Urging them to live life to the fullest and take nothing for granted, Shields teared up as she delivered the keynote speech at Princeton's annual Class Day ceremony to honor graduating seniors.
"My education enabled me to survive this industry - one that predicates itself on eating its young," she said.
Shields, who was a prominent Calvin Klein model when she enrolled at Princeton, reminisced about her college experiences, such as having her entire academic record printed in Life magazine. "Or when George Michael tells you he doesn't want to date you because he wants to focus on his solo career - then you find out he's gay," she said, rolling her eyes.
The model and actress jokingly reminded the a capella singing group that rejected her decades ago that she'll be starring in her fifth Broadway musical later this year. She questioned how far down she was on the list of preferred headliners for the ceremony.
"Who couldn't they get? Why did Snooki pass?" she mused, referring to Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, star of the reality TV show "Jersey Shore," who spoke at nearby Rutgers University in March.
Shields played the title character in the late 1990s television series "Suddenly Susan" and also starred in TV's "Lipstick Jungle" and the film "The Blue Lagoon." She graduated from Princeton with honors in 1987, with a degree in Romance languages and literatures.
"You'll spill out of here untethered, unguided and unstoppable," Shields assured the senior class. "You will leave here to do the same thing all of us have done before you: make mistakes."
Graduating seniors filed into Princeton's Cannon Green as music by Britney Spears was piped in via loudspeaker. Wearing traditional "beer jackets," some sported orange sunglasses, signifying the lighthearted and casual character of Class Day.
"Twenty-four years ago I was sitting right out there where you sit today, wearing this exact signed orange-and-black jacket," Shields recalled. "My hair was huge, my Reeboks white, my jeans acid-washed."
The annual ceremony is planned and presented by graduating students, and usually includes a heavy dose of humor. Previous years have featured former President Bill Clinton, comedian Stephen Colbert and news anchor Katie Couric.
University President Shirley Tilghman gave notice to students that the comfortable bubble of college life, where laundry machines send reminder text messages when their cycle is up, has been popped. She presented students with a key offering "round-the-clock access to the university's endowment - but only to make deposits."
Graduation rituals at Princeton conclude Tuesday with Commencement.
Josh Lederman can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/joshledermanAP