Given the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, schools across the country have canceled their in-person commencement exercises. To celebrate the graduates whose final years of school have been upended, former first lady Michelle Obama and former president Barack Obama are taking part in a YouTube special. This is President Obama’s address to the Class of 2020. Mrs. Obama’s remarks are available here.
Congratulations to the Class of 2020! Some of you have graduated already; some of you still have finals; all of you should be very proud.
Graduation is a big achievement under any circumstances. Yours comes as the world is turned upside down by a pandemic, and by a country that has been swept up by protest.
I can barely imagine how head-spinning these last few months have been for you. Just as winter was thawing and you were thinking about spring break, those of you who were away at college were either whisked home or stayed behind on a shuttered campus. Most of you had to finish semesters online — which had its ups and downs. You didn’t have to worry about what you wore to class, but watching your teachers and professors try to work Zoom wasn’t always pretty either. Either way, none of this is how any of you imagined finishing your final spring at school.
Even if we can’t all gather in person, I want you to remember that a graduation ceremony doesn’t celebrate just a moment in time. It’s the culmination of all your years of learning — about the world and about yourself. The friends and family who supported you every step of the way — they aren’t celebrating a piece of paper. They’re celebrating you: how you’ve grown, the challenges you’ve overcome and the experiences you’ve shared. You can see that love in all the amazing ways that families have come up with their own at-home graduations, from drive-by parades to handmade yard signs.
The point is, don’t let the lack of a big, crowded ceremony take anything away from what your graduation signifies. Go ahead and bask in the glory of your achievement. And wherever you are, take lots of photos — although when I look at my graduation pictures, the main thing I realize is that I should have gotten a haircut more often.
Now, as was true for generations before you, graduation marks your final passage into adulthood — the time when you’re expected to fully take charge of your life’s direction. It’s when you get to decide what’s important to you. The career you want to pursue. The values you want to live by. Who you want to build a family with. That can be intimidating even under normal circumstances. And given the current state of things, let’s face it — it can be downright scary.
It’s fair to say that your generation is graduating into a world that faces more profound challenges than any generation in decades. It can feel like everything’s up for grabs right now. A lot of this uncertainty is the direct result of covid-19 — the 100,000 lives it’s taken from us, the economic disruption it’s caused. No can say for sure how much longer the crisis will last — a lot of that will depend on the choices we make as a country. But it will eventually end. Vaccines and treatments will emerge. The economy will begin to heal. Life will start returning to normal — and you’ll still have your whole life ahead of you.
The thing is, Class of 2020, what these past few weeks have shown us is that the challenges we face go well beyond a virus, and that the old normal wasn’t good enough — it wasn’t working. In a lot of ways, the pandemic just brought into focus problems that have been growing for a very long time, whether it’s widening economic inequality, the lack of basic health care for millions of people, the continuing scourge of bigotry and sexism, or the divisions and dysfunction that plague our political system. Similarly, the protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and Nina Pop aren’t simply a reaction to those particular tragedies, as heartbreaking as they are. They speak to decades worth of anguish and frustration over unequal treatment and a failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system.
These shocks to the system that we are seeing right now — just as you prepare to go out into the world — they remind us that we can’t take things for granted, that we have to work to make things better. They also remind us that our individual well-being depends on the well-being of the community that we live in, and that it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick. It reminds you that our country and our democracy only function when we think not just about ourselves, but also about each other.
So as scary and uncertain as these times may be, they are also a wake-up call, and they are an incredible opportunity for your generation. Because you don’t have to accept what was considered normal before. 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. You can create a new normal, one that is fairer, and gives everyone opportunity, and treats everyone equally, and builds bridges between people instead of dividing them. Just as America overcame slavery and civil war, recessions and depression, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and all kinds of social upheaval, we can emerge from our current circumstances stronger than before. Better than before.
But, as has always been true at key moments in history, it’s going to depend on young people like you to go out there and rewrite what’s possible.
Now, 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’re the best-educated generation in history — and a whole lot more technologically savvy. You’ve been exposed to more knowledge and perspectives than my generation ever was; you’re more tolerant and empathetic, entrepreneurial and environmentally conscious. Even before graduation, many of you have already started to make your mark — feeding the hungry, mentoring kids, fighting racial injustice, helping veterans, battling climate change. And now, to see so many of you participating in peaceful protests, to see so many of you of every race and background raise up your voices on behalf of justice for all — well, it’s been unbelievably inspiring.
You make me optimistic about our future.
So as you prepare for the next stage of what I know will be a remarkable journey, I’ll leave you with a few quick pieces of advice, for what they’re worth.
First, do what you think is right, not just what’s convenient or what’s expected or what’s easy. While you have this time, think about the values that matter to you the most. Too many graduates who feel the pressure to immediately start running that race for success skip the step of asking themselves what’s really important. Too often they end up as adults who only do what’s good for them and say to heck with everybody else, and then they end up not having a lot of meaningful relationships or not really feeling as if they really made a serious contribution to the world. I hope that, instead, you decide to moor yourself in values that last — like responsibility, fairness, generosity, and respect for others. That will make you part of the solution instead of part of the problem. And, if experience is any guide, it actually makes for a happier life.
Second, listen to each other, respect each other, and use all that critical thinking you’ve developed from your education to help promote the truth. You are the Internet generation and the social media generation — it’s not just how you shop or listen to music or watch videos, but it’s part of your social lives and it’s the new town square where you all come together and meet. In many ways, it’s been an amazing tool — in your pockets you have access to more information than any group of people in history. It’s allowed movements of like-minded people to mobilize on behalf of worthy causes.
But what’s become clear is that social media can also be a tool to spread conflict, division and falsehoods — to bully people and promote hate. Too often it shut us off from each other instead of bringing us together — partly because it gives us the ability to select our own realities, independent of facts, or science, or logic, or common sense. We start reading only news and opinions that reinforce our own biases and start canceling everything else out; we let opinion masquerade as fact and treat even the wildest conspiracy theories as worthy of consideration. And the irony is that usually the people who are peddling falsehoods on the Internet or social media are doing so for their own purposes — either to sell you something or to distract you from the real issues that matter.
You can change that. If a friend tells you covid-19 is a hoax, politely correct them. If an older relative cites some video to promote a racist stereotype, show him or her why that video is a sham. As a generation that understands social media and technology a lot better than anyone, it’s going to be up to you to create online cultures and communities that respect differences of opinion and freedom of speech, and also restore the kind of honest, informed and fact-based debate that is the starting point for tackling the challenges we face.
Finally, even if it all seems broken, have faith in our democracy. Participate — and vote. Don’t fall for the easy cynicism that says nothing can change — or that there’s only one way to bring about change. In the midst of recent protests, I’ve noticed that there have been some debates among young people about how useful voting is compared to direct action and civil disobedience in ending discrimination in our society. The fact is that we don’t have to choose; we need both. Peaceful protests and demonstrations are patriotic — they shine a light on injustice, they raise public awareness, and they make the folks in charge uncomfortable in a way that is healthy. After all, we’re a nation that was founded on protest. Eventually, though, your aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices, — and that only happens when we elect good people, at every level, who are responsive to our demands — and that includes the local offices like the office of the mayor or the office of the district attorney that don’t get as much attention as a presidential race, but have the most direct impact on issues like how communities are policed.
In fact, you don’t even have to be an activist to make a contribution to our democracy. If you’ve always dreamed of starting your own business, go build a company that is a model for paying its workers a fair wage. If you’ve dreamed always of being a doctor, think about working in a community that is short on doctors. There are so many ways to serve — the important thing is to recognize that this nation needs your talents, your passions, your voice, to make it better.
It’s not always pretty, this democracy of ours — trust me, I know. It can be loud and messy and sometimes depressing. But because citizens took seriously the mandate that this is a government of and by and for the people, bit by bit, generation by generation, we’ve made progress — from cleaning up our air and water, to creating programs that lifted millions of seniors out of poverty, to winning the right to vote and to marry who you love. None of these changes happened overnight, or without sustained effort. But they did happen, usually because young people marched, and organized, and voted, and formed alliances, and just led good lives, and looked out for their families and their communities and their neighborhoods and slowly changed hearts and minds.
America changed, and has always changed, because young people dared to hope. 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. You don’t always need hope when everything’s going fine. It’s when things seem darkest — that’s when you need it the most.
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.
That’s what hope is. It’s not the blind faith that things will get better. It’s the conviction that with effort, and perseverance, and courage, and a concern for others — things can get better.
That remains the truest part of our American story.
And if your generation sprints into action, it will still be true of America’s future.
Congratulations, Class of 2020. Make it mean something. And keep making us proud.
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