Thanks, Obama

From Barack to RBG, these famous speakers imparted their wisdom on departing classes.

By Amal Ahmed

Photos courtesy Creative Commons and Northwestern University Relations

Ever since your first tuition payment was due, you’ve been working toward the day you finally get to walk across a stage and receive your ridiculously expensive diploma at commencement.

This year’s speaker is Virginia Rometty, a Northwestern alumna who currently serves as the first female CEO of IBM. But before the festivities begin for the 157th graduating class, here’s a look back at some of Northwestern’s most notable commencement speakers over the past two decades.

Wynton Marsalis


Claim to Fame: Renowned jazz musician, nine-time Grammy winner and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Student Reactions: Swaying and clapping enthusiastically to the beat of Marsalis’s trumpet serenade.

Best Quote: "Well done ... Now welcome to the world of free choice ... It’s a sloppy, messy unruly world. You are suddenly called upon to contribute to the collective dream of who we are, have been and want to be. That is why I want you to take this moment to affirm your dream of yourself." (Cue: trumpet serenade following speech)

Jehane Noujaim

(NU in Qatar, 2014)

Claim to Fame: Egyptian-American documentary filmmaker who directed The Square, an Academy Award-nominated 2013 documentary about the Egyptian Revolution.

Student Reactions: The Daily Q, Northwestern University in Qatar’s student newspaper, reported that student opinions were split. Many students were unfamiliar with Noujaim’s work, while others were happy that a relatable female journalist was chosen as the speaker.

Best Quote: “It was taking pictures and making films that gave me a newfound appreciation for the contents of my mind allowing me to have an inner dialogue that fascinated me. If you do what you love, you will be a person that you like – and since you have to spend more time with yourself than anybody else in the entire world, it is very important that you like yourself.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg


Claim to Fame: Second female justice appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Student Reactions: “Students said they were surprised and impressed” that the justice could come, according to the The Daily Northwestern on Feb. 19, 1998.

Best Quote: “I continue to gain encouragement from people who appreciate what feminism really means. It is not a pejorative. It means freeing people, men as well as women, to be you and me, allowing people to pursue the talents and qualities they have without artificial restraints.”

Barack Obama


Claim to Fame: Then-U.S. Senator from Illinois with a reputation as a rising political star.

Student Reactions: Expectations were high. One columnist in The Daily Northwestern posed a challenge to Obama to beat, ironically enough, John McCain’s policy-heavy speech from the previous year.

Best Quote: “One of the great things about graduating from Northwestern is that you can now punch your own ticket. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage and go chasing after the big house and the large salary and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy. But I hope you don’t. Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. And it will leave you unfulfilled.”

Stephen Colbert


Claim to Fame: Former host of The Colbert Report who is set to replace David Letterman in the fall as host of The Late Show.

Student Reactions: “Many are wondering which version of the satirist will show up to Ryan Field in June. Will it be Stephen Colbert: Northwestern alum and successful comedian? Or will it be Stephen Colbert: right-wing commentator and one-time presidential hopeful?” (North by Northwestern, Jan. 25, 2011)

Best Quote: “You cannot win improv. And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along. And like improv, you cannot win your life.”


The ones who stood us up

Madeleine Albright

(1999), then-Secretary of State

Reason: A crisis in Kosovo was apparently more important than the one brewing in Evanston – students had been planning to protest Albright’s policies in Kosovo and Iraq.

Bill Clinton

(1994), then-President of the United States

Reason: Had too much on his plate already, you know, running America.

Christiane Amanpour

(2010), Journalist and foreign correspondent for CNN

Reason: She was called abroad to report on international conflicts.