First lady pays off on challenge to serve with GWU commencement speech

First lady Michelle Obama urged George Washington University graduates to "keep going, keep giving, keep engaging" during a commencement address Sunday on the National Mall.
By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2010

It was a very Washington graduation: About 5,000 George Washington University students sat on the Mall on Sunday morning, along with 20,000 proud friends and family members. The FLOTUS arrived in a motorcade to give the keynote speech. The Capitol loomed grandly in the background.

But first lady Michelle Obama told the graduates that they need to look beyond the District and this country to do good. She challenged them to learn more about the global community, to serve broken countries, to travel far and wide or, if weighed down by student debt and job searches, to at least surf foreign news sources and learn how people in other countries view issues.

"We are no longer isolated from what happens on the other side of the world," Obama said. "It's in our best interest to look beyond our immediate self-interest and look out for one another globally. . . . So many of today's challenges are borderless, from the economy to terrorism to climate change."

She said that this generation of graduates grew up with technology that breaks down global barriers that limited earlier generations. As Obama spoke, several students and others tweeted her words (and a few complained that their iPhones were not getting a signal because so many were saturating the Mall).

"We are the service generation!!!" @BEXwithanX tweeted. And @sjtetreault picked this quote from the first lady to share: " 'You didn't think I'd show up here without another challenge, did you? Be yourself, just take it global.' Michelle Obama."

Obama's 30-minute address was the payoff in a bet with students: In September, she challenged them to do 100,000 hours of service in exchange for a keynote graduation speech. Students and other GWU community members met that goal a month before the May 1 deadline, and by the time the first lady took the stage, the count was up to 163,980 hours of service.

"If I had known that you would complete more than 3,300 hours on the first day of the challenge, I would probably have picked a higher number," Obama said with a laugh.

Each month, Obama said, she received letters from students updating her on their progress. In addition to the total tally of hours, Obama said, the letters "were filled with wonderful stories" of service work.

GWU students spent 29,574 hours tutoring children. Students and others logged 13,160 hours in alternative spring breaks. So many medical school students volunteered to provide care at an Anacostia clinic that organizers used a lottery to divvy up the spots.

Students assembled care packages for troops, shoveled driveways during February's epic snowstorms (which the first lady referred to as "Snowmageddon"), restored an entire high school, hung out with veterans and danced at a senior citizens' prom.

"And, yes," Obama said, "I saw the photos -- and it looked like they were showing you all how to dance."

Because the students exceeded the first lady's first challenge, she gave them a second one Sunday morning: "Keep going. Keep giving. Keep engaging."

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