Pomp and circumstance: Politicians deliver words of advice to the Class of 2012

Call it the campaign cycle’s rite of spring: Politicians always seem to sprout up behind a university commencement lectern this time of year — but especially during presidential elections.

It’s no coincidence that President Obama spoke to Barnard graduates this week. The all-female college represents one of this election’s most important voting blocs — women. On the GOP side, presumptive presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke Saturday at Liberty University, an institution emblematic of his party’s right wing.

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“All this stuff is very calculated,” said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University (where former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addressed graduates on Saturday). But it’s not a one-way transaction; colleges get something out of these speeches, too, he said.

“It is certainly true that, from the university’s perspective, what you’re trying to do in your commencement speaker is to get a model and example for your students and their parents — someone who they recognize and who they immediately respect,” Jillson said.

Following is a list of the politicians — and their surrogates — who are making commencement speeches this year.


Former Secretary of State Colin Powell

Powell gave the commencement address at Northeastern University in Boston on May 4.

“Do something that satisfies you every day, make our society a better place and help your fellow citizens,” he said, according to a release. “Give your time and talent in service to others. The need to serve others has never been greater in our nation.”


Jill Biden

Biden spoke at the commencement ceremony for Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on May 4. In her speech, released by the White House, Biden, a community-college English professor, shared three lessons she has learned: Lift others up, go to your strength and never stop learning.

Biden also spoke Friday at Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa.

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.)

Clyburn gave the commencement address at Coastal Carolina University on May 5. Clyburn received an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree from CCU.

“I ran for elective office three times and lost,” Clyburn told graduates, according to a statement. “People tried to tell me, ‘Three strikes and you’re out,’ but life isn’t played by baseball rules. When you leave this campus, you may not always succeed on the first try. But I hope, as residents of South Carolina, that you will adopt our state’s motto, ‘While I breathe, I hope,’ and never give up.”


First lady Michelle Obama

Obama spoke Friday at the commencement ceremonies for Virginia Tech, along with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). On Saturday she spoke at North Carolina A&T State University.

“In the end, people can only define you if you let them,” Obama told Virginia Tech graduates, according to a White House press release. “In the end, it’s up to each of us to define ourselves. It’s up to each of us to invent our own future with the choices we make and the actions we take.”

The first lady is also slated to speak at Oregon State University’s commencement on June 17. Her brother, Craig Robinson, has been coach of OSU’s basketball team since 2008.


Mitt Romney, GOP presidential front-runner

Romney addressed graduates of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on Saturday. Ronald Reagan gave the commencement speech in 1980, and George H.W. Bush spoke in 1990.

“Today, thanks to what you have gained here, you leave Liberty with conviction and confidence as your armor,” Romney told graduates, according to a release. “You know what you believe. You know who you are. And you know whom you will serve. Not all colleges instill that kind of confidence, but it will be among the most prized qualities from your education here. Moral certainty, clear standards and a commitment to spiritual ideals will set you apart in a world that searches for meaning.”


Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

Rice spoke Saturday at the graduation for Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Former President George W. Bush’s presidential library is currently under construction on SMU’s campus. In her speech, released by the university, Rice told graduates that they have four responsibilities in life: finding passion, committing to reason, rejecting false pride and remaining optimistic.


Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker (D)

Booker gave the commencement speech at Hampton University in Hampton, Va., Sunday. 

“We must begin in our lives to have the courage to be who we are created to be, not to play small in this world, not to be a carbon copy of the person next to us,” Booker told graduates, according to the Daily Press. “We were born not to fit in. We were born to stand out. Don’t die a copy.”

Booker is also scheduled to return to his alma mater, Stanford University, on June 16 to lead its commencement ceremony.


New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) 

Bloomberg led the commencement ceremony at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Sunday. In his speech, according to a release, Bloomberg offered graduates advice from his experiences in business and public service: Be confident, out-hustle the competition, follow your heart and take risks.

Some students were unhappy with the school’s invitation to Bloomberg due to his handling of the Occupy Wall Street protests and had planned to hold their own ceremony at the same time as the official event.


President Obama 

Obama led Barnard College’s commencement ceremony Monday. He is also scheduled to speak at the U.S. Air Force Academy’s graduation exercises in Colorado Springs, Colo., on May 23.

“Now more than ever, America needs what you, the Class of 2012, has to offer,” he told Barnard graduates, according to a White House release. “America needs you to reach high and hope deeply. And if you fight for your seat at the table, and you set a better example, and you persevere in what you decide to do with your life, I have every faith not only that you will succeed, but that, through you, our nation will continue to be a beacon of light for men and women, boys and girls, in every corner of the globe.”


Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor 

Sotomayor delivered the commencement speech at New York University on Wednesday. Sotomayor is a Bronx native and also received an honorary law doctorate from the school.


HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius 

Sebelius is scheduled to speak at Georgetown University’s commencement Friday. The Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative Catholic organization, started a petition to get the university to rescind the invitation, accusing her of threatening religious freedom and citing her stance as an abortion-rights supporter. As of Wednesday the petition had more than 27,000 signers. 


Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) 

Kerry is scheduled to deliver the commencement address at Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass., on Friday. 


EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson 

Jackson is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the commencement ceremonies for her alma mater, New Orleans’ Tulane University, on May 19. She will be the first Tulane graduate to speak at commencement.

Jackson is also scheduled to speak at the University of Washington’s graduation on June 9.


Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) 

Blumenthal is scheduled to address graduates at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Conn., on May 20. 

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair 

Blair is slated to lead the graduation ceremony at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, on May 20.


Vice President Biden 

Biden is scheduled to deliver the opening comments at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., on May 26. 

Biden is also scheduled to speak at high schools in Florida and Virginia this spring.


Zach Bergson contributed to this report.