Coolidge shares message of self-acceptance at WashU Commencement

Jennifer Coolidge is an award-winning actor, pop culture icon and LGBTQ activist. 

And a proud weirdo. 

In her Commencement address to the Washington University in St. Louis Class of 2024, Coolidge urged students to dare to be who they want to be.  

“I stand before you, a weird person,” Coolidge said. “Respect the need to be something very odd, not what is expected. Get to know yourself. Accept who you are, and love that person because this is the moment. You already are everything you need to be.” 

In a 30-minute speech that was slyly funny, painfully raw and delightfully circuitous, Coolidge shared her own journey to radical self-love. Everyone — her worried mother, loser boyfriends and, for too long , herself — believed she was too strange to succeed. But a devastating rejection from “Saturday Night Live” set her on a path to self-acceptance and a string of unforgettable roles in “American Pie,” “Legally Blonde” and “The White Lotus.” 

“People wanted the real me, and people want the real you,” Coolidge said. 

Coolidge spoke before about 3,400 graduates and their families and friends at the university’s 163rd Commencement May 13 at historic Francis Olympic Field. The day’s events took place against the backdrop of campus protests nationwide about the war in Gaza. WashU’s ceremony proceeded largely without incident. Pro-Palestinian protesters marched on the public sidewalk outside of Francis Field.

“Your messages in every form you’ve chosen to deliver them are powerful and are heard,” Andrew Bursky, chair of the WashU Board of Trustees, told the graduates. “As you move forward in your lives, remember the power your voices have and be thoughtful in how you use them to affect change for greater good.”

Chancellor Andrew D. Martin also acknowledged that recent events have compelled everyone to define and reflect on their core values. 

School of Medicine Commencement
Washington University Commencement was held at Francis Field on the Danforth campus, on May 13, 2024. MATT MILLER/WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE
School of Medicine graduates celebrate Commencement May 13 at Francis Olympic Field. (Photo: Matt Miller/School of Medicine)

At the School of Medicine’s ceremony May 12, bagpipes, flashing cameras and smiling faces ushered in the graduating Class of 2024. Most entered medical school during a global pandemic and with the launch of the Gateway Curriculum, the first overhaul of the school’s program of studies in more than two decades. See stories, photos and more from School of Medicine ceremonies.

“Everything costs something; everyone has a different idea of what they’re willing to pay,” Martin said. “With clarity about what you are willing to sacrifice and what you cannot compromise, difficult decisions become navigable. The discernment between what is sacrosanct and what can bend — without snapping — is crucial for leading a life of principle while remaining effective. The path forward may not be easy, but it has integrity … a life lived authentically and with intention, mindful of the costs, yet unflinching in pursuit of what matters most.” 

Martin also urged the audience to acknowledge the core values of others. 

“Having wrestled authentically with your values and the costs you’ll bear equips you to extend that same appreciation to others,” Martin said. “You avoid projecting your conception of what matters most, and can be curious about the ideals that shaped another’s path.” 

‘We need you’

Coolidge started her speech by thanking whoever chose her as speaker. 

“It’s really a way to think outside of the box,” Coolidge said with a laugh.

Coolidge shared that she has always been a little bit strange. As a child, she would overhear her parents’ despair about her future. Because she respected them so, she assumed they were right. 

“My mother thought I was not quite normal. She kept on saying things like, ‘What’s to become of Jennifer?’” Coolidge said. “‘Just be normal, Jennifer.’ I heard that so many times. And not being normal, that felt painful. And hearing about it in a Boston accent somehow made it worse.”

(Video: Tom Malkowicz/Washington University)

Coolidge told students that she had no idea who she was or what she wanted to be when she graduated from Emerson College in 1985. She decided to go into acting but wasted most of her time partying. Finally, in her 30s, she found her way to the Groundlings, the Los Angeles improv troupe that has launched the careers of superstars such as Lisa Kudrow, Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig. Things were going great. Or so Coolidge thought. After a promising audition for “Saturday Night Live,” her new agent tried to hardball producer Lorne Michaels into a deal. Michaels was not to be cowed. 

“A week later I called my agent. The person who answered the phone said, ‘Jennifer, I’m so sorry, but he doesn’t work here anymore. He’s gone back to the family meat business,’” Coolidge dryly recalled. “My golden moment was ruined by this temporary agent. And I couldn’t recover from it.” 

But Coolidge pulled herself together, eventually scoring one iconic role after another.

“Somehow being rejected by ‘Saturday Night Live’ eliminated my desperation,” Coolidge said. “And that’s when things really started to happen. It just doesn’t work when you’re trying to force a dream.”

Coolidge closed her speech by celebrating students for their activism and passion and urged them to be brave in their fight to protect the environment, civil and voting rights and the rights of women and the LGBTQ community. 

“When I think about your generation and how passionate and vocal you are, it makes me so happy because this is progress,” Coolidge said. “Seriously, we need you. We need your strength. There is war and famine spreading across the world. As you know, protests on campus and across the world, like some you’ve had here, illustrate the need for the voices of brilliant, uniquely nuanced and qualified graduates, like you.”

Class of 2024 graduates celebrate
Class of 2024 graduates celebrate Commencement May 13 at Francis Olympic Field. (Photo: Jeff Curry/Washington University)

Read Chancellor Andrew Martin’s message to the Class of 2024.

Read undergraduate student speaker Alejandro Ramirez’s address.

Read graduate student speaker Patricia Maurer’s address.