Michelle Obama photo

Commencement Address by the First Lady at Bowie State University Ceremony in College Park, Maryland

May 17, 2013

MRS. OBAMA: Well, thank you. (Applause.) Oh, my goodness. Thank you so much. (Applause.) Oh, my goodness. It is such a -- you all, rest yourselves. You've got a long day ahead. It is beyond a pleasure and an honor for me to be here with all of you today.

Of course, I want to start by thanking President Bernim for that very kind introduction, for this wonderful degree, and for his outstanding leadership here at Bowie State University. I also want to recognize Chancellor Kirwan, Provost Jackson, Executive Vice President and General Counsel Karen Johnson Shaheed, Vice Chair Barry Gossett. And of course, I want to thank the BSU Madrigal Singers -- they did a great job -- the university choir, and DeMarcus Franklin for their wonderful performances here today. You all are amazing. I just wish I could sing. Can't sing a lick.

I also want to recognize today's Presidential Medal of Excellence recipient, Professor Freeman Hrabowski, who's a for-real brother as well. (Applause.) And I want to thank him for his tremendous work as the Chair of the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. He has done some magnificent work, but we have so much more work to do.

And let's take another moment to thank all of the beautiful people sitting all around us today -- the folks who have loved you and pushed you and put up with you every step of the way. (Applause.) Give another round of applause to all the family members who are here today. (Applause.) Yes, indeed. This is your day, too.

But most of all, to the Bowie State University class of 2013, congratulations. (Applause.) Oh, congratulations. You don't know how proud we all are of you. Just look at you. We're so proud of how hard you worked, all those long hours in the classroom, in the library. Oh, yeah. Amen. (Laughter.) All those jobs you worked to help pay your tuition. Many of you are the first in your families to get a college degree. (Applause.) Some of you are balancing school with raising families of your own. (Applause.) So I know this journey hasn't been easy. I know you've had plenty of moments of doubt and frustration and just plain exhaustion.

But listen, you dug deep and you kept pushing forward to make it to this magnificent day. (Applause.) And in doing so, you didn't just complete an important chapter in your own story, you also became part of the story of this great university -- a story that began nearly 150 years ago, not far from where we all sit today. As you all know, this school first opened its doors in January of 1865, in an African Baptist church in Baltimore. And by 1866, just a year later, it began offering education courses to train a new generation of African American teachers.

Now, just think about this for a moment: For generations, in many parts of this country, it was illegal for black people to get an education. Slaves caught reading or writing could be beaten to within an inch of their lives. Anyone -- black or white -- who dared to teach them could be fined or thrown into jail. And yet, just two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, this school was founded not just to educate African Americans, but to teach them how to educate others. It was in many ways an act of defiance, an eloquent rebuttal to the idea that black people couldn't or shouldn't be educated. And since then, generations of students from all backgrounds have come to this school to be challenged, inspired and empowered. And they have gone on to become leaders here in Maryland and across this country, running businesses, educating young people, leading the high-tech industries that will power our economy for decades to come.

That is the story of Bowie State University, the commitment to educating our next generation and building ladders of opportunity for anyone willing to work for it. All of you are now part of that story. And with that tremendous privilege comes an important set of responsibilities -- responsibilities that you inherit the moment you leave this stadium with that diploma in your hand.

And that's what I want to talk with you about today. I want to talk about the obligations that come with a Bowie State education, and how you can fulfill those obligations by how you live your lives.

So let's return, for a moment, to the time when the school and others like it were founded. Many of these schools were little more than drafty log cabins with mud floors, leaky roofs and smoke-wood stoves in the corner. Blackboards, maps, and even books were considered luxuries. And both students and teachers faced constant threats from those who refuse to accept freedom for African Americans.

In one Eastern Shore town, a teacher reported to work one morning to find that someone had smashed the windows of her schoolhouse. Other black schools across Maryland were burned to the ground. Teachers received death threats. One was even beaten by an angry mob. But despite the risks, understand, students flocked to these schools in droves, often walking as many as eight to ten miles a day to get their education. In fact, the educational association that founded Bowie State wrote in their 1864 report that -- and this is a quote -- "These people are coming in beyond our ability to receive them." Desperately poor communities held fundraisers for these schools, schools which they often built with their own hands. And folks who were barely scraping by dug deep into their own pockets to donate money.

You see, for these folks, education was about more than just learning to read or write. As the abolitionist Fredrick Douglas put it, "Education means emancipation," he said. He said, "It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the only light by which men can be free." You hear that? The only light by which men can be free. (Applause.)

So to the folks who showed up to your school on that January day back in 1865, education meant nothing less than freedom. It meant economic independence, a chance to provide for their families. It meant political empowerment, the chance to read the newspaper and articulate an informed opinion, and take their rightful place as full citizens of this nation.

So back then, people were hungry to learn. Do you hear me? Hungry to get what they needed to succeed in this country. And that hunger did not fade over time. If anything, it only grew stronger. I mean, think about the century-long battle that so many folks waged to end the evil of segregation. Think about civil rights icons like Thurgood Marshall, Dr. King, who argued groundbreaking school integration cases, led historic marches, protests, and boycotts. As you know, Dr. King's house was bombed. A police chief pulled a gun on Thurgood Marshall. They both received piles of hate mail and countless death threats, but they kept on fighting.

Think about those nine young men and women who faced down an angry mob just to attend school in Little Rock, Arkansas. And that was just the first day. For months afterwards, they were spat on, jeered at, punched, and tripped as they walked down the halls. Their classmates threw food at them in the cafeteria and hurled ink at them during class. But they kept on showing up. They kept claiming their rightful place at that school.

And think about little Ruby Bridges, who was just six years old when she became one of the first black children in New Orleans to attend an all-white school. Parents actually pulled their children out of that school in protest. People retaliated against her family. Her father lost his job. And only one teacher at that entire school would agree to teach her. But the Bridges family refused to back down. So for an entire year, little Ruby sat all alone, a class of one, dutifully learning her lessons.

See, that is the sacrifice that those folks and so many others have made. That is the hunger they felt. For them and so many others, getting an education was literally a matter of life or death.

But today, more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 50 years after the end of "separate but equal," when it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can't be bothered. Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they're sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they're fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper. (Applause.) Right now, one in three African American students are dropping out of high school. Only one in five African Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 has gotten a college degree -- one in five.

But let's be very clear. Today, getting an education is as important if not more important than it was back when this university was founded. Just look at the statistics. (Applause.) People who earn a bachelor's degree or higher make nearly three times more money than high school dropouts, and they're far less likely to be unemployed. A recent study even found that African American women with a college degree live an average of six and a half years longer than those without. And for men, it's nearly 10 years longer. So yes, people who are more educated actually live longer.

So I think we can agree, and we need to start feeling that hunger again, you know what I mean? (Applause.) We need to once again fight to educate ourselves and our children like our lives depend on it, because they do.

We need to dig deep and find the same kind of grit and determination that drove those first students at this school and generations of students who came after them. I am talking about the kind of grit and determination displayed by folks right here at Bowie State. Folks like Ariel Williams-Edwards, one of today's graduates. (Applause.) Yeah, Ariel! Ariel's mother struggled with substance abuse, and Ariel and her sister were removed from her care and sent to live with their grandmother.

But Ariel decided to draw inspiration from her struggle -- she majored in Social Work so she could help families like hers. (Applause.) Yes! She became a member of the Phi Alpha National Honor Society. And she's been accepted to graduate school to get her master's degree in Social Work starting in September. Yes, indeed. (Applause.)

And then there's Audrey Marie Lugmayer, another one of this year's graduates. Audrey is the daughter of a single father, and her dad has struggled with some serious health issues. So after graduating from high school, Audrey worked full time for a year, because she couldn't bear the thought of putting any more financial burdens on her father. She kept on working here at Bowie State, even while juggling a full course load. And today, she is graduating with a perfect 4.0 GPA. (Applause.) Yes. God is very good.

It is that kind of unwavering determination -- that relentless focus on getting an education in the face of obstacles -- that's what we need to reclaim, as a community and as a nation. That was the idea at the very heart of the founding of this school.

It's even in the words of your school song: "Oh Bowie State, dear Bowie State, may you forever be the flame of faith, the torch of truth to guide the steps of youth." And that's not just a lyric -- it is a call to action. Many of you will answer that call by carrying on the proud Bowie State tradition of serving as teachers, devoting your careers to guiding the steps of the next generation.

But for those of you who aren't going into education, you're not off the hook. Oh, no. Oh, no. No matter what career you pursue, every single one of you has a role to play as educators for our young people. So if you have friends or cousins or siblings who are not taking their education seriously, shake them up. Go talk some sense into them. Get them back on track. (Applause.)

If the school in your neighborhood isn't any good, don't just accept it. Get in there, fix it. Talk to the parents. Talk to the teachers. Get business and community leaders involved as well, because we all have a stake in building schools worthy of our children's promise.

And when it comes to your own kids, if you don't like what they're watching on TV, turn it off. (Applause.) If you don't like the video games they're playing, take them away. (Applause.) Take a stand against the media that elevates today's celebrity gossip instead of the serious issues of our time. Take a stand against the culture that glorifies instant gratification instead of hard work and lasting success.

And as my husband has said often, please stand up and reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white. Reject that. (Applause.)

In short, be an example of excellence for the next generation and do everything you can to help them understand the power and purpose of a good education. See, that's what my own parents did for me and my brother.

See, my parents didn't go to college, but they were determined to give us that opportunity. My dad was a pump operator at the city water plant, diagnosed with MS in his early thirties. And every morning I watched him struggle to get out of bed and inch his way to his walker, and painstakingly button his uniform, but never once did I hear him complain. Not once. He just kept getting up, day after day, year after year, to do whatever he could to give our family a better shot at life.

So when it came time for my brother and I to go to college, most of our tuition came from student loans and grants. But my dad still had to pay a small portion of that tuition each semester, and he was always determined to pay his share right on time -- even taking out loans when he fell short, because he couldn't bear the thought of us missing a registration deadline because his check was late.

And there is not a day that goes by when I don't think about the sacrifices that my mom and dad made for me. There is not a day that goes by when I don't think about living up to the example they set, and how I must do everything in my power to make them proud of the daughter they raised. (Applause.)

And today, I am thinking about all the mothers and fathers just like my parents, all the folks who dug into their pockets for that last dime, the folks who built those schools brick by brick, who faced down angry mobs just to reach those schoolhouse doors. I am thinking about all the folks who worked that extra shift and took that extra job, and toiled and bled and prayed so that we could have something better. (Applause.)

The folks who, as the poet Alice Walker once wrote, "Knew what we must know without knowing a page of it themselves." Their sacrifice is your legacy. Do you hear me? And now it is up to all of you to carry that legacy forward, to be that flame of fate, that torch of truth to guide our young people toward a better future for themselves and for this country.

And if you do that, and I know that you will, if you uphold that obligation, then I am confident we will build an even better future for the next generation of graduates from this fine school and for all of the children in this country because our lives depend on it.

I wish you Godspeed, good luck. I love you all. Do good things. God bless. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Commencement Address by the First Lady at Bowie State University Ceremony in College Park, Maryland Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320157

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