It’s not every day Barack Obama gives your graduation speech.
In honor of LeBron James‘ star-studded virtual “Graduate Together” ceremony for the class of 2020 on Saturday night, the 44th president of the United States stepped up to the plate to deliver some uplifting words in these challenging times.
After all, the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing protocols have shuttered schools for months and put an end to traditional graduation ceremonies this year. Fortunately, the former president took the opportunity to acknowledge the challenges each graduate has faced thus far in their lifetime, comforted them about having to miss out on those graduation traditions and encouraged them as they head into the uncertain future.
“Along with the usual challenges of growing up, all of you have had to deal with the added pressures of social media, reports of school shootings, and the specter of climate change. And then, 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 has turned upside down by a global pandemic,” Obama said. “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.”
In a lighthearted moment, the former commander-in-chief acknowledged the less fun elements of graduation ceremonies. “Now, I’ll be honest with you. The disappointments of missing a live graduation, those will pass pretty quick. I don’t remember much of my own high school graduation. I know that not having to sit there and listen to a commencement speaker isn’t all that bad. Mine usually go on way too long. Also, not that many people look great in those caps. Especially if you have big ears like me,” he said. “And you’ll have plenty of time to catch up with your friends once the immediate public health crisis is over.”
However, as he pointed out, “what remains true is that your graduation marks your passage into adulthood. The time when you begin to take charge of your own life. It’s when you get to decide what’s important to you—what kind of career you want to pursue, who you want to build a family with, the values you want to live by. And given the current state of the world, that may be kind of scary.”
Acknowledging the many hardships caused by the pandemic, “you’re going to have to grow up faster than some generations,” 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. And it doesn’t matter how much money you make, if everyone around you is hungry and sick. And that our society and our democracy only work when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.”
He continued, “It’s also pulled the curtain back on another hard truth, something that we all have to eventually accept once our childhood comes to an end. You know all those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? Turns out they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions. So, if the world’s gonna get better, it’s gonna be up to you. That realization may be kind of intimidating, but I hope it’s also inspiring. With all the challenges this country faces right now, nobody can tell you, ‘No, you’re too young to understand.’ Or ‘This is how it’s always been done.’ Because with so much uncertainty, with everything suddenly up for grabs, this is your generation’s world to shape.”
As the famous leader concluded, he offered three bits of advice: don’t be afraid, do what you think is right and build a community.
“No one does big things by themselves. Right now, when people are scared, it’s easy to be cynical and say, ‘Let me just look out for myself or my family or people who look or think or pray like me.’ But if we’re gonna get through these difficult times, if we’re gonna create a world where everybody has opportunities to find a job and afford college, if we’re gonna save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we’re gonna have to do it together he said. “So be alive to one another’s struggles. Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us—sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed—and set the world on a different path.”
For the latest updates on the coronavirus pandemic and for tips on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, please visit The Center for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov.