in which it can manifest. 😌

  2. Kindness is free to give, but priceless to receive. Sprinkle it everywhere.
    As you have demonstrated, regrets serve a true purpose. They lead us to new places within ourselves. It wasn’t that you didn’t know the value of kindness at the time of the speech. It just may not have seemed necessary to stress the importance of kindness at that time. We find ourselves in a very different world these days. We need reflection and reminders like your message to return to what connects us and heals the divide. Your regret has now become your success in spreading a very important message.

    1. “ Kindness is free to give, but priceless to receive.”
      Dear, Meg –
      You’ve captured the essence of the gesture and demonstrated it in your thoughtful response. Thank you for contributing to the conversation.

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