Michelle Obama photo

Commencement Address by the First Lady for Anacostia Senior High School at DAR Constitution Hall

June 11, 2010

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you, all. Thank you so much. And first of all, thank you, Charity. Charity did a great job on that introduction. (Applause.) Love you all, too. So proud.

I want to thank the Anacostia Senior High School Choir for their amazing performances. (Applause.) And I also want to thank Brandon, Annie, and of course your valedictorian Jordan for their amazing remarks. Let's give them a big hand. (Applause.)

I want to acknowledge a couple of other people: Malik Bazzell, Donald Hense, and all of the community leaders who have joined you all today to celebrate this morning. Let's give them a round of applause. (Applause.)

I have to tell you that it is a privilege for me to be with you. I have been looking forward to this day for a long time. And as you know, this is the second time that I've had a chance to come and spend some time with Anacostia High School students.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you! (Applause.)

MRS. OBAMA: During my first visit with you all when I got to come to the school, I came away just impressed and moved by all of you. That's why I wanted to be here. I was impressed by the questions you asked, by your work ethic, by your spirit, your attitude. I loved hearing about your lives, and your hopes, and your dreams.

I've also enjoyed getting to know my girls, the students who are participating in the White House Mentorship Program that we set up this past year. (Applause.) So all these opportunities have given me a very meaningful connection to many of the amazing students who are at this school and has given me a real appreciation for this community. And I just couldn't wait to be here in person to say congratulations to the Class of 2010! (Applause.)

I know this has been a long journey to get here, full of warm memories, your friendships and teachers, and maybe not-so-warm memories with rules and papers and tests. And I know for some of you, there may have been times when you weren't quite sure you'd make it.

But you are here. So I want you all to soak it up. Just soak it up. You're here! You made it to this day. I want you all graduates to pat yourselves on the back. Do a little patting. I want you to be proud of what you've accomplished to get here today, because I know your families are proud of you. Your teachers are proud of you. And I am so proud of you all. I really am.

And looking out at all of you, I'm reminded that many of you have overcome a lot to be here, much like the community of Anacostia itself. Founded back in the 1800s for folks who worked at the Navy Yard across the river, Anacostia eventually became a place where people worked hard as clerks and civil servants, and as teachers and tradesmen, where families looked out for one another, where strong churches were the heart and soul of the community.

And yet, we also know that this community has had its share of struggles. And for a long time, Anacostia was segregated. In its early years, it was even illegal for African Americans to own land in parts of this community. And even after those barriers were torn down, others emerged. Poverty. Violence. Inequality.

But, despite these challenges, Anacostia continues to push forward. And that's what I admire about this community and what I admire about all of you all. See, in the face of incredible struggles, you refuse to be defined by the hardships or the adversities.

Instead, what defines you is perseverance. What defines you is character. What defines you is the same commitment to education, to hard work, to setting high standards for yourselves that has made this country great.

It's a commitment reflected in Anacostia alums like Frederick Gregory, who graduated in 1958 from this school, and became the first African American in our history to command a space shuttle.

It's reflected in the small business owners who've opened up furniture stores and theaters in the community, the artists and leaders who have lived in Anacostia throughout the generations, who remain committed to the success of this community.

It's reflected in a man once called the Sage of Anacostia, lived just a few blocks from this school, in a home called Cedar Hill that I had a chance to take my girls to last summer. It's a beautiful home.

As all of you know, I'm talking about Frederick Douglass. (Applause.) We remember him today as one of America's most eloquent and beloved leaders. But I want you all to just think for a moment about what it took for Frederick Douglass to become that kind of leader. Just think about it. I want you to think about the odds he faced when he was your age. This is a man who was born into slavery. His mom died when he was a boy. He never knew his father. Because it was illegal to educate slaves, he taught himself how to read and write.

And when he was just a couple of years older than you all are today, he escaped from slavery, traveled all the way to England, and made friends in Britain who eventually bought his freedom.

After he returned to America, Frederick Douglass became a leading abolitionist, an advisor to President Lincoln, and an inspiration to people of every creed and color, fighting for equality not just for African Americans, but for women and others, until his final days.

So I tell you this story because it is one of the best examples in our history of the American spirit. It's an example of someone picking themselves up in the face of adversity, persevering through thick and thin, and proving to the world that nothing can stop a person from pursuing their dream. And that's the same perseverance, the same character and the spirit that I know we have in so many of you.

I imagine that for some of you all, getting this far hasn't been easy. Perhaps there were those who wanted to write you off, maybe because of assumptions they made about you or your school or your community. But every day you're proving them wrong. You're proving that it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks about you or what you can achieve. The only thing that matters, rather, is what you think about yourself and what you're willing to do to achieve your goals. That's all that matters. (Applause.) How hard are you willing to work, how big are you willing to dream?

Over this past year, so many of you have shown us exactly what you can do. I'm told that over 100 of you in this class have college plans this year. That's 90 percent of this class. (Applause.) And that's up from under 30 last year. What an achievement. I'm told that 16 juniors and seniors this year have been awarded Gates Achievers' Scholarships to college because of their academic excellence. (Applause.)

And I understand that student attendance for the entire school is up 20 percent from last year. (Applause.) See, now, that's a tribute to you, to everyone here today.

And yet, despite all you've achieved, despite all the obstacles you've already overcome with regard to your education, many of you may still be wrestling with your own personal issues and doubts. Maybe you're taking care of a younger sibling, or maybe you are responsible for an aging grandparent or a child. Maybe you're worried about your family's financial situation. Or maybe you're just feeling crushed by the weight of life's responsibilities.

Maybe you feel like no one has your back, like you've been let down by people so many times that you've stopped believing in yourself. Maybe you feel like your destiny was written the day you were born and you ought to just rein in your hopes and scale back your dreams.

But if any of you are thinking that way, I'm here to tell you, stop it. Don't do that. Don't ever scale back your dreams. And don't ever set limits on what you can achieve. And don't think for one single moment that your destiny is out of your hands, because no one's in control of your destiny but you. And it is never too late. You can do anything you put your minds to –- and I mean absolutely anything. It's important for you all to know this. (Applause.)

But what is true is that building a purposeful life for yourself is never easy. No one achieves success overnight. You know life doesn't work that way. Anything worth having takes time and perseverance. You're going to have to push yourselves beyond your limits. You're going to have to step outside of those comfort zones. You're going to have to ask for help when you need it.

More importantly, part of being a mature and functioning adult in this society is realizing that life is a series of tradeoffs. If you want a career that pays a good salary, then you have to work hard. You've got to be on time; you've got to finish what you start; you have to always keep your word. If you want a life free from drama, then you can't hang out with people who thrive on drama. (Applause.) You have to pick your friends wisely, pick your friends -- surround yourself with people who share your values and your goals.

But I am confident that if you're willing to show that kind of commitment and do what it takes, anything is possible for every single one of you. And you know why I'm so confident? Because I'm looking at you. I was watching you all. (Laughter.) And I see your strength. I know what you're capable of. I know what kind of young men and women you are, and I want the world to know that.

This class is made up of young women like the remarkable student who introduced me, Charity, whose positive attitude is a model for everyone around her. She's beautiful. (Applause.)

Charity, she's an editor of the paper, mentor for 9th graders, and a Gates Achievers' Scholar, and she'll be following her own role models –- her sisters –- to college in the fall.

This class is made up of young men like your valedictorian, Jordan Smiley, who grew up -- (applause) -- who grew up surrounded by violence, confronted by daily pressures and daily temptations to fall in with the wrong crowd.

But Jordan was blessed with amazing parents, supportive brothers and sisters. And because of that will to overcome, he's been captain of the football team, the track and field team, he's president of student government. He's up here running this graduation. (Laughter and applause.)

And today, Jordan becomes the first in his family to go to college -- (applause.)

And this class is also made up of young men like Rudolph Eastman. Where's Rudolph? (Applause.) Rudolph, I understand, was raised by a single mother, along with eight brothers and sisters, is that right? (Applause.) Whew, where's Rudolph's mother? (Laughter and applause.)

I understand that Rudolph's oldest brother was killed in an act of gun violence. But in the face of tragedy and hardship, Rudolph stayed focused, he worked hard, and today, like Jordan, he becomes the first in his family to go to college. (Applause.)

A belief in the importance of education. Perseverance. Character. These are the qualities that Charity, Jordan, Rudolph, and so many of you embody. And these are the same qualities you'll need -- and more -- when you leave here and begin the next chapter of your lives.

This is equally true for those of you headed to college as it is for those of you with other plans.

To those of you who are college bound in the fall, I just hope that you make the most of that experience. Take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. Make new friends; get to know your classmates. Take classes that'll challenge the way you think about the world. Build relationships with professors that inspire you. Don't sit in your room, get involved in activities that spark your passions and service organizations that touch your hearts. And the thing that I've been telling graduates all over this country is study abroad if you can. Find a way to travel the world. Above all, never stop finding new ways to push yourselves. Never stop finding new ways to learn and to grow.

And the same goes for those of you who aren't headed to college, because you don't have to be on a college campus to educate yourself -- (applause) -- or to create new opportunities to grow, or to push yourself to think differently about the world. There are opportunities all over D.C. for you to enrich your lives and your minds.

But we also know that in this difficult economy, it's going to be tough to find a job. That means you're going to have to be creative with your approach.

So here's some advice: Be persistent. Start with your immediate network of people -- folks like the folks up here. Reach out to people you admire in your community -- teachers, pastors, business owners. Talk to them about how they got started in their careers. Ask them for advice and guidance. And most of all, stay positive. Believe in yourselves and in what you have to offer.

And if there aren't immediate prospects for a paid job, then do what you can to make yourself more competitive and more marketable. Take a class at a community college. See what types of training programs are available at a community center. Explore the option of community service with AmeriCorps. Even consider an unpaid opportunity that might give you a foot in the door.

And don't forget, even if you're not going to college right now, you can always apply later. It's never too late.

The point is, no matter what you're doing next year, you have to be aggressive. You have to seize every opportunity that's available to you. You can't wait. You can't just sit around. Don't expect anybody to come and hand you anything; it doesn't work that way. (Applause.) If you want your own destinies and you want to control those destinies tomorrow, you've got to start practicing who you want to be today, because if you're afraid to step beyond your comfort zone today and reach for the things you want today, you'll always be afraid. If you're afraid to speak up and ask for what you need today, you will always be afraid.

Don't (inaudible) fear, but if you begin to take control of your destiny today, graduates, if you push yourself today, if you practice taking risks today, that's what you'll continue to do for the rest of your lives.

And then once you do that -- once you grab hold of your future and pull yourselves up -- there's just one more thing you have to do, and that is reach back and pull someone else up after you -- (applause) -- because the truth is none of us can succeed on our own. We all need help along the way.

Even Frederick Douglass couldn't succeed on his own. He needed the help of others to learn how to educate himself. He needed the help of others to learn how to educate himself. He needed the help of others to gain his freedom. He needed support to claim his own destiny. And, graduates, so do you.

And that support will come from teachers like the ones you have at Anacostia. It'll come from friends, but real friends who have your best interests at heart, friends who bring out the best in you, friends who have your back and keep you focused on your dreams. (Applause.) And it's all going to come from your families. And again, we got to take a moment again to recognize the family members and to remember that many of you are here because of what they have done. So today, to all the family members, this is your day, too. So we got to give the family members a round of applause. (Applause.)

And if you're anything like my parents were when I graduated from high school, I can imagine how you must be feeling today. I know you're proud. I know you're a little relieved. (Laughter.)

But I suspect that some of you may also be feeling a little nervous. Maybe you're worried about the tough job market, and how your child will find a job in this economy. Maybe you're anxious about how you're going to pay tuition. Maybe you're hesitant about having your child move away from home to attend college. Or, if your kids are the first in your family to go to college, you may be wondering how you're supposed to help them navigate experiences you've never had.

I understand those worries, because my parents had similar worries. See, my parents didn't have the money to cover college tuition for me and my brother. Neither of my parents went to college or had any idea how to support us.

But, family members, know this: You don't have to have lived the kind of life you want your kids to live to help them excel. Your kids don't need you to be a doctor or a lawyer. Your kids don't need you to be rich and famous. What they need from you is your wisdom. What they need from you is your support. What they need from you is love, that unconditional love -- (applause) -- the kind of love that lets them know that you will be there for them, no matter what. That's all your kids need.

And trust me, I know, because when I was in their shoes, that's all I needed. Growing up, there were plenty of times that I doubted my capabilities, and those doubts were fueled by a lot of people around me. Kids teasing me when I studied hard. Teachers telling me not to reach too high because my test scores weren't good enough. Folks making it clear with what they said –- or didn't say -– that success wasn't meant for a little girl like me from the South Side of Chicago.

But let me tell you something, something else I can remember. I remember my mom pushing me and my brother to do things she'd never done herself; things she'd been afraid to do herself. What I can remember is my father getting up every day and going to work at the water filtration plant, even after he was diagnosed with MS, even after it got hard for him to button his shirt, and to get up and walk. See, I remember my parents sacrificing for us, pouring everything they had into us, being there for us, encouraging us to reach for a life they never knew.

And it's because of them and because of the support I got from teachers and mentors that I am standing here today. (Applause.)

And if Barack were here, he'd say the same thing was true for him. He'd tell you it was hard at times growing up without a father. He'd tell you that his family didn't have a lot of money. He'd tell you he made plenty of mistakes and wasn't always the best student. But he'd also tell you he turned things around, thanks to his mother, his grandparents, and people who cared about him.

And listen, graduates, the reason that he and I invest so much of our time and energy in young people like you is because we see ourselves in each and every one of you. (Applause.)

We are living proof for you that with the right support, it doesn't matter what circumstances you were born into, or how much money you have, or what color your skin is, if you're committed -- if you are committed to doing what it takes, anything is possible. It's up to you. (Applause.)

So, I know the journey you've traveled may not have been easy. I know many of you have faced more than your fair share of hardships and adversities. I know you may be worried about what the future holds. But you have to understand that there are a lot of people out there who believe in you.

I believe in you. The President of the United States of America believes in you. (Applause.) When times are hard for us, you inspire us. You keep us going. And we are expecting big things from you in the years to come. Big things! We are counting on you to be the very best people that you can be. We're expecting you to show the same perseverance, the same caring, the same spirit that made it possible for you to be here today. We're expecting you to show the same commitment to a better life that has always made this country great.

We are expecting you not only to claim your own destiny, but to help others across Anacostia, across D.C., across America claim theirs. And we are confident that what you'll do is exactly that. We know that you'll make us proud –- because you already have.

Congratulations, Class of 2010, we love you. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Commencement Address by the First Lady for Anacostia Senior High School at DAR Constitution Hall Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320670

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