Barack and Michelle Obama encourage hope in commencement address: 'Hold your heads high'

The couple shared words of inspiration during YouTube's virtual commencement event as graduates begin to confront the challenges that stand before them.
/ Source: TODAY

Barack and Michelle Obama headlined YouTube’s “Dear Class of 2020” virtual commencement ceremony Sunday that involved stars, personalities and political figures imparting words of hope to graduates facing a worldwide pandemic and racial inequality crisis.

The former U.S. president and first lady, who each gave solo speeches during the event, began with a joint address.

“This a huge day for all of you, and we couldn’t be more excited to be celebrating with you today,” Michelle said.

“Now while you might not get the experience of sweating under your cap and gown and hot sun, get embarrassed by your family yelling out your name when you walk across the stage, you still have all those people with you today, just like they’ve been with you this whole journey, rooting you on, pushing you to grow and offering you a hand if you needed it. These folks deserve your love and gratitude for helping you get here, so give them a squeeze if they’re with you right now.”

“Especially the dads,” Barack interrupted.

“And if they’re not (with you), give them a call later,” Michelle continued. “That’s from the moms. This is their day, too.”

The former president then reflected on how far each graduate has come only to be confronted by a global health crisis.

“Today is the culmination of a long journey,” Barack said. “Think back to when you were starting your first year. You were probably just hoping that by graduation day, you would’ve found your people, learned some new skills and got yourself ready for your next step, maybe college, maybe grad school, maybe your first job. You accomplished all that. And then just as you were rounding the final turn, the world threw a pandemic your way.”

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The former first lady commended the graduates on how they managed to adjust to all the obstacles they've had to overcome.

“These past few months, you’ve had to reach even higher,” she said. “You weren’t just adjusting to a virtual classroom, you were helping your teachers adjust their audio so the rest of the class could hear. You weren’t just taking your finals online, you were making sure your siblings had enough time on the computer too to do their work. And you weren’t just hanging out with your friends in that group chat, you were supporting them through all of this uncertainty and loss.”

“That’s a lot to ask of anybody, but in spite of it all, here you are,” Barack, 58, continued. “And we want you to know that all the work you’ve put in to get your education is still one of the best investments you can make. We’ve seen it for decades. The more education you have, the better you and your families are likely to fair. It’s born out over the past couple of months, and it will be the case for years to come. So you all have done something great. Hold your heads high and celebrate.”

“And go ahead and do a little dance, a cool dance,” Michelle, 56, joked.

The ceremony featured congratulatory messages from a slew of stars, including Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, Katy Perry, as well as individual speeches from both Obamas.

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

He urged the Class of 2020 to go out and make a change.

“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.”

As the country faces challenges presented by the coronavirus and protests over police brutality in the wake of George Floyd's death that have brought issues of race back to the forefront, Barack acknowledged how tough those challenges may be.

“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.”

It was a sentiment echoed by his wife.

“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?”