First Lady Michelle Obama had both a political and personal conversation with almost 4,000 students receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees at The City College of New York’s commencement ceremony on Friday. Political, as she made references to Trump’s divisive language against diversity, and personal, as she noted her American story includes waking up “in a house that was built by slaves.”
Despite gray skies and rain showers that eventually tapered, the graduates visibly anticipated Obama’s speech at the Manhattan campus, which sits on a hill overlooking Harlem.
Immediately following the presentation of her honorary degree, she took the podium.
Here are five crucial points of Michelle Obama’s last commencement speech as First Lady of the United States:
1) Diversity and Inclusiveness is Crucial
City College’s class of 2016 represents more than 150 nationalities and speaks more than 100 different languages. Obama said she chose to speak at City College because of its longtime values of diversity and inclusiveness.
“Graduates, I really want you all to know that there is a reason why, of all of the colleges and universities in this country, I chose this particular school in this particular city for this special moment,” she said. “And I’m here because of all of you. I mean, we’ve talked about it Antonios, I’m going to talk a little bit about diversity.”
In his valedictorian speech, Antonios Mourdoukoutas, graduating with a degree in biomedical engineering, had asked Obama to discuss diversity in her address.
Obama said, “I think your valedictorian put it best and this is a quote ‘The sole irreplaceable component of my CCNY experience came from learning alongside people with life experiences strikingly different from my own.’He said, ‘I have learned that diversity in human experience gives rise to diversity in thought, which creates distinct ideas and methods of problem solving.’
“That is the power of our differences to make us smarter and more creative,” she said.”And that is how all those infusions of new cultures and ideas, generation after generation, created the matchless alchemy of our melting pot and helped us build the strongest, most vibrant, most prosperous nation on the planet, right here [in New York City].”
View Mourdoukoutas’ thoughts on diversity:
2) The Dangers of the Political Rhetoric of Trump
Obama criticized “name-calling” leaders who view “diversity as a threat to be contained.” She did not specifically mention the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Trump, but the implications were understood.
“Unfortunately, graduates, despite the lessons of our history and the truth of your experience here at City College, some folks out there today seem to have a very different perspective,” she said. “They seem to view our diversity as a threat to be contained rather than as a resource to be tapped.They tell us to be afraid of those who are different, to be suspicious of those with whom we disagree.
“They act as if name-calling is an acceptable substitute for thoughtful debate, as if anger and intolerance should be our default state rather than the optimism and openness that have always been the engine of our progress.”
She also stated that in America, “We don’t build up walls to keep people out because we know that our greatness has always depended on contributions from people who were born elsewhere but sought out this country and made it their home ”
View Obama’s references to Trump:
3) The American Story is Diverse: ‘I Wake Up in a House That Was Built by Slaves’
Obama discussed how the graduates are a part of an “American story,” which includes immigrants and the children of immigrants. She mentioned prominent graduates of City College, including the son of “Jamaican immigrants named Colin Powell who became a four star general, Secretary of State and a role model for young people across the country.”
Obama also said, “it’s the story I witness every single day when I wake up in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters two beautiful, Black young women head off to school waving goodbye to their father, the president of the United States, the son of a man from Kenya who came here to America to America for the same reasons as many of you: to get an education and improve his prospects in life.”
View Mrs. Obama’s comments:
4) Support Public Education
City College, established in 1847, was the first free public institution of higher education in the United States. Obama said public education is the greatest pathway to opportunity in America.
“We all know that public universities have always been one of the greatest drivers of our prosperity, lifting countless people into the middle class, creating jobs and wealth all across this nation,” she said.
Obama told the graduating students to “reach back to help young people who’ve been left out and left behind, helping them prepare for college, helping them pay for college, making sure that great public universities like this one have the funding and support that they need.”
“We need to invest in and strengthen our public universities today, and for generations to come. That is how you will do your part to live up to the oath that you all will take here today the oath taken by generations of graduates before you to make your city and your world ‘greater, better, and more beautiful.'”
5) Overcoming Adversity to Fulfill Your Dreams
According to College Scorecard, 51 percent of the approximately 11,820 undergraduate students at City College have a family income of less than $40,000 and receive an income-based federal Pell Grant to help pay for college.
Obama recognized the struggles that many of the graduates endure.
“Graduates, you all have faced challenges far greater than anything I or my family have ever experienced, challenges that most college students could never even imagine,” she said. “Some of you have been homeless. Some of you have risked the rejection of your families to pursue your education.
“Many of you have lain awake at night wondering how on Earth you were going to support your parents and your kids and still pay tuition.And many of you know what it’s like to live not just month to month or day to day, but meal to meal.
“But, graduates, let me tell you, you should never, ever be embarrassed by those struggles.You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage.Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.”
Obama said City College students would have the stamina to conquer life’s obstacles.
“Life will put many obstacles in your path that are far worse than a bad grade,” she said. “You’ll have unreasonable bosses and difficult clients and patients.You’ll experience illnesses and losses, crises and setbacks that will come out of nowhere and knock you off your feet.
“But unlike so many other young people, you have already developed the resilience and the maturity that you need to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and keep moving through the pain, keep moving forward. You have developed that muscle.”
Click here to view First Lady Michelle Obama’s complete commencement speech.
A CCNY graduate wears a cap with the message, “Thx (Michelle) Obama. / DIVERSITYINC