Soledad O'Brien Harvard Commencement Speech | Harvard University Commencement 2013 | Summary and Q&A

May 29, 2013
Harvard University
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Soledad O'Brien Harvard Commencement Speech | Harvard University Commencement 2013

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This video is a speech delivered by a speaker at the Class Day celebrations for the class of 2013. The speaker reflects on the support and love of family and friends, and reassures parents that their children are not truly leaving them. The speaker shares personal anecdotes of their parents' immigrant background and interracial marriage, emphasizing the importance of not listening to negative advice and pursuing one's own dreams. They encourage the audience to lean in, use their voices, and make positive change in the world. The speaker concludes by highlighting the power of education and the obligation to use it to help others.

Questions & Answers

Q: What did the speaker say to reassure parents who were feeling sad about their children leaving home?

The speaker assured parents that their children are not truly leaving them, as they will be back home for various reasons such as doing laundry, seeing friends, and getting their belongings. The speaker humorously predicted that between now and age 40, the students would likely move back into their bedrooms multiple times.

Q: What was the best advice the speaker's mother ever gave them?

According to the speaker, the best advice their mother ever gave them was, "Most people are idiots." This advice was meant to remind the speaker not to listen to those who doubt or discourage them. The speaker's mother believed that many people spend their lives telling others what they cannot do, and it was important to ignore such negativity.

Q: How did the speaker's parents meet?

The speaker's parents met in 1958 because they both attended daily Mass. The speaker's mother would walk to Mass while the speaker's father had a car. Every day, the father would drive up next to the mother and offer her a ride. Although the mother initially turned him down, she eventually agreed to take a ride from him.

Q: How did people react when the speaker's parents, who were an interracial couple, went to restaurants together in Baltimore in 1958?

In 1958, every restaurant the speaker's parents visited in Baltimore turned them away because they were an interracial couple. While the speaker's father was allowed inside, the speaker's mother was denied entry. Instead of being discouraged, the mother took the father back to her apartment and prepared a delicious meal of Cuban food for him.

Q: What was the significance of the speaker's parents getting married in 1958?

The speaker's parents decided to get married in 1958, despite the fact that interracial marriage was illegal in their state of Maryland and 16 other states at the time. They drove to Washington DC, where interracial marriage was legal, and got married. They then returned to Baltimore and lived there illegally as a married couple.

Q: What lesson did the speaker learn from their parents' disregard for advice and opinions of others?

The speaker learned the lesson of not listening to other people's take on the life they should lead. Despite friends warning them against it, the speaker's parents decided to have children, believing that biracial kids would not fit into the world. The speaker emphasized that it is important to follow one's own dreams and not be swayed by others' expectations.

Q: What was the speaker's academic background at Harvard?

While at Harvard, the speaker initially studied English American literature and also had intentions of pursuing a pre-med track. However, they soon discovered that storytelling was their true passion and switched their focus to working at a local TV station. This decision eventually led them to a career in traveling the world and telling stories.

Q: What does "leaning in" mean, according to the speaker?

The speaker mentioned the concept of "leaning in," a phrase popularized by Sheryl Sandberg, which originally referred to women in business. However, the speaker expanded upon it and stated that "leaning in" means using one's voice, making necessary changes, and investing their heart and soul in ideas and people that others may not appreciate or see the value in.

Q: What did the speaker say about breaking through walls that exist between people?

The speaker encouraged the audience to break through the walls that they believe exist between themselves and others who may look or act differently. They emphasized the need to understand why people behave the way they do and to engage in conversations to bridge the distance and foster understanding.

Q: What did the speaker urge the audience to do with their education and privilege?

The speaker reminded the audience that they have received an exceptional education, and therefore, have an obligation to use the power they have been given to help others who may not have had the same opportunities. They urged the audience to use their voices in defense of those who cannot speak for themselves and to actively make positive changes in the world.


In this speech, the speaker emphasizes the value of not listening to negative advice and pursuing one's own dreams. They highlight the importance of using one's voice, making positive change, and bridging the distance between people. The speaker also underlines the obligation that comes with receiving a great education and encourages the audience to use their privilege to help others.

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