Her voice quavering, she added: “Being your first lady has been the greatest honor of my life, and I hope I’ve made you proud.”
The counselors standing behind her, many wiping away tears, applauded and cheered and then offered hugs.
It was an emotional conclusion to a pointed speech that seemed to allude to concerns and fears that emerged during the divisive presidential election, though she never mentioned President-elect Donald Trump by name. In the most charged moments of her remarks, Obama directly addressed young people, returning often to the theme of hope that she said was the guiding force for her husband’s eight years as president.
“When you encounter obstacles, because I guarantee you you will and many of you already have, when you are struggling and you start thinking about giving up, I want you to remember something my husband and I have talked about since we first started this journey nearly a decade ago, something that has carried us through every moment in this White House and every moment in our lives, and that is the power of hope.
The belief that something better is always possible if you’re willing to work for it and fight for it. It is our fundamental belief in the power of hope that has allowed us to rise above the voice of doubt and division, of anger and fear that we have faced in our own lives and in the life of this country. Our hope that if we work hard enough and believe in ourselves then we can be whatever we dream regardless of the limitations that others may place on us. The hope that when people see us for who we truly are, maybe, just maybe, they too will be inspired to rise to their best possible selves.”
In another emotional moment, Obama invoked her father and his belief in the American Dream.
“It’s the hope of folks like my dad, who got up every day to do his job at the city water plant, the hope that one day his kids would go to college and have opportunities he never dreamed of,” she said. “That’s the kind of hope that every single one of us, politicians, parents, preachers, all of us need to be providing for young people. Because that is what moves this country forward every single day, our hope for the future and the hard work that hope inspires.”
Mrs. Obama’s charge to young people was encouraging, but also forceful, as she also spoke about the country’s diversity.
“Our glorious diversity — diversity of faiths and colors and creeds — that is not a threat to who we are. It makes us who we are,” she said. “To the young people here and the young people out there, do not ever let anyone make you feel like you don’t matter or like you don’t have a place in our American story, because you do. And you have a right to be exactly who you are.”
But that right, she told them, has to be “earned every single day.”
“You cannot take your freedoms for granted,” she said. “Just like generations who have come before you, you have to do your part to preserve and protect those freedoms. And that starts right now, when you’re young. Right now you need to be preparing yourself to add your voice to our national conversation. You need to prepare yourself to be informed and engaged as a citizen to serve and to lead and stand up for our proud American values and honor them in your daily lives.”
The first lady ended by imploring young people to empower themselves with a good education and to not shrink from challenges.
“Lead by example with hope, never fear,” she said. “And know that I will be with you rooting for you and working to support you for the rest of my life.”