Inspirational Speech: Michelle Obama Commencement Address EKU Class
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“If you’re a Democrat, spend some time talking to a Republican. And if you’re a Republican, have a chat with a Democrat. Maybe you’ll find some common ground, maybe you won’t. But if you honestly engage with an open mind and an open heart, I guarantee you’ll learn something. And goodness knows we need more of that, because we know what happens when we only talk to people who think like we do — we just get more stuck in our ways, more divided, and it gets harder to come together for a common purpose. ”
As far as inspirational speeches go, Michelle Obama’s speech is very actionable. Her advice is simple (not easy), talk to each other with an open mind.
Different religion, race, political stand, it doesn’t matter. We can all learn from one another.
EKU Class of 2013 Commencement Address by First Lady Michelle Obama
Transcript of the Speech:
And it is because of that commitment to service and to
those who have served that I have the privilege and honor
to introduce a very special American this evening.
It was just a few short weeks ago that we received a call
from the White House.
It turns out that our concentrated efforts to help
veterans pursue their educational dreams and to be a
military-friendly campus had caught the eye of none other
than the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.
We are profoundly honored to be one of three institutions
Mrs. Obama selected to bring commencement
remarks this year.
This is the last commencement speaker I’ll ever introduce as
And I hope you graduates are as thrilled as I am to go out
on such a high note.
Long before Mrs. Obama was a wife, mother in public
service, or first lady, she was Frazier and Marion
Robinson’s daughter, growing up in a brick bungalow on the
south side of Chicago.
Her dad was a pump operator for the Chicago water
department, her mother a stay at home mom.
A product of Chicago public schools, she pursued sociology
and African American studies at Princeton University before
going on to earn a law degree from Harvard.
It was at the Chicago law firm of Sidley and Austin that she
met the man who would later become the love of her life,
and much later the President of the United
States, Barack Obama.
A few years later, she began serving as assistant
commissioner of planning and development for the city of
Chicago, and then became the founding executive director of
the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, an AmeriCorps program
that prepares youth for public service.
In 1996, she joined the University of Chicago with a
vision of bringing campus and community together.
As Associate Dean of Student Services, she developed the
university’s first community service program.
And under her leadership as Vice-President of Community
and External Affairs for the university’s medical center,
A few years later, she carried that same commitment to
meeting needs and serving others in the White House.
In 2010, the First Lady launched Let’s Move, a
national campaign to tackle the challenge
of childhood obesity.
Then in 2011, Mrs. Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of our
Vice-President, launched Joining Forces, a nationwide
initiative to raise awareness of military families’ unique
needs pertaining to employment,
education, and wellness.
It is that passionate that leads her to grace our stage
We’re delighted and honored that she could join us to
share her wisdom with our graduates.
It gives me great pleasure now to present the First Lady of
the United States, Michelle Obama with an honorary degree,
Doctor of Humane Letters.
Mrs. Obama and provost vice, please join me.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m honored to introduce Michelle
Obama, a first lady whose life in service as attorney, public
service, educator, wife, and mother have earned her the
admiration and appreciation of a nation, a builder of
community with a passion for military families and
veterans, and a role model whom Eastern Kentucky
University is honored to recognize today.
Thank you so much.
Oh my goodness.
I am just overwhelmed.
And as an honorary degree holder, it is now my pleasure
to say, go colonels.
I want to start by thanking President Whitlock for that
very kind introduction, but more importantly for his
decades of service to this
university and to this country.
And, it is my honor to be here on your last commitment.
And I also want to thank your wife and your family, because
I know that they have served right along with you.
I’m so glad to be here today.
I also want to recognize Governor Beshear and his wife
and dear friend ours, Jane, as well is Richmond mayor, Jim
Barnes, who’s here, all of the elected officials we have with
Also the university singers for those beautiful
Just gifted individuals.
And I don’t want to leave out Candace for her
very inspiring remarks.
And to the 14 men and women who just became the newest
officers in the United States Army.
And of course, I want to join in recognizing all of these
beautiful people in the stands today, the family members who
supported you all every step of the way.
And since tomorrow is what?
I’m sure everybody’s on their jobs, right?
Got flowers ordered?
I want to give a special greeting to my fellow moms and
congratulate you for successfully coming out on the
other side of adolescence in one piece.
You have done it.
You have succeeded in raising college graduates.
I welcome any advice you have on how you got it right.
But most of all– yes, indeed.
To the moms, and the grandmas, and the god-moms, and all the
mom figures in our lives who keep us going, thank you all.
But most of all, I want to congratulate the stars of
today’s show, the EKU class of 2013.
You all should be proud, very proud.
As the president said, this is a true milestone in life.
And I can only imagine the mix of emotions that you must be
feeling at this moment.
The unbridled joy, the unmistakable
sense of utter relief.
You all went through so much to make it to this day, the
highs and the lows, the triumphs, the challenges, the
celebrations, the devastations.
And I’m not just talking about your love lives, either.
I am talking about all those papers you poured your heart
into, all those caffeine-fueled all-nighters,
those moments of anxiety as you set out on your own,
looking to find new friends you clicked with and a new
community to call your own.
And for so many of you, I know that graduating from college
was not a foregone conclusion.
Some of you came from high schools that don’t send a lot
of kids to college.
Some of you had to work full time so that you could not
only pay for your degree, but also support your family.
And so many of you, as I’ve seen, are first in your
families to graduate from college.
So, I know you faced all kinds of doubts and uncertainties
when you first showed up on this campus.
And I know a little bit about that from my own experiences.
As you’ve heard, my parents were working folks who never
earned a degree past high school.
They didn’t have a lot of money.
So sending me and my brother to school was a huge
sacrifice for them.
The vast majority of our tuition came
from loans and grants.
But let me tell you, every month my father would write
out his small check.
He was determined to pay his portion of that tuition right
on time, even if it meant taking out loans
when he fell short.
See, what our parents had to offer us was a
whole lot of love.
And while we could always call home and talk through the ups
and downs of our lives with our parents, the truth is they
couldn’t give us a lot more than that.
They couldn’t give us a lot of guidance when it came to
choosing classes and professors or finding
internships and jobs.
So when I first set foot on college, my campus, it was all
a bit of a mystery to me.
And honestly, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t shake the
voices from some of the people at my high school who told me
that I could never make it at the school I’d chosen.
See, when I first set foot on campus–
oh, it all seemed so big and overwhelming.
I didn’t even know where to start, how to pick out the
right classes, how to even find the right buildings.
So I began to think that maybe all those doubters might have
I didn’t even know how to furnish my own dorm room.
I saw all these other kids moving in all sorts of couches
and lamps and decorations for their rooms.
But when I unpacked my belongings, I realized that I
didn’t have the right sized sheets for my bed.
Mine were way to short.
So that first night I stretched the sheets down as
far as they could go, and then I draped the covers over the
foot of my bed so when I crawled into bed, my legs were
sticking out past the sheets, rubbing up against that cold,
And I slept that way for the entire freshman year.
But, when you come from a family like mine,
that’s what you do.
You make the most of what you got.
You use all that good common sense.
And you don’t make excuses.
You work hard.
And you always finish what you start.
And no matter what, you give everybody a fair shake.
And when somebody needs a hand, you offer yours.
See, those are the gifts my parents gave me.
And I quickly learned that those gifts were far more
valuable than money or connections.
Because once I got to college, I found that when I applied
all those values to my studies, I was able to develop
an entirely new set of skills that I would use for the rest
of my life.
Skills like resilience, problem solving, time
I learned to turn stumbles and misstep into the sources of
A week with three tests and two papers wasn’t a reason to
stress out, but a reason to plan.
A negative comment from a professor in class wasn’t a
reason to shut down, but a reason to
ask even more questions.
Most importantly, I realized that what really mattered
wasn’t how much money my parents made or what those
people in my high school said about me.
What mattered was what was in my mind and
what was in my heart.
So, my four years in school gave me the confidence to know
that if I could make it on a college campus,
I can make it anywhere.
So graduates, this day is huge for kids like us.
So you should be incredibly proud.
And I hope that you never lose sight of what brought you to
this day, those values that you came here with and those
skills and talents you developed while you were here.
Because when you pair those two things together, you will
be prepared for whatever comes next, whatever comes next.
And that brings me to an important question.
What does come next?
As I thought about the journey you all are about to embark
upon, it reminded me of a conversation I had with my
she’s my oldest–
and this conversation we had when she was 10 years old.
We were talking about college and our future.
And I told her–
I always tell my kids–
I said, once you graduate from college, you
cannot come back home.
Now, of course, I was joking, but I still don’t
want her to know that.
But her response– she took it in– was one
I will never forget.
She said, well, mom, where do you go after college?
She said, I mean literally, the day after you graduate?
She said, because you’re not in school, and
you can’t come home.
So where do you go?
Now I hope that all of you have an answer for that
And hopefully nobody’s sleeping out in the ravine.
But I think there was also something
profound about her question.
Where are you gonna go?
And so today, in the spirit of my daughter’s question, I want
to pose a few questions of my own as you begin the next
chapter of your lives.
And my first question is, who are you gonna be?
And if you’ll notice, I’m not asking what are you gonna do,
but who are you gonna be?
I’m asking you about how you plan to live
your life every day.
How are you gonna respond when you don’t get that job you had
your heart set on?
For all of you are gonna be teachers, what are you gonna
do if the students in your class next year just don’t
respond to your lessons?
For all of you going into business, how will you react
when your boss gives you a goal that feels way too high?
See these are the moments that define us.
Not the day you get the promotion, not the day you win
teacher of the year, but the times that force you to claw
and scratch and fight just to get through the day, the
moments when you get knocked down and you’re wondering
whether it’s even worth it to get back up.
See, those are the times when you’ve got to ask yourself who
am I gonna be?
And I want to be clear.
This isn’t just some vague platitude
about building character.
In recent years, we’ve actually been seeing a growing
body of research that shows that skills like resilience
and conscientiousness can be just as important to your
success as your test scores or even your IQ.
For instance, West Point cadets who scored high on
things like grit and determination were more likely
to complete basic training then those who ranked high on
things like class rank, SAT scores, and physical fitness.
So what we’re seeing is that if you’re willing to dig deep,
if you’re willing to pick yourself up when you fall, if
you’re willing to work and work until your weaknesses
become your strengths, then you’ll develop a set of skills
that you can mold and apply to any situation you encounter,
any job you might have, any crisis you might confront.
But you’ve got to make that choice.
Who are you gonna be?
And then once you answer that question, I want you to answer
a second question.
And that is, how are you gonna take those skills and
experiences that you’ve gained and use them to serve others?
See here at Eastern, you have an
extraordinary culture of service.
Many of you spent your spring break volunteering in places
like New Orleans and Washington DC.
You’re journalism society donated all the money they’d
raised for a trip to a regional conference to a
newspaper that had been hit by a tornado.
Altogether, EKU students volunteered 107,000 hours of
service, earning you a place on my husband, the
President’s, higher education community service honor roll.
And on top of all of that, you have also given back to our
country by opening your arms and welcoming our nation’s
veterans into your community.
And everyone here is involved in that, every one.
The administration awards college credit for military
Faculty members reach out to veterans in their classrooms.
Students donate to the Veterans Book
Exchange every semester.
So it is no wonder that two out of the last three years,
Military Times Edge magazine has named you the nation’s
number one four-year school for our veterans.
So you all should be very proud of this community.
But graduates, graduates, you can’t stop serving once you
Whether you’ve worn our country’s uniform or not,
we’re all called to serve and to give back to
those of around us.
And you don’t have to travel across the globe or even
across the country to find ways to serve.
All you have to do is take a look
around your own community.
Are their kids in your neighborhood
who could use a mentor?
Can you volunteer with an organization that serves
Can you pick up a few extra cans of vegetables and donate
them to a food bank?
I mean, these things may seem so small, but they really make
Because when you’ve worked hard and done well, as I said,
the least you can do is reach back and give a hand to
somebody else who could use that help.
We can all find a way to open our arms and welcome folks
around us into our lives and our communities.
And that leads me to my third question.
Who are you gonna include in your life?
Then EKU community’s outreach to veterans offers part of the
answer to this question.
Now just imagine what it’s like for these veterans to go
from combat to campus.
Just put yourself in their shoes for one second.
One minute you’re wearing a ruck sack, carrying a firearm,
and facing gunfire in the middle of the desert.
The next minute you’re wearing a backpack, caring a textbook,
and hanging out a Powell Corner.
Your friends from the platoon are
scattered across the country.
Most of the people you see on a day to day basis have never
experienced, and could never imagine, the things you’ve
It would be so easy to feel isolated, like no one
understands, like you’re an outsider.
But here at Eastern, you didn’t let that happen.
Instead, you reached out to these men and women.
You made sure they felt comfortable and welcomed.
And you have seen that your community has become even
stronger, even more vibrant because of these men and women
because they are part of this community.
So graduates, think about how this will apply to your own
lives in the future.
As you move on, you’re gonna come across all kinds of
people from all different places and faiths
and walks of life.
And you can choose to pass them by without a word.
Or you can choose to reach out to them, no matter who they
are or where they come from or what ideas they might have.
That’s what’s always made this country great, embracing the
diversity of experience and opinion that surrounds us
everywhere we go.
So I encourage you all, seek it out.
Don’t just spend time with people your own age.
Go to the local senior centers and talk with folks who have a
little life experience under their belts.
You would be amazed at the wisdom they have to offer.
Try visiting a different congregation
every once in a while.
You might just hear something in that sermon
that stays with you.
If you’re a Democrat, spend some time talking to a
And if you’re a Republican, have a chat with a Democrat.
Maybe you’ll find some common ground, maybe you won’t.
But if you honestly engage with an open mind and an open
heart, I guarantee you will learn something.
And goodness knows, we need more of that.
Because we know what happens when we only talk to people
who think like we do.
We just get more stuck in our ways, more divided.
And it gets harder to come together for a common purpose.
But here’s the thing, graduates, as young people,
you all can- you can get past all that.
You’ve got the freedom of an open mind.
And thanks to today’s technology, you’re connected
to each other and to the world like never before.
So, you can either choose to use those opportunities to
continue fighting the fights that we’ve been locked in for
decades or you can choose to reject those old divisions and
embrace folks with a different point of view.
And if you do that, the latter, who knows where it
might take you–
more importantly, where it might take our country.
So, those are my three questions.
Who do you want to be?
How will you serve others?
And who will you include in your lives?
And let me just share just a little secret before I end.
As someone who has hired and managed hundreds of young
people over the course of my career, the answers to those
questions, believe me, are far more important than you can
Whether it was during my time as a lawyer, as an
administrator at a University, a nonprofit manager, even now
as First Lady, I have never once ask someone I was
interviewing to explain a test score or a grade in a class.
I have never once made a hire just because someone went to
an Ivy League school instead of a state school.
What I have looked for is what kind of person you are.
Are you a hard worker?
Are you reliable?
Are you open to other viewpoints?
Have you stepped outside of your own self-interest to
Have you found a way to serve our country, whether in
uniform or in your community?
Again and again, I have seen that those are the qualities
that I want on my team.
Because those are the qualities that move our
businesses and schools and our entire country forward.
And just understand this.
Those are the qualities that you all already embody.
They’re the values you learned from your parents, from the
communities you grew up in.
They are the skills you developed here at EKU as you
worked so hard to make it to this day.
And today, more than ever before, that’s
what the world needs.
We need more people like you.
So after you’ve come this far, after all of the ups and
downs, I hope that it is no longer a question of whether
or not you can make it in this world, but how and where
you’re gonna make your mark.
And that brings me back to Malia’s original question.
Where are you gonna go?
Graduates of this university have gone on to become
generals in our military, some of our nation’s best CEOs and
educators and law enforcement officers.
Let me tell you, Abraham Lincoln was a Kentucky kid.
So were Muhammad Ali, George Clooney, Diane Sawyer.
So graduates, make no mistake, you can go anywhere, anywhere
So be proud, and never, ever doubt yourselves.
Walk boldly on that road ahead no matter where it takes you.
And please, spread those values everywhere you go.