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It's that time of year, where college graduates are heading off into the world and everyone from Arianna Huffington to President Obama are tasked with the job to inspire them to fix our broken world. For the rest of us, it's a chance to get a little hopeful, get a little misty-eyed, and pretend like Obama, Huffington and company are talking just to you. 

There's something oddly beautiful about being able to see a speech that isn't exactly meant for you. Of course it's monumentally easier to appreciate someone talking to you about philosophical things when you're watching from an air-conditioned room and are armed with the power cut bait one it drags than to say, try and maintain attention while uncomfortably seated in a giant stadium with terrible acoustics while wearing an itchy cap and gown. But there's also something vulnerable, and sensitive here. And maybe it all comes back to the basic human need of encouragement. 

So, without further ado, here are our favorite commencement speeches from 2013*:

The Most Inspiring Speech of 2013

Who: President Barack Obama

Where: Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga.

Why We Picked It: Daily Beast Politics Columnist Peter Beinart put it best: "If you think you can [no] longer be inspired by Barack Obama, read this," he tweeted, and linked to a transcript of the speech. And it's true. We watched it and, we believe him. We also applaud the Morehouse grads who sat through the rain to hear Obama speak.

The Line: 

Well, we’ve got no time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil — many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did — all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned.

The Speech with the Most Tough Love 

Who: Michelle Obama

Where: Bowie State University in Bowie, Md.

Why We Picked It: There's something completely honest and vulnerable here. Commencement speeches usually dwell on the bright and the hopeful. Michelle Obama didn't gloss over that. 

The Line: 

Now, just think about this for a moment: For generations, in many parts of this country, it was illegal for black people to get an education. Slaves caught reading or writing could be beaten to within an inch of their lives ...

Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV.  Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper. 

The Speech That's Most Likely to Survive

Who: David Foster Wallace

Where: Kenyon College in Gambler, Ohio.

Why We Picked It: We get that this speech is now eight years old, but it was revived and turned viral this year by The Glossary, an Internet-savvy, audio-visual marketing company. The video's 5.2 million views shows that despite its age, Wallace's elegant words are just timeless. 

The Line: If there was just one to pick, then this video wouldn't have been made. 

The Speech Most In Need of Subtitles

Who: Arianna Huffington 

Where: Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

Why We Picked It: We would pay to watch Judi Dench read the phonebook. We would double that to see Arianna Huffington give a 25-minute speech where the phrase "entropy and enthalpy contributions to the chelate effect" and the word "Smithies" are peppered throughout. But we also picked it because Huffington had wise words for Smith's women about redefining success that anyone should listen to. 

The Line:

So please don't settle for just breaking through glass ceilings in a broken corporate system or in a broken political system, where so many leaders are so disconnected from their own wisdom that we are careening from one self-inflicted crisis to another. Change much more than the M to a W at the top of the corporate flow chart. Change it by going to the root of what's wrong and redefining what we value and what we consider success.

The Speech Baby Boomers Will Hate the Most

Who: Stephen Colbert

Where: University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.

Why We Picked It: You'll notice that Colbert wasn't speaking at commencement, but rather the university's valedictory exercises which are designed to honor top-performing students and professors. So, his speech was essentially a treat before the formal commencement ceremony. Colbert hits that sweet spot of commencement speeches perfectly—it's somewhere between irreverent Thomas Jefferson jokes,his personal connection to UVA (he's a reject, his wife is an alum) and gentle Baby Boomer ribbing.

The Line:

Your generation needs everything to be about you and that’s very upsetting to us Baby Boomers, because self-absorption is sort of our thing ...

Every generation must define itself If you must find your own path, and we have left you no easy path, then decide now to choose the hard path that leads to the life and the world that you want.

The Nerdiest Speech of 2013

Who: Twitter CEO Dick Costolo

Where: University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Mich.

Why We Picked It: To prove that there is a place in this world for nerds and they'll almost always have the last say. 

The Line: Dick Costolo takes the honors for reminding us about the Internet in our pants

When I was your age, we didn’t have the Internet in our pants. We didn’t even have the Internet not in our pants. That’s how bad it was. I know I sound like my grandfather right now. We didn’t have teeth! There were no questions marks, we just had words! What was I talking about? The Internet

Runners up: Statistics Genie Nate Silver at the Ripon College in Ripon, Wisc., and Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke at Bard College in Red Hook, N.Y.

The Speech Mostly for the Parents

Who: Vice President Joe Biden

Where: The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Penn.

Why We Picked It: You know how Biden is and how he's can sometimes be that inappropriate relative that will embarrass you?  Well, there was none of that at UPenn's speech. And Joe Biden was appropriate funny. We think (we're pretty sure). 

The Line: 

Four years of Penn, three years of Syracuse, four years of Georgetown, three years at Yale, two yaears at Tulane, two years at Penn, and now a granddaughter at Penn. I was asked why I wore a Penn tie. My answer is: I earned it.

The Speech Most Likely to Make You Remember Mitt Romney 

Who: Former President Bill Clinton

Where: Howard University in Washington, D.C. 

Why We Picked It: Ever since Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention, we've all gained a respect for him. He kept that going at Howard. The speech at Howard seemed to reminisce upon a topic that was bubbling during the election—the one percent versus the ninety-nine. And Clinton delivered it. 

The Line:

But the most important thing is that we are all 99 and a half percent the same ... The half a percent matters. It gave Einstein the biggest brain ever measured. He made pretty good use of it. It’s a good thing. That half a percent means LeBron James is hard to stop if he is driving for a basket. The half a percent matters. But so does the 99 and a half percent ... And when you leave here I want you to never to forget  for the rest of your life in the good times and bad that we live in an interdependent world and we’ve got to pull it together which means to be a good citizen you’ve got to something sometime for someone else because they are just like you are.

*We know that the commencement speech circuit is not over. So please feel free to add any in the coming days and we'll keep this post updated. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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