Media mogul Oprah Winfrey spoke to the Class of 2020 on Friday in a virtual ceremony streamed live on Facebook that featured a host of celebrities and a few local names.
It was an event meant to celebrate high school and college graduates who, because of the coronavirus pandemic, have been denied a critical rite of passage marked by walking across a stage to accept their diplomas. The ceremony featured a mix of short inspirational videos from celebrities, shout outs from students, parents, and teachers, as well as musical performances.
In her roughly six-minute keynote speech, Winfrey urged graduating seniors across the country to use their education to reshape society for the better as the country emerges from the pandemic restrictions, rather than simply putting things back to the way they were.
“Can you use this disorder that COVID-19 has wrought?” she asked. “We need you to to do this because the pandemic has illuminated the vast systemic inequities that have defined life for too many for too long.”
Winfrey called on viewers to use their voice ― and their vote ― to address inequality and racism in society, at one point referencing the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger who was shot and killed after being chased by a white father and son through a neighborhood in Georgia.
“You have the power to stand for, and fight for, and vote for healthier conditions that will create a healthier society,” she said.
Praising first responders and the essential workers still reporting to their jobs during the pandemic, Winfrey also urged the graduates spared by the coronavirus to consider it a blessing and to use the opportunity to think hard about their purpose in life.
“Look who turns out to be essential,” Winfrey said. “We are all here because they, at great and profound risk, are still providing their essential service. What will your essential service be? What really matters to you? The fact that you are alive means you’ve been given a reprieve to think deeply about that question. How will you use what matters in service to yourself, your community, and the world?”
The livestream, hosted by Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak, displayed a running list of thousands of high schools, colleges, and universities across the country, and also featured a performance from Pitch Slapped, an a capella group out of Berklee College of Music in Boston.
New England Patriots star Julian Edelman also made an appearance, offering his advice to the graduates.
“This isn’t how you envisioned your graduation time to be, but the bumps in the road are what make the journey fun,” he said.
Watch Winfrey’s full speech: