What makes for a great commencement address? Some would say it’s the person delivering it. Others would say it’s inspirational content or tangible advice. Perhaps for some it’s brevity. But whatever the reason is, commencement speeches are a long-standing tradition marking this memorable rite of passage for graduates.

As we kick off the 2024 commencement season, we revisit a few crowd-pleasing speeches from past ceremonies.


Artist, Teacher
Cal State Long Beach, 2015

Golden Globe-winning actress, author and singer Alexandra Billings addressed the 2015 graduates of Cal State Long Beach’s College of the Arts, encouraging them to pursue what they believe in no matter what other people say. Billings is best known for her award-winning performance in the Amazon original show “Transparent,” as well as for her work as an advocate for LGBTQIA youth. She is a CSU alumna, having earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from CSULB in 2013.


Activist, Actor
Cal State LA, 2016

In his keynote address at the 2016 Cal State LA commencement ceremony for the College of Natural and Social Sciences, activist and actor George H. Takei reflected on his life—from being sent to internment camps during World War II to becoming an award-winning actor. During the ceremony, Cal State LA and the CSU Board of Trustees conferred an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters on Takei for his social justice work, which includes serving as spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign’s “Coming Out Project.”​


Author, President and CEO
Cal Maritime, 2017

Rick Rigsby tugged at the heart strings of Cal Maritime’s 2017 graduates with his speech, “Lessons from a Third Grade Dropout,” in which he told the story of gaining wisdom and empowerment from his father, who left grade school to support his family. Rigsby is the president and CEO of Rick Rigsby Communications, author of the best-selling book by the same title and a former award-winning journalist. He has four degrees including a bachelor’s degree in mass communication (’78) and a master’s degree in public communication (’87) from Chico State.


Economist, Government Official
Cal Poly Pomona, 2023

Cal Poly Pomona alumnus Geoffrey W.S. Okamoto (’08) spoke to the 2023 graduates of CPP’s College of Business Administration. Okamoto previously served as the deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, making him the agency’s No. 2 official. He has held prominent positions in the U.S. Treasury and U.S. Senate, including U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs and majority staff director for the Senate Banking Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection.​


Actress, Community Leader
San Francisco State, 2015

San Francisco State alumna and actress Annette Bening (’80) returned to her alma mater in 2015 to give graduates valuable advice: Cherish the people who have supported you throughout your life. Bening has acted in dozens of theatrical performances and films such as “American Beauty” and “The Kids Are All Right,” and was recently nominated for an Oscar for her role in the Netflix biographical drama “Nyad.” For her portrayal of powerful female characters, SF State and the CSU Board of Trustees awarded Bening an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.​


Football Coach and Commentator, Philanthropist
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 2021

John Madden, Pro Football Hall of Famer and Cal Poly alumnus (‘61), shared his Learn by Doing journey with graduates in a message recorded shortly before his passing in 2021. After his academic and athletic success as a Mustang, Madden played football with the Philadelphia Eagles and, eventually, became a professional football coach and commentator. He also served as CEO of Madden Charities, which provides financial assistance to youth groups in the East Bay. In recognition of his leadership, philanthropy and loyalty to his alma mater, Madden was awarded the honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.


The CSU will honor thousands of graduates across its 23 campuses this spring, recognizing their academic achievements, extracurricular accomplishments, service work and perseverance. See how CSU commencement ceremonies will celebrate this year’s graduates.