"As scary and uncertain as these times may be, they are also a wake-up call," Barack Obama told new graduates, "and they are an incredible opportunity for your generation."

By Adam Carlson
Updated June 08, 2020
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Former President Barack Obama
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Barack and Michelle Obama appeared Sunday on YouTube’s "Dear Class of 2020" special to address high school and college students now graduating into a country “upended” by a deadly pandemic and “swept by protest.”

The former president and first lady had the same message: They, too, have been grappling with anguish and uncertainty and loss. “But that doesn’t mean we should feel hopeless,” Mrs. Obama said in her commencement address after a joint video message from her and her husband. (Celebrities, athletes and performers also appeared at the special.)

“As someone once said: Hope is not a lottery ticket. It’s a hammer for us to use in a national emergency — to break the glass, sound the alarm and sprint into action,” President Obama, 58, said in his own speech.

“As scary and uncertain as these times may be, they are also a wake-up call,” he said, “and they are an incredible opportunity for your generation.”

“I hope that what you’re going through right now can be your wake-up call,” the former first lady, 56, also told graduating students.

This year’s commencement festivities were so much different than a normal year, she acknowledged — graduations that had already been turned from physical to virtual, because of the spread of the novel coronavirus, were now being held in the shadow of nationwide unrest over the death of George Floyd while in police custody, touching off widespread demonstrations.

“In light of the current state of our country, I struggled to find the right words of wisdom for you today,” Mrs. Obama said. “So, I am here today to talk to you not as the former first lady, but as a real live person: a mother, a mentor, a citizen concerned about your future and the future of our country.”

“Over these past couple of months our foundation has been shaken — not just by a pandemic that stole too many of our loved ones, upended our daily lives and sent tens of millions into unemployment, but also by the rumbling of the age-old fault lines that our country was built on — the lines of race and power that are now, once again, so nakedly exposed for all of us to grapple with,” the former first lady said.

“The question is,” she said, “how will we respond?”

Former First Lady Michelle Obama
Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Both she and President Obama had three lessons to share.

“First,” he told graduates, “do what you think is right, not just what’s convenient or what’s expected or what’s easy.”

“You don’t have to accept what was considered normal before,” he said. “You don’t have to accept the world as it is. You can make it into the world as it should be and could be.”

He later continued: “I’ll admit that it’s a little unfair to lay such a heavy burden on you. I wish that my generation had done more to solve some of our country’s big problems, so you didn’t have to. But the good news is that I know you’re up to the challenge. You are the best-educated generation in history.”

In her own remarks, Mrs. Obama said: “The tough part is, nobody has all the answers — if my generation did, trust me we’d have fixed all of this a long time ago.”

“Life will always be uncertain,” she said. “It is a lesson that most of us get the chance to learn over the course of years and years — even decades — but one that you’re learning right now.”

“In an uncertain world,” however, “time-tested values like honesty and integrity, empathy and compassion: That’s the only real currency in life,” the former first lady said. “Treating people right will never, ever fail you.”

That was her second lesson, while former President Obama said, “Listen to each other, respect each other, and use all that critical thinking you’ve developed from your education to help promote the truth.”

“Finally, even if it all seems broken, have faith in our democracy,” he said. “Participate — and vote.”

In her speech, his wife said: “Anger is a powerful force. It can be a useful force. … But when anger is focused, when it’s channeled into something more — that is the stuff that changes history.”

“So, what does that mean for your time?” she said.

There was not one right way to serve or do good work. There were many, she said: Attending protests and marches as well as pushing back on prejudice in your neighborhood or social circle — and educating yourself on the politicians in your communities, registering to vote and encouraging the same among your friends and family.

From left: Former President Barack Obama giving a 2016 commencement speech at Howard University and former First Lady Michelle Obama delivering a 2010 commencement speech at George Washington University.
Alex Wong/Getty Images; Paul Morigi/WireImage

“Graduates, it’s all important,” Mrs. Obama said, “and we need every bit of it.”

“This is how you can finish the work that the generations before you have started: By staying open and hopeful, even in the tough times,” she said, “by channeling that discomfort you feel into activism and a democracy that was designed to respond to those who vote.”

“It’s not always pretty, this democracy of ours — trust me, I know,” President Obama said. “It can be loud and messy and sometimes depressing.”

And it can improve.

“America changed, and has always changed, because young people dared to hope,” the president said. “Democracy isn’t about relying on some charismatic leader to make changes from on high. It’s about finding hope in ourselves and creating it in others. Especially in a time like this.”

“Graduates, you all are exactly what we need right now,” Mrs. Obama said, “and for the years and decades to come.”

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