Credit: Rick McKee,

In an April 23, 2021 memo, Chancellor Henry T. Yang announced plans for UCSB’s annual commencement ceremony, including the exciting news that Oprah Winfrey will be the keynote speaker. Oprah has delivered many inspiring addresses in recent years including Smith College and Harvard commencements. Oprah’s way of organizing her key points provides a template for each of us who want to acknowledge the meaning of commencement.

This has not been a normal school year, full of uncertainty, adjustments, and disappointments. It behooves us to pay special attention to the graduates we know, especially the High School graduates. After all, without in-person classes, peer relationships have weakened. For seniors, SAT tests have been canceled due to the pandemic, adding to anxiety about their ability to compete for admission to chosen colleges. Tickets to commencement are limited. Family parties are smaller than usual. All the more reason to find a way to make it a big deal, expressing your heartiest congratulations to any graduate who has persevered.

Do you know someone in the class of 2021? You may want to consider expressing your congratulations to the graduate and his/her/their family in writing, perhaps via an email or even a handwritten letter sent via USPS.

Consider these tips for sending a congratulatory letter or email to the graduate:

1. MAKE IT PERSONAL: Offer a reminder about how you first met and mention any positive changes you’ve seen over the years.

2. BE SPECIFIC: Give a specific example of something the graduate has done that was impressive or meant something to you.

3. ACKNOWLEDGE THE TRIBE: Acknowledge what the parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers or a coach have done to contribute to the student’s success.

4. NOTE THE CONTEXT: Place the graduation within the current social, political context in terms of the challenges and opportunities that the graduate will face.

5. EXPRESS: Share what it means to you to remain in touch with the graduate.

6. TOAST: Close with what you hope or wish for the graduate as he/she/they move forward in life.

You may make the cut and be invited to attend a graduation party. After all the formal commencement speeches the student and family have just endured, you’ll be wise to be on point. Consider these tips for delivering a toast in person:

1. Be brief. You’re not the only person who will want to offer a congratulatory toast. And don’t turn this into a roast!

2. Express your affection and/or respect for their accomplishments and identify one or two examples.

3. End by using a quote and/or your wish for success and happiness in life. 

Pablo Hsu

As an example, here is a toast that Lois will be delivering to the graduate in her life:

“Pablo, we’ve been gratified to be in touch with you over 15 years, sharing meals and discussing conundrums and dilemmas while hearing share what you value and your philosophy of life. We get you, as we say these days, having seen you mature into a responsible person with many interests and academic success. Today is another turning point in your life. As Confucius wrote, “ “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” We hope to share many more happy occasions with you, whatever path you choose. Congratulations, graduate!”

Your delivery is critical when you offer a toast in person. When you read your toast, scan the text one line at a time, then say the words by looking directly at the graduate as often as you can. Eye contact conveys sincerity. 

Now that more groups of people are meeting in person, you might want to prepare yourself for more speaking invitations, from wedding toasts to retirement tributes.  To be able to be on point, fully present, and feel self-confident, prepare your main points in advance. People will appreciate your sincerity and more likely remember what you had to say.

Lois Phillips, PhD, is founding CEO of Antioch University Santa Barbara and founder of the Association for Women in Communications SB Chapter. Anita Perez Ferguson, PhD, is a Visiting Fellow at Council of Independent Colleges, and advisor to the Inter American Foundation


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.