By Daphne Sashin, CNN
(CNN) - Sure, the audience at Harvard University's commencement ceremony was treated to a speech from Oprah Winfrey, and grads at other colleges got to hear life lessons from a who's who of politicians, scientists and artists.
But those moments could not compare to the preschool graduation performance at the First Family Early Learning Center in New Castle, Delaware, if excitement is any measure.
Each member of the graduating class was assigned to recite a poem or song for each letter of the alphabet to showcase all they had learned that year. ("D" for days of the week, "N" for numbers.)
Five-year-old Chase Winters had practiced his lines for weeks. When it was time for letter "K," Chase, dressed in tan pants and vest, along with a matching blue shirt and tie, approached the microphone and looked out into the crowd. His mom, Danielle, waited anxiously in the crowd.
"K is for kindergarten, we start in the fall; When we started preschool, we were very small; we're much bigger now, look how tall; so it's off to kindergarten in the fall."
"In that moment, I was filled with so many emotions," Danielle wrote on CNN iReport. "Proud that he had done a great job, surprised at how mature he has become, and sad that my baby is quickly growing up!"
By Robert Balfanz and John Gomperts, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Graduation season is in full swing, bringing with it a lot of discussion about life and opportunity. Inevitably there will be news stories about graduation ceremonies or a new YouTube video sensation focusing on commencement words of wisdom. While inspiring, those stories never give a full portrait of this rite of passage in America.
High school graduation—once the end of educational achievement for many—is now really just the starting line. The changing economy means that people who don't receive any post-secondary education will have access to only 40% of jobs in the next decade.
The beginning of this year's commencement season coincided with the 30th anniversary of one of the most important education reports the nation ever produced. "A Nation at Risk" warned that a mediocre education system put America's future in such serious jeopardy that had a foreign power imposed this poor performance on us, "we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
Yet three decades later, the reading and math skills of America's 15-year-olds still rank, respectively, as "average" and "below average" among developed nations. So, as you attend your next graduation ceremony, here are five things you won't hear but need to know.
Not everyone eventually gets a diploma.
In reality, fewer than 80% of students receive a regular high school diploma (not simply a GED) within four years. That number drops to less than 70% for African-American students and lower yet for students with disabilities and English language learners.
(CNN) - Balaal Hollings, a senior at Northwestern High School in Detroit, was shot in the head in April after trying to break up a fight at the party. For weeks, the honor student, homecoming king and class president was in the hospital, fighting for his life.
But he stunned his classmates this week by walking on stage during their graduation ceremony, wearing a helmet, tassel and graduating robe. His classmates rose to their feet, and many cried.
"First of all, I want to thank God," he told his classmates. "It is so good to be alive."
(CNN) - There's not one, not two, but 29 valedictorians graduating from Redmond High School in Oregon this year. The school implemented a new system that adds weight to some classes, and enables students to receive up to a 5.0 GPA. But these students had three years under the old system, and all qualified to be valedictorian, CNN affiliate KTVZ reported.
It's expected to be a one-time phenom in Redmond, school officials said, but it's not the only place to have far more than one valedictorian. Just last year, a high school in Ocala, Florida, graduated 25 valedictorians - there, the top students all earned a 5.0 because of the college-level classes they'd taken.
By Elizabeth Landau, CNN
Editor's note: Elizabeth Landau is a health and science writer and producer for CNN.com. She is a 2006 graduate of Princeton University. Here she offers a personal take on the terror that can accompany such a happy milestone.
(CNN) - On paper, I was ready to graduate. In my head, though, I never wanted that moment to arrive.
Sure, I was academically qualified. I had already been through the festivities that Princeton lavishes upon its graduating seniors in the week prior to The Day: The Reunions parade, a hilarious talk by David Sedaris, an outdoor sing-along, an inspirational speech by Bill Clinton, the bestowing of honors and awards, and a prom-like gala where soon-to-be-graduates and parents danced awkwardly. Princeton really likes to celebrate things.
The final ceremonial act would, superficially, be the easiest and least meaningful: Commencement – put on the cap and gown, sit through a few speeches, receive my diploma.
But in those last hours as a student, the perky, optimistic, ready-for-anything face I’d worn for four years melted away. I completely fell apart.
“Boludita, don’t cry,” my college sweetheart told me that morning, using a Spanish word meaning something like “little stupid one” that we had adapted into an affectionate nickname.
There was much to look forward to – an overseas trip! Graduate school! This all felt remote and less appealing because of graduation.
“I can’t help it,” I told him. “I don’t want to leave. I don’t want this year to be over. Nothing will ever be this good again.”
We bid farewell so he could catch a flight and I could get to graduation procession.When I was standing alone on the sidewalk with tears streaming down my cheeks, a single thought would not go away: “I will never be happy again.”
I wish that I had known Marina Keegan, the Yale graduate whose beautiful essay about graduating has been widely cherished since her untimely death in a car accident at age 22 last year. Marina’s incredible insight and wisdom led her to write, “The notion that it's too late to do anything is comical. It's hilarious. We're graduating college. We're so young. We can't, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it's all we have.”
It’s clear from Marina’s essay that she loved her time at Yale. I still get teary-eyed reading her words because it sounds as though she is directly addressing 22-year-old me - I who believed on graduation day that nothing was possible anymore.
By Ann Hoevel, CNN
(CNN) - Harvard University's 362nd commencement ceremony was held this afternoon, as onlookers fanned themselves on a warm Massachusetts day.
Centenarians, accomplished alumni and graduates were recognized during the celebrations. The school's band and choir performed a rousing rendition of the "Harvardiana" march. But the star of the show was commencement speaker Oprah Winfrey, who also received an honorary Harvard degree earlier in the day.
Wearing an appropriate shade of crimson, Winfrey took the podium to a standing ovation.
"Oh my goodness, IIIIII'M AT HAAAAAARRRRRVAAAARD!" she boasted in traditional Oprah style. "Not too many little girls from rural Mississippi have made it all the way here to Cambridge," she said, addressing her remarks to anyone who has "felt inferior or disadvantaged or screwed by life."
She started her speech by addressing the struggles and criticism she has endured in launching the OWN television network. The invitation to speak at the commencement, Winfrey said, came the day she read a particularly unkind headline about her network in USA Today. "And they're the nice paper!" she exclaimed.
She decided to turn her network around by the time she spoke to the Harvard class of 2013.
"Failure is just life trying to move us in a different direction," she told them. "This last year I had to spoon feed those words to myself." Winfrey advised the graduates learn from their mistakes, "because every experience and encounter and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you who you are."
Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette
(CNN) - Last year, at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at the school and the son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, gave the commencement address. He knocked it out of the park, and his words traveled far. What he had to say, America was desperate to hear.
McCullough believes that much of today's youth is "pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped" and shielded from reality. He told the graduates: "Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you."
I've had the privilege of delivering a commencement address, at a university in central California, and I hope someday to deliver another. In fact, I already know what I want to say.
So let me try it out on the class of 2013. Talk to college professors or human resource managers or employers. Read the research done on the so-called Millennial generation, and you'll find lots of evidence that McCullough was on the right track. The young people of today have often spent their lives being coddled, catered to and spared the stress of living up to expectations. People usually tell them only what they want to hear.
Not me. I'd rather tell our future leaders what they need to hear. Here are 10 provocative pieces of advice that this year's class of college and university graduates would be wise to take to heart:
1) Have your parents introduce themselves to you. Interview them, and record it. Ask them about their lives, and what stories or lessons they'd like to share with their grandchildren. They gave you life, so the least you can do is try to understand theirs. When they're gone, you'll be glad you did.
2) Follow your passion but be open to the idea that your passion might change and evolve over the years as you do. Don't be afraid to change course and go in a different direction. You're allowed to have second thoughts, about what you want to do and how you intend to spend your life.
By Meron Moges-Gerbi, CNN
(CNN) - On a rainy afternoon this spring when President Barack Obama gave the commencement speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he called valedictorian Betsegaw Tadele the “skinny guy with a funny name” – a nickname Obama has often called himself.
So, who is that other “skinny guy?”
Tadele’s journey to sharing a stage with the president began in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the youngest of Tadele Alemu and Almaz Ayalew’s two children. Tadele’s first name, Betsegaw, means "by God's grace" in Amharic, his native language.
In the summer of 2009, Tadele came to the United States in pursuit of a higher education.
Morehouse College, a historically black college, was not Tadele’s first choice; he was initially interested in more technical schools. Morehouse only awarded him enough scholarship funds to pay for tuition, not room and board. But Tadele’s brother happened to be living and working in Atlanta. Tadele saw this as an opportunity to spend time with his brother while taking advantage of what the university had to offer. Morehouse became his new destination.
After four years at Morehouse, Tadele had a 3.99 GPA. He graduated with a degree in computer science and a minor in mathematics. He won departmental awards in math and the school’s computer science leadership and scholarship award, led Morehouse’s Computer Science Club and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
"There is no impossible. There is no unbelievable. There is no unachievable, if you have the audacity to hope," Tadele said during his speech, paraphrasing the name of the president's 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope."
President Obama and Betsegaw Tadele speak at the Morehouse graduation.
The next stop in Tadele’s journey is Seattle, where he'll work for Microsoft.
Here’s what Tadele had to say about meeting the president and finishing college:
CNN: First thing first, what was it like to meet President Obama?
Betsegaw Tadele: I didn’t really get to meet him except on stage. There were a lot of Secret Service (agents) around him. Many were suggesting I go and hug him, but I couldn’t do that. But it was great; after my speech, he got up gave me a hug and told me he was proud of me. That was a great honor.
CNN: What was the greatest part of being a Morehouse valedictorian?
Tadele: It was great to be able to mark that moment and summarize our journey at Morehouse. I wasn't nervous at all. I could feel the energy of the crowd, everyone was happy to be there. It was an honor to be able to acknowledge all these parents who sacrificed so much for their kids to be there. Acknowledging them and our hard work and the energy of that moment was unforgettable.
(CNN) - Chelesa Fearce is the valedictorian at Charles Drew High School near Atlanta, Georgia, but it didn't come without a fight. The 17-year-old and her family have been homeless for years, living out of shelters, cars and occasionally short-lived apartments while her mom struggled to keep a job.
But Chelesa would crack open books at the homeless shelter and read against a cell phone light, she told CNN affiliate WSB. She's graduating with a 4.46 GPA, and is heading to Spelman College in the fall with enough credits to be a junior.
Her advice to students? "Do what you have to do right now so that you can have the future you want," she said.