"If the world’s going to get better, it going to be up to you," Barack Obama said on Saturday, in one of two virtual commencement speeches he gave the class of 2020.

By Maria Pasquini
Updated May 18, 2020
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Although high school and college graduates may face an uncertain future as the nation continues to grapple with the novel coronavirus pandemic, former President Barack Obama is offering his thoughts on how the future generation can rise to the challenge.

While giving a remote commencement speech during Saturday night's Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020 special, Obama, 58, acknowledged that this wasn't the senior year many had "looked forward to" for years.

“Just as you’re about to celebrate having made it through, just as you’ve been looking forward to proms and senior nights, graduation ceremonies — and, let’s face it, a whole bunch of parties — the world is turned upside down by a global pandemic,” he said before joking, “And as much as I’m sure you love your parents, I’ll bet that being stuck at home with them and playing board games or watching Tiger King on TV is not exactly how you envisioned the last few months of your senior year.”

“Now I’ll be honest with you: The disappointments of missing a live graduation — those will pass pretty quick,” he added, before addressing some of the more serious repercussions. “If you’d planned on going away for college, getting dropped off at campus in the fall, that’s no longer a given. If you were planning to work while going to school, finding that first job is going to be tougher."

Although these challenging circumstances mean that graduates will “have to grow up faster than some generations,” with that responsibility will come the chance to start creating meaningful change, Obama said.

“This pandemic has shaken up the status quo and laid bare a lot of our country’s deep-seated problems — from massive economic inequality to ongoing racial disparities to a lack of basic healthcare for people who need it. It’s woken a lot of young people up to the fact that the old ways of doing things just don’t work,” he continued, before appearing to make a subtle dig at President Donald Trump, whose coronavirus response Obama has harshly criticized before.

But Obama, who didn't mention Trump by name, also spoke generally about how future leaders could not repeat the mistakes of their parents.

The pandemic, he said, had "also pulled the curtain back on another hard truth, something that we all have to eventually accept once our childhood comes to an end. All those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? It turns out that they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions."

“So, if the world’s going to get better, it going to be up to you. That realization may be kind of intimidating. But I hope it’s also inspiring,” he continued. “Do what you think is right. Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy — that’s how little kids think. Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way — which is why things are so screwed up. I hope that instead, you decide to ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others.”

Closing his commencement speech, Obama said that he was confident this year's graduates already know the right direction to take.

“In so many ways, you’ve already started to lead,” he said. “Congratulations, Class of 2020. Keep making us proud.”

Earlier in the day, the former president — who along with wife Michelle Obama had been the subject of viral tweets in April asking them to give virtual commencement remarks — delivered another speech as part of Show Me Your Walk, HBCU Edition, a two-hour virtual ceremony bringing together graduates from 74 historically black colleges and universities.

"Graduating from college is a big achievement under any circumstances,” he began. “So even if half of this semester was spent at Zoom University, you’ve earned this moment. You should be very proud. But these aren't normal times."

“A disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country," Obama continued, going on to mention the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. "We see it in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our communities, just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning.”

Acknowledging that “injustice like this isn’t new,” Obama once again focused on the people in positions of power across the country who he said “aren’t even pretending to be be in charge.”

“If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you. With everything suddenly feeling like up for grabs, this is your time to seize the initiative,” he said. “As HBCU graduates, you have to remember that you are inheritors of one of America’s proudest traditions. Which means you’re all role models now – whether you like it or not.”

“Your participation in this democracy, your courage to stand up for what’s right, your willingness to forge coalitions — these actions will speak volumes," he said. "And if you are inactive, that will also speak volumes. Not just to the young folks coming up behind you, but to your parents, your peers and the rest of the country."

As he did in his Saturday night speech, Obama looked toward a future beyond the pandemic, which rested in the hands of 2020's new graduates.

"They need to see your leadership — you’re the folks we’ve been waiting for to come along,” he said, as his speech came to a close. “That’s the power you hold. The power to shine brightly for justice, for equality, and for joy. You’ve earned your degree. And it’s up to you to use it. So many of us believe in you. I’m so proud of you. And as you set out to change the world, we’ll be the wind at your back.”

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