Commencement Address by the First Lady at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you so much. (Applause.) Oh, my goodness. Good evening. Thank you. I am just overwhelmed. And as an honorary degree holder, it is now my pleasure to say, Go Colonels! (Applause.)
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. So congratulations. I am so glad to be here today. (Applause.)
I also want to recognize Governor Beshear and his wife and dear friend of ours, Jane, as well as Richmond Mayor Jim Barnes, who is here; all of the elected officials we have with us tonight; also the University Singers for those beautiful selections -- 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 -- yes. (Applause.)
And of course, I want to join in 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?
AUDIENCE: Mother's Day.
MRS. OBAMA: I'm sure everybody is on their jobs, right? Got flowers ordered, everything? 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've 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 grandmoms, and the godmoms, and all the mom figures in our lives who keep us going. (Applause.) Thank you all.
But most of all, I want to congratulate the stars of today's show -- the EKU Class of 2013! Yes! (Applause.) You all should 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. (Laughter.)
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. (Laughter.) I'm 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 have 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.
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 been right.
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 even have the right size sheets for my bed –- mine were way too short. So that first night, I stretched the sheets down as far as they could go, 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, plastic mattress. 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've got. (Applause.) 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 were the gifts my parents gave me -- their values. 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 set -- develop an entirely new set of skills that I would use for the rest of my life -- skills like resilience, problem solving, time management.
I learned to turn stumbles and missteps into sources of motivation. 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 could make it anywhere.
So graduates, this day is huge for kids like us -- it's huge. 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.
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 daughter Malia -- she's my oldest. This conversation we had when she was 10 years old. We were talking about college and her future, and I told her -- I always tell my kids, I said, once you graduate from college, you cannot come back home again -- cannot. (Laughter.) Now, of course I was joking, but I still don't want here to know that. (Laughter.) But her response -- she took it in -- was one I'll 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 question today, and hopefully nobody is sleeping out in The Ravine. But I think there was also something profound about her question. Where are you going to 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 going to be? And if you'll notice, I'm not asking what are you going to do, but who are you going to be? I'm asking you about how you plan to live your life every day. How are you going to respond when you don't get that job you had your heart set on?
For all of you who are going on to be teachers, what are you going to 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?
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. Those are the times when you've got to ask yourself, who am I going to 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 than 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 going to be? And then once you answer that question, I want you to answer a second question, and that is: How are you going to take those skills and experiences that you've gained and use them to serve others?
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 D.C. Your journalism society donated all the money they had 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. (Applause.) 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 -- everyone. (Applause.)
The administration awards college credit for military experience. 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. (Applause.) So you all should be very proud of this community.
But graduates, you can't stop serving once you leave here. Whether you've worn our country's uniform or not, we're all called to serve and to give back to those 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 there kids in your neighborhood who could use a mentor? Can you volunteer with an organization that serves military families? Can you pick up a few extra cans of vegetables and donate them to a food bank? I mean, these may seem so small, but they really make a difference. 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. (Applause.) 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 going to include in your life?
The 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 rucksack, carrying a firearm, and facing gunfire in the middle of the desert; the next minute you're wearing a backpack, carrying a textbook, and hanging out at 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 experienced. 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've seen that your community has become stronger, even more vibrant because 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 going to 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 center 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 the sermon that stays with you. If you're a Democrat, spend some time talking to a Republican. And if you're a Republican, have a chat with a Democrat. (Applause.) 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. (Applause.)
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 ever imagine.
Whether it was during my time as a lawyer, as an administrator at a university, a nonprofit manager, even now as First Lady, I've never once asked someone I was interviewing to explain a test score or a grade in a class -- never. (Applause.) I've never once made a hire just because someone went to an Ivy League school instead of a state school -- never. 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 serve others? Have you found a way to serve our country, whether in uniform or in your community?
Again and again, I've 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're 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 going to make your mark.
And that brings me back to Malia's original question: Where are you going to 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 -- Abraham Lincoln was a Kentucky kid; so were Muhammad Ali, George Clooney, Diane Sawyer. (Applause.)
So, graduates, make no mistake –- you can go anywhere you choose. 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. We need it more than ever before.
So congratulations again, graduates. It has been a true pleasure. Best of luck on the road ahead. I love you all. (Applause.)
Michelle Obama, Commencement Address by the First Lady at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320179