Barack and Michelle Obama urge new grads to act with 'empathy and compassion' in dual commencement speeches

By Zach Harper

Barack and Michelle Obama have given dual commencement addresses to the graduating classes of 2020, urging them to move through this "tumultuous time" in history with "empathy and compassion."

Before giving separate remarks, the two introduced their speeches – made for YouTube's Dear Class of 2020 special – with some joint comments. They praised those leaving high school or university for getting through the last few months, which have seen students have to continue their educations from home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"These past few months, you've had to reach even higher," Michelle said in their joint introduction. "You weren't just adjusting to a virtual classroom. You were helping your teachers adjust their audio so the rest of the class could hear. You weren't just taking your finals online – you were making sure your siblings had enough time on the computer, too, to do their work. And you weren't just hanging out with your friends in that group chat. You were supporting them through all this uncertainty and loss."

The past two weeks have also seen widespread protests throughout the United States – and worldwide – over the death of George Floyd. Both Michelle and Barack addressed the protests and used them to urge students to be kind and push for change.

The intersection of Hollywood and Highland is seen in Los Angeles during a protest against the death of George Floyd on June 7. Photo: © David McNew/Getty Images

"So if any of you are scared or confused or angry or just plain overwhelmed by it all, if you feel like you're searching for a lifeline just to steady yourself, you are not alone," the mom of two said in her speech. "I am feeling all of that, too. I think we all are. So I want you to know that it's okay to be confused. It's okay if you don't understand exactly what you're feeling. We're all sorting through it in real time."

Michelle's address contained four lessons for the class of 2020. She used it to link the struggles of essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic with anti-racism, saying uncomfortable questions were being asked in America right now about systemic inequality. She said nobody has the answers, but that doesn't mean people should give up.

"I hope that what you're going through right now can be your wake-up call," she said in the passionate speech. "That it pushes you not just to think about what kind of career you want to build, but what kind of person do you want to be? And here's the thing: You have the opportunity to learn these lessons faster than the generations before you. And you can learn them together, as a cohort of young people ready to take on the world, no matter how tumultuous it may be."

She went on to encourage graduates to use "time-tested values like honesty and integrity, empathy and compassion" to push for change, calling them the "only real currency in life."

"Treating people right will never, ever fail you," she emphasized, urging those watching to use their voices to speak against prejudice, bigotry and inequality and also push for meaningful change.

Barack's speech was similar, and drew on the messages of hope and change that he famously used in his 2008 election campaign to encourage youngsters watching to take action.

He pointed out that the graduating class of 2020 is "the best educated in history" and said he has every confidence that they can solve the massive issues that we're facing at this time.

Like Michelle, he offered a few pieces of advice. He urged students to do what they think is right, not just "what's expected or what's easy" so they can be "part of the solution, not part of the problem." He also encouraged viewers to use their critical thinking and listen to each other.

"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," he finished. "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."

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