Full text of former President Barack Obama’s virtual commencement speech titled “Dear Class Of 2020” where he shares a message of optimism with the Class of 2020, their families, and their communities.
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’s 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 are 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 hand-made 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 one 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, you know, it will eventually end. Vaccines and treatments will emerge, the economy will begin to heal, and 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 also 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 that well.
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 healthcare 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. We have to work to make things better.
They remind us that our individual well-being depend on the well-being of the community that we live in. 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’re 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 everybody 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 is possible.
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 are 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, 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?”
And too often they end up as adults who only do what’s good for them and say, “To heck with everybody else,” and they end up not having a lot of meaningful relationships or not really feeling as if they 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.