Oprah Winfrey gave her commencement address to the Class of 2008 at Stanford on June 15, 2008. In her address, she shared three lessons about feelings, failure and finding happiness.
Well, thank you, President Hennessy, and to the trustees and the faculty, to all of the parents and grandparents, to you, the Stanford graduates. Thank you for letting me share this amazing day with you.
I need to begin by letting everyone in on a little secret. The secret is that Kirby Bumpus, Stanford Class of 2008, is my goddaughter. So, I was thrilled when President Hennessy asked me to be your Commencement speaker, because this is the first time I’ve been allowed on campus since Kirby’s been here.
You see, Kirby’s a very smart girl. She wants people to get to know her on her own terms, she says. Not in terms of who she knows. So, she never wants anyone who’s first meeting her to know that I know her and she knows me.
So, when she first came to Stanford for new student orientation with her mom, I hear that they arrived and everybody was so welcoming, and somebody came up to Kirby and they said, “Oh my god, that’s Gayle King!” Because a lot of people know Gayle King as my BFF – best friend forever.
And so somebody comes up to Kirby, and they say, “Oh, my God, is that Gayle King?” And Kirby’s like, “Uh-huh. She is my mom.”
And so the person says, “Oh my God, does it mean, like, you know Oprah Winfrey?”
And Kirby says, “Sort of.” I said, “Sort of? You sort of know me?”
Well, I have photographic proof. I have pictures which I can e-mail to you all of Kirby riding horsey with me on all fours. So, I more than sort-of know Kirby Bumpus.
And I’m so happy to be here, just happy that I finally, after four years, get to see her room. There’s really nowhere else I’d rather be, because I’m so proud of Kirby, who graduates today with two degrees, one in human bio and the other in psychology.
Love you, Kirby Cakes! That’s how well I know her. I can call her Cakes. And so proud of her mother and father, who helped her get through this time, and her brother, Will.
I really had nothing to do with her graduating from Stanford, but every time anybody’s asked me in the past couple of weeks what I was doing, I would say, “I’m getting ready to go to Stanford.” I just love saying “Stanford.”
Because the truth is, I know I would have never gotten my degree at all, because I didn’t go to Stanford. I went to Tennessee State University. But I never would have gotten my diploma at all, because I was supposed to graduate back in 1975, but I was short one credit.
And I figured, I’m just going to forget it, because, you know, I’m not going to march with my class.
Because by that point, I was already on television. I’d been in television since I was 19 and a sophomore. Granted, I was the only television anchor person that had an 11 o’clock curfew doing the 10 o’clock news.
Seriously, my dad was like, “Well, that news is over at 10:30. Be home by 11.” But that didn’t matter to me, because I was earning a living.
I was on my way. So, I thought, I’m going to let this college thing go and I only had one credit short.
But, my father, from that time on and for years after, was always on my case, because I did not graduate.
He’d say, “Oprah Gail” that’s my middle name “I don’t know what you’re going to do without that degree.”
And I’d say, “But, Dad, I have my own television show.”
And he’d say, “Well, I still don’t know what you’re going to do without that degree.”
And I’d say, “But, Dad, now I’m a talk show host.”
He’d say, “I don’t know how you’re going to get another job without that degree.”
So, in 1987, Tennessee State University invited me back to speak at their commencement. By then, I had my own show, was nationally syndicated. I’d made a movie, had been nominated for an Oscar and founded my company, Harpo.
But I told them, I cannot come and give a speech unless I can earn one more credit, because my dad’s still saying I’m not going to get anywhere without that degree.
So, I finished my coursework, I turned in my final paper and I got the degree. And my dad was very proud.
And I know that, if anything happens, that one credit will be my salvation. But I also know why my dad was insisting on that diploma, because, as B. B. King put it, “The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take that away from you.”