Full Text Obama Presidency May 14, 2012: President Barack Obama’s Speech at Barnard College Commencement Ceremony Highlighted Role of Women in Public Life “Fight for a seat at the head of the table”

POLITICAL SPEECHES & DOCUMENTS

OBAMA PRESIDENCY & THE 112TH CONGRESS:

President Obama to Barnard College: “Fight for a seat at the head of the table”

AFP/Getty Images

President Obama delivers the commencement address at Barnard College on Monday in New York.

Source: WH, 5-14-12

President Barack Obama sits with Barnard College President Debora Spar (May 14, 2012)President Barack Obama sits with Barnard College President Debora Spar, left, and Chairwoman Jolyne Caruso-Fitzgerald before he delivers a commencement address for Barnard College graduates at Columbia University in New York, May 14, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
This afternoon, President Obama offered some advice to the 2012 graduates of Barnard College in New York:

After decades of slow, steady, extraordinary progress, you are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny but the destiny of this nation and of this world.

But how far your leadership takes this country, how far it takes this world — well, that will be up to you. You’ve got to want it. It will not be handed to you. And as someone who wants that future — that better future — for you, and for Malia and Sasha, as somebody who’s had the good fortune of being the husband and the father and the son of some strong, remarkable women, allow me to offer just a few pieces of advice. That’s obligatory. Bear with me.

My first piece of advice is this:  Don’t just get involved.  Fight for your seat at the table.  Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.

Barnard is one of the famous “Seven Sisters” — private female liberal arts colleges founded to offer first class education to women before many elite institutions allowed their admittance. It counts Maya Soetoro-Ng, President Obama’s sister, among its alumni.

POLITICAL QUOTES & SPEECHES

Remarks by the President at Barnard College Commencement Ceremony

Barnard College
Columbia University
New York, New York
1:28 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you so much.  (Applause.)  Thank you.  Please, please have a seat.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

Thank you, President Spar, trustees, President Bollinger.  Hello, Class of 2012!  (Applause.)  Congratulations on reaching this day.  Thank you for the honor of being able to be a part of it.

There are so many people who are proud of you — your parents, family, faculty, friends — all who share in this achievement.  So please give them a big round of applause.  (Applause.)  To all the moms who are here today, you could not ask for a better Mother’s Day gift than to see all of these folks graduate.  (Applause.)

I have to say, though, whenever I come to these things, I start thinking about Malia and Sasha graduating, and I start tearing up and — (laughter) — it’s terrible.  I don’t know how you guys are holding it together.  (Laughter.)

I will begin by telling a hard truth:  I’m a Columbia college graduate.  (Laughter and applause.)  I know there can be a little bit of a sibling rivalry here.  (Laughter.)  But I’m honored nevertheless to be your commencement speaker today — although I’ve got to say, you set a pretty high bar given the past three years.  (Applause.)  Hillary Clinton — (applause) — Meryl Streep — (applause) — Sheryl Sandberg — these are not easy acts to follow.  (Applause.)

But I will point out Hillary is doing an extraordinary job as one of the finest Secretaries of State America has ever had.  (Applause.)  We gave Meryl the Presidential Medal of Arts and Humanities.  (Applause.)  Sheryl is not just a good friend; she’s also one of our economic advisers.  So it’s like the old saying goes — keep your friends close, and your Barnard commencement speakers even closer.  (Applause.)  There’s wisdom in that.  (Laughter.)

Now, the year I graduated — this area looks familiar — (laughter) — the year I graduated was 1983, the first year women were admitted to Columbia.  (Applause.)  Sally Ride was the first American woman in space.  Music was all about Michael and the Moonwalk.  (Laughter.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Do it!  (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT:  No Moonwalking.  (Laughter.)  No Moonwalking today.  (Laughter.)

We had the Walkman, not iPods.  Some of the streets around here were not quite so inviting.  (Laughter.)  Times Square was not a family destination.  (Laughter.)  So I know this is all ancient history.  Nothing worse than commencement speakers droning on about bygone days.  (Laughter.)  But for all the differences, the Class of 1983 actually had a lot in common with all of you.  For we, too, were heading out into a world at a moment when our country was still recovering from a particularly severe economic recession.  It was a time of change.  It was a time of uncertainty.  It was a time of passionate political debates.

You can relate to this because just as you were starting out finding your way around this campus, an economic crisis struck that would claim more than 5 million jobs before the end of your freshman year.  Since then, some of you have probably seen parents put off retirement, friends struggle to find work.  And you may be looking toward the future with that same sense of concern that my generation did when we were sitting where you are now.

Of course, as young women, you’re also going to grapple with some unique challenges, like whether you’ll be able to earn equal pay for equal work; whether you’ll be able to balance the demands of your job and your family; whether you’ll be able to fully control decisions about your own health.

And while opportunities for women have grown exponentially over the last 30 years, as young people, in many ways you have it even tougher than we did.  This recession has been more brutal, the job losses steeper.  Politics seems nastier.  Congress more gridlocked than ever.  Some folks in the financial world have not exactly been model corporate citizens.  (Laughter.)

No wonder that faith in our institutions has never been lower, particularly when good news doesn’t get the same kind of ratings as bad news anymore.  Every day you receive a steady stream of sensationalism and scandal and stories with a message that suggest change isn’t possible; that you can’t make a difference; that you won’t be able to close that gap between life as it is and life as you want it to be.

My job today is to tell you don’t believe it.  Because as tough as things have been, I am convinced you are tougher.  I’ve seen your passion and I’ve seen your service.  I’ve seen you engage and I’ve seen you turn out in record numbers.  I’ve heard your voices amplified by creativity and a digital fluency that those of us in older generations can barely comprehend.  I’ve seen a generation eager, impatient even, to step into the rushing waters of history and change its course.

And that defiant, can-do spirit is what runs through the veins of American history.  It’s the lifeblood of all our progress.  And it is that spirit which we need your generation to embrace and rekindle right now.

See, the question is not whether things will get better — they always do.  The question is not whether we’ve got the solutions to our challenges — we’ve had them within our grasp for quite some time.  We know, for example, that this country would be better off if more Americans were able to get the kind of education that you’ve received here at Barnard — (applause) — if more people could get the specific skills and training that employers are looking for today.

We know that we’d all be better off if we invest in science and technology that sparks new businesses and medical breakthroughs; if we developed more clean energy so we could use less foreign oil and reduce the carbon pollution that’s threatening our planet.  (Applause.)

We know that we’re better off when there are rules that stop big banks from making bad bets with other people’s money and — (applause) — when insurance companies aren’t allowed to drop your coverage when you need it most or charge women differently from men.  (Applause.)  Indeed, we know we are better off when women are treated fairly and equally in every aspect of American life — whether it’s the salary you earn or the health decisions you make.  (Applause.)

We know these things to be true.  We know that our challenges are eminently solvable.  The question is whether together, we can muster the will — in our own lives, in our common institutions, in our politics — to bring about the changes we need.  And I’m convinced your generation possesses that will.  And I believe that the women of this generation — that all of you will help lead the way.  (Applause.)

Now, I recognize that’s a cheap applause line when you’re giving a commencement at Barnard.  (Laughter.)  It’s the easy thing to say.  But it’s true.  It is — in part, it is simple math.  Today, women are not just half this country; you’re half its workforce.  (Applause.)  More and more women are out-earning their husbands.  You’re more than half of our college graduates, and master’s graduates, and PhDs.  (Applause.)   So you’ve got us outnumbered.  (Laughter.)

After decades of slow, steady, extraordinary progress, you are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny but the destiny of this nation and of this world.

But how far your leadership takes this country, how far it takes this world — well, that will be up to you.  You’ve got to want it.  It will not be handed to you.  And as someone who wants that future — that better future — for you, and for Malia and Sasha, as somebody who’s had the good fortune of being the husband and the father and the son of some strong, remarkable women, allow me to offer just a few pieces of advice.  That’s obligatory.  (Laughter.)  Bear with me.

My first piece of advice is this:  Don’t just get involved.  Fight for your seat at the table.  Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.  (Applause.)

It’s been said that the most important role in our democracy is the role of citizen.  And indeed, it was 225 years ago today that the Constitutional Convention opened in Philadelphia, and our founders, citizens all, began crafting an extraordinary document.  Yes, it had its flaws — flaws that this nation has strived to protect (perfect) over time.  Questions of race and gender were unresolved.  No woman’s signature graced the original document — although we can assume that there were founding mothers whispering smarter things in the ears of the founding fathers.   (Applause.)  I mean, that’s almost certain.

What made this document special was that it provided the space — the possibility — for those who had been left out of our charter to fight their way in.  It provided people the language to appeal to principles and ideals that broadened democracy’s reach.  It allowed for protest, and movements, and the dissemination of new ideas that would repeatedly, decade after decade, change the world — a constant forward movement that continues to this day.

Our founders understood that America does not stand still; we are dynamic, not static.  We look forward, not back.  And now that new doors have been opened for you, you’ve got an obligation to seize those opportunities.

You need to do this not just for yourself but for those who don’t yet enjoy the choices that you’ve had, the choices you will have.  And one reason many workplaces still have outdated policies is because women only account for 3 percent of the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies.  One reason we’re actually refighting long-settled battles over women’s rights is because women occupy fewer than one in five seats in Congress.

Now, I’m not saying that the only way to achieve success is by climbing to the top of the corporate ladder or running for office — although, let’s face it, Congress would get a lot more done if you did.  (Laughter and applause.)  That I think we’re sure about.  But if you decide not to sit yourself at the table, at the very least you’ve got to make sure you have a say in who does.  It matters.

Before women like Barbara Mikulski and Olympia Snowe and others got to Congress, just to take one example, much of federally-funded research on diseases focused solely on their effects on men.  It wasn’t until women like Patsy Mink and Edith Green got to Congress and passed Title IX, 40 years ago this year, that we declared women, too, should be allowed to compete and win on America’s playing fields.  (Applause.)  Until a woman named Lilly Ledbetter showed up at her office and had the courage to step up and say, you know what, this isn’t right, women weren’t being treated fairly — we lacked some of the tools we needed to uphold the basic principle of equal pay for equal work.

So don’t accept somebody else’s construction of the way things ought to be.  It’s up to you to right wrongs.  It’s up to you to point out injustice.  It’s up to you to hold the system accountable and sometimes upend it entirely.  It’s up to you to stand up and to be heard, to write and to lobby, to march, to organize, to vote.  Don’t be content to just sit back and watch.

Those who oppose change, those who benefit from an unjust status quo, have always bet on the public’s cynicism or the public’s complacency.  Throughout American history, though, they have lost that bet, and I believe they will this time as well.  (Applause.)  But ultimately, Class of 2012, that will depend on you.  Don’t wait for the person next to you to be the first to speak up for what’s right.  Because maybe, just maybe, they’re waiting on you.

Which brings me to my second piece of advice:  Never underestimate the power of your example.  The very fact that you are graduating, let alone that more women now graduate from college than men, is only possible because earlier generations of women — your mothers, your grandmothers, your aunts — shattered the myth that you couldn’t or shouldn’t be where you are.  (Applause.)

I think of a friend of mine who’s the daughter of immigrants.  When she was in high school, her guidance counselor told her, you know what, you’re just not college material.  You should think about becoming a secretary.  Well, she was stubborn, so she went to college anyway.  She got her master’s.  She ran for local office, won.  She ran for state office, she won.  She ran for Congress, she won.  And lo and behold, Hilda Solis did end up becoming a secretary — (laughter) — she is America’s Secretary of Labor.  (Applause.)

So think about what that means to a young Latina girl when she sees a Cabinet secretary that looks like her.  (Applause.)  Think about what it means to a young girl in Iowa when she sees a presidential candidate who looks like her.  Think about what it means to a young girl walking in Harlem right down the street when she sees a U.N. ambassador who looks like her.  Do not underestimate the power of your example.

This diploma opens up new possibilities, so reach back, convince a young girl to earn one, too.  If you earned your degree in areas where we need more women — like computer science or engineering — (applause) — reach back and persuade another student to study it, too.  If you’re going into fields where we need more women, like construction or computer engineering — reach back, hire someone new.  Be a mentor.  Be a role model.

Until a girl can imagine herself, can picture herself as a computer programmer, or a combatant commander, she won’t become one.  Until there are women who tell her, ignore our pop culture obsession over beauty and fashion — (applause) — and focus instead on studying and inventing and competing and leading, she’ll think those are the only things that girls are supposed to care about.  Now, Michelle will say, nothing wrong with caring about it a little bit.  (Laughter.)  You can be stylish and powerful, too.  (Applause.)  That’s Michelle’s advice.  (Applause.)

And never forget that the most important example a young girl will ever follow is that of a parent.  Malia and Sasha are going to be outstanding women because Michelle and Marian Robinson are outstanding women.  So understand your power, and use it wisely.

My last piece of advice — this is simple, but perhaps most important:  Persevere.  Persevere.  Nothing worthwhile is easy.  No one of achievement has avoided failure — sometimes catastrophic failures.  But they keep at it.  They learn from mistakes.  They don’t quit.

You know, when I first arrived on this campus, it was with little money, fewer options.  But it was here that I tried to find my place in this world.  I knew I wanted to make a difference, but it was vague how in fact I’d go about it.  (Laughter.)  But I wanted to do my part to do my part to shape a better world.

So even as I worked after graduation in a few unfulfilling jobs here in New York — I will not list them all — (laughter) — even as I went from motley apartment to motley apartment, I reached out.  I started to write letters to community organizations all across the country.  And one day, a small group of churches on the South Side of Chicago answered, offering me work with people in neighborhoods hit hard by steel mills that were shutting down and communities where jobs were dying away.

The community had been plagued by gang violence, so once I arrived, one of the first things we tried to do was to mobilize a meeting with community leaders to deal with gangs.  And I’d worked for weeks on this project.  We invited the police; we made phone calls; we went to churches; we passed out flyers.  The night of the meeting we arranged rows and rows of chairs in anticipation of this crowd.  And we waited, and we waited.  And finally, a group of older folks walked in to the hall and they sat down.  And this little old lady raised her hand and asked, “Is this where the bingo game is?”  (Laughter.)  It was a disaster.  Nobody showed up.  My first big community meeting — nobody showed up.

And later, the volunteers I worked with told me, that’s it; we’re quitting.  They’d been doing this for two years even before I had arrived.  They had nothing to show for it.  And I’ll be honest, I felt pretty discouraged as well.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  I thought about quitting.  And as we were talking, I looked outside and saw some young boys playing in a vacant lot across the street.  And they were just throwing rocks up at a boarded building.  They had nothing better to do  — late at night, just throwing rocks.  And I said to the volunteers, “Before you quit, answer one question.  What will happen to those boys if you quit?  Who will fight for them if we don’t?  Who will give them a fair shot if we leave?

And one by one, the volunteers decided not to quit.  We went back to those neighborhoods and we kept at it.  We registered new voters, and we set up after-school programs, and we fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with some measure of dignity.  And we sustained ourselves with those small victories.  We didn’t set the world on fire.  Some of those communities are still very poor.  There are still a lot of gangs out there.  But I believe that it was those small victories that helped me win the bigger victories of my last three and a half years as President.

And I wish I could say that this perseverance came from some innate toughness in me.  But the truth is, it was learned.  I got it from watching the people who raised me.  More specifically, I got it from watching the women who shaped my life.

I grew up as the son of a single mom who struggled to put herself through school and make ends meet.  She had marriages that fell apart; even went on food stamps at one point to help us get by.  But she didn’t quit.  And she earned her degree, and made sure that through scholarships and hard work, my sister and I earned ours.  She used to wake me up when we were living overseas — wake me up before dawn to study my English
lessons.  And when I’d complain, she’d just look at me and say, “This is no picnic for me either, buster.”  (Laughter.)

And my mom ended up dedicating herself to helping women
around the world access the money they needed to start their own businesses — she was an early pioneer in microfinance.  And that meant, though, that she was gone a lot, and she had her own struggles trying to figure out balancing motherhood and a career.  And when she was gone, my grandmother stepped up to take care of me.

She only had a high school education.  She got a job at a local bank.  She hit the glass ceiling, and watched men she once trained promoted up the ladder ahead of her.  But she didn’t quit.  Rather than grow hard or angry each time she got passed over, she kept doing her job as best as she knew how, and ultimately ended up being vice president at the bank.  She didn’t quit.

And later on, I met a woman who was assigned to advise me on my first summer job at a law firm.  And she gave me such good advice that I married her.  (Laughter.)  And Michelle and I gave everything we had to balance our careers and a young family.  But let’s face it, no matter how enlightened I must have thought myself to be, it often fell more on her shoulders when I was traveling, when I was away.  I know that when she was with our girls, she’d feel guilty that she wasn’t giving enough time to her work, and when she was at her work, she’d feel guilty she wasn’t giving enough time to our girls.  And both of us wished we had some superpower that would let us be in two places at once.  But we persisted.  We made that marriage work.

And the reason Michelle had the strength to juggle everything, and put up with me and eventually the public spotlight, was because she, too, came from a family of folks who didn’t quit — because she saw her dad get up and go to work every day even though he never finished college, even though he had crippling MS.  She saw her mother, even though she never finished college, in that school, that urban school, every day making sure Michelle and her brother were getting the education they deserved.  Michelle saw how her parents never quit.  They never indulged in self-pity, no matter how stacked the odds were against them.  They didn’t quit.

Those are the folks who inspire me.  People ask me sometimes, who inspires you, Mr. President?  Those quiet heroes all across this country — some of your parents and grandparents who are sitting here — no fanfare, no articles written about them, they just persevere.  They just do their jobs.  They meet their responsibilities.  They don’t quit.  I’m only here because of them.  They may not have set out to change the world, but in small, important ways, they did.  They certainly changed mine.

So whether it’s starting a business, or running for office, or raising a amazing family, remember that making your mark on the world is hard.  It takes patience.  It takes commitment.  It comes with plenty of setbacks and it comes with plenty of failures.

But whenever you feel that creeping cynicism, whenever you hear those voices say you can’t make a difference, whenever somebody tells you to set your sights lower — the trajectory of this country should give you hope.  Previous generations should give you hope.  What young generations have done before should give you hope.  Young folks who marched and mobilized and stood up and sat in, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, didn’t just do it for themselves; they did it for other people.  (Applause.)

That’s how we achieved women’s rights.  That’s how we achieved voting rights.  That’s how we achieved workers’ rights.  That’s how we achieved gay rights.  (Applause.)  That’s how we’ve made this Union more perfect.  (Applause.)

And if you’re willing to do your part now, if you’re willing to reach up and close that gap between what America is and what America should be, I want you to know that I will be right there with you.  (Applause.)  If you are ready to fight for that brilliant, radically simple idea of America that no matter who you are or what you look like, no matter who you love or what God you worship, you can still pursue your own happiness, I will join you every step of the way.  (Applause.)

Now more than ever — now more than ever, America needs what you, the Class of 2012, has to offer.  America needs you to reach high and hope deeply.  And if you fight for your seat at the table, and you set a better example, and you persevere in what you decide to do with your life, I have every faith not only that you will succeed, but that, through you, our nation will continue to be a beacon of light for men and women, boys and girls, in every corner of the globe.

So thank you.  Congratulations.  (Applause.)  God bless you.  God bless the United States of America.  (Applause.)

END
2:00 P.M. EDT

Campaign Buzz May 14, 2012: Ron Paul to Stop Actively Campaigning for GOP Nomination — Will Stay in Race & Amass Delegates

CAMPAIGN 2012

By Bonnie K. Goodman

Ms. Goodman is the Editor of History Musings. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University. Ms. Goodman has also contributed the overviews, and chronologies in History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, 4th edition, edited by Gil Troy, Fred L. Israel, and Arthur Meier Schlesinger published by Facts on File, Inc. in  2011.

CAMPAIGN BUZZ 2012

IN FOCUS: RON PAUL TO STOP CAMPAIGNING FOR GOP NOMINATION — WILL STAY IN RACE

Ron Paul to stop campaigning, but he won’t drop out: Rep. Ron Paul of Texas plans to stop actively campaigning in the Republican presidential race, but he will continue his efforts to win delegates around the country. Paul hopes his delegate share will allow him to play a key role in the Republican National Convention…. – WaPo, 5-14-12

  • Why Ron Paul’s 2012 effort may not really be over: The Ron Paul campaign won’t run ads in upcoming primaries, but Paul is still out to make his mark at the GOP’s August convention…. – CS Monitor, 5-14-12
  • Ron Paul scales back Republican presidential bid: Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul said on Monday he was scaling back his White House bid and will no longer campaign actively in states that have yet to hold primary elections. Instead, Paul’s campaign will concentrate … Reuters, Chicago Tribune, 5-14-12
  • Paul ends active campaigning in GOP presidential primaries: Rep. Ron Paul of Texas announced Monday he would stop actively campaigning in Republican presidential primaries but also indicated he is not ready to throw in the towel on his presidential bid quite yet…. – USA Today, 5-14-12
  • Ron Paul effectively ending presidential campaign: Ron Paul, Mitt Romney’s lone remaining rival for the Republican presidential nomination, announced Monday that he would stop spending money on the party’s 11 remaining primaries, in effect suspending his campaign…. – LAT, 5-14-12
  • Ron Paul Admits He Will Not Be President: The libertarian congressman doesn’t want his supporters to stop crusading for liberty, but he needs them to recognize the fight for the nomination is over. Ron Paul announced Monday the Texas congressman will not campaign in the states … The Atlantic, 5-14-12
  • Don’t tell Paul’s supporters the primary is over: Don’t tell Ron Paul the Republican primary is over. He’s too busy mucking up Mitt Romney’s efforts to accumulate enough convention delegates to officially claim the GOP nomination for president…. – AP, 5-8-12

Full Text Obama Presidency May 14, 2012: First Lady Michelle Obama’s Commencement Address to North Carolina A&T University Class of 2012 — “We Need You”

POLITICAL SPEECHES & DOCUMENTS

OBAMA PRESIDENCY & THE 112TH CONGRESS:

First Lady Michelle Obama Tells North Carolina A&T University Class of 2012 “We Need You”

Source: WH, 5-14-12

First Lady Michele Obama at the North Carolina Agriculture & Technology Commencement Ceremony

Interim Provost Winser Alexander presents First Lady Michelle Obama with a hood signifying her honorary degree following her commencement address during the North Carolina Agriculture & Technology commencement ceremony in Greensboro, N.C., May 12, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

First Lady Michelle Obama invoked the example of the “Greensboro Four” in her commencement address to North Carolina A&T University’s class of 2012. More than half a century ago, four A&T students started the movement that led to desegregation at lunch counters across the country, and Mrs Obama said this shows what can happen when someone decides to “wake up and change the situation.” The First Lady challenged the students to follow their lead:

As graduates of this proud university, as young people like those who always stoked the fires of progress, our country is counting on all of you to step forward and help us with the work that remains.  We need you.

Mrs Obama also challeged each member of the graduating class to think about what’s important, and ask themselves three questions:

  • Who are you going to be?
  • What’s going on in the world around me? and
  • How can I help?

The answers, she said, would help the graduated keep their bearings as they advanced in their careers and in their lives as citizens:

You’ve got to figure out what matters to you and stay true to those values. You’ve got to keep your eyes open as you make your way in the world….

The fact is, we simply cannot move forward unless all of us are engaged. And being engaged means not simply recognizing what’s wrong, not simply complaining about and talking about our problems, but acting. It means waking up and changing the situation.  And that’s a lesson that so many of you have already begun to learn during your time here at A&T…

And with that kind of action and that kind of commitment, all of you have begun to carry on that proud legacy of the Greensboro Four.

North Carolina A&T Students React as First Lady Michele Obama Delivers the Commencement Address

Students react as First Lady Michele Obama delivers the commencement address at the North Carolina Agriculture & Technology commencement ceremony in Greensboro, N.C., May 12, 2012 (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
This was Mrs. Obama’s second commencement address of 2012.

POLITICAL QUOTES & SPEECHES

Remarks by the First Lady at North Carolina A&T University Commencement

Greensboro Coliseum
Greensboro, North Carolina

10:44 A.M. EDT

MRS. OBAMA:  Good morning, everyone.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  Good morning.

MRS. OBAMA:  You all, rest yourselves.  (Laughter.)  First of all, let me thank Chancellor Martin for that very kind introduction.  I also want to thank Davonta and everyone from the Board of Governors, the Board of Trustees, the faculty, and all of the staff here who have worked so hard on this event and on making you the men and women that you are.

I also have to thank the University Choir.  You all are amazing.  (Applause.)  As the Chancellor said, you all are becoming regulars at the White House, and that’s a good thing, singing at our Black History Month events for the last two years.  It’s just amazing to hear those voices pouring through the White House.  It’s very powerful, and it is obviously such a pleasure to hear your beautiful music here today.

And of course, I want to join in on thanking all the folks who have made this day possible, the people who have been with you all every step of the way –- yes, your families, including all those watching on campus or at home.

These folks have given you that shoulder to lean on, and that hug when you’ve done well, and maybe that kick in the butt when you need to do a little bit better, right?  (Laughter.)  And none of you would be where you are today without their love and support.  So, again, let’s give them all another round of applause, because today is their day too.  (Applause.)

And most of all, I want to thank this fine-looking group right in front of me –- (applause) — the graduates of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Class of 2012!  (Applause.)  Congratulations!  You all have worked so hard and I know you have grown so much, and you’ve come to truly represent a little something called Aggie Pride!

AUDIENCE:  Aggie Pride!  (Applause.)

MRS. OBAMA:  All right!  I like that.  (Laughter.)

Let me tell you, it is an honor to be here at North Carolina A&T, a true honor.  You all have such a proud tradition here in Greensboro.  For years, you have produced more African American engineers –- and more African American female engineers –- than just about anywhere else in America.  (Applause.)

You have produced some of our nation’s finest leaders in business, government, and our military.  (Applause.)  The first African American Justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court was an Aggie.  (Applause.)  So was the second African American astronaut.  (Applause.)  And so were those four young men who sat down at a lunch counter 52 years ago and will stand forever in bronze in front of the Dudley building.  (Applause.)

Now, I know that all of you know the story of the Greensboro Four and how they changed the course of our history.  But since we have the nation watching, let’s talk a little bit.  (Laughter and applause.)

It’s easy to forget that before they were known as heroes, they were young people just like all of you — even younger.  They were freshmen here at A&T.  Three of them grew up right here in North Carolina; they all lived on the same floor in Scott Hall.  They weren’t trailblazers or legends back then.  So we have to ask ourselves, how did these young men get from where they were to the history books?  And believe it or not, the spark might have come on a bus ride.

One of the four, Joseph McNeil, had spent Christmas in New York, and he took a bus from there back to school here in Greensboro.  When the bus stopped in Philadelphia, he could eat wherever he chose.  But when he got off the station in Greensboro, the food counter here wouldn’t serve him.

Now, this wasn’t exactly new.  Joseph had lived with these boundaries for years.  But this time, it really hit him.  And although he was the exact same person in Greensboro that he’d been just a few hours earlier in Philly, he was made to feel like a fraction of the man he had become.

Here in the state where he was born and raised, in the city where he was working so hard to get an education and grow into a responsible, self-respecting man, he was treated like he didn’t even matter; like he wasn’t even welcome in the place he called home.  Imagine the humiliation he must have felt.  Imagine his pain and his outrage.

So when Joseph got back to his dorm room that night, his mind was probably already racing.  He started talking to his roommates; they pulled in two friends from down the hall, and together over the next couple of weeks they decided to do more than just talk.  They decided to act.  And on a Monday afternoon, the four of them met up after class and headed downtown.

And I’m sure their hearts were racing.  I’m sure they’d barely slept the night before.  Remember, everything was on the line for these young men.  They were considered the lucky ones.  They were some of the very few African American young people at the time who had the chance to attend college.  They were on the path to achieve something that most black folks could only dream of.  And here they were, risking all of that for what they believed in.

This was something that a lot of people — black folks back then — didn’t do because the stakes were so high.  Because remember, this was 1960, and if you used the wrong water fountain, or sat on the wrong seat on the bus, or stepped your foot in the wrong part of the theater you might get heckled or spat on or beaten — or even worse.

So as they were walking downtown, one of the four was actually wondering to himself whether he’d wind up coming back to campus in a pine box.  But when they got downtown and saw that Woolworth’s sign, there was no turning back.  They sat down on those four stools at the lunch counter and ordered coffee.  They were refused, but they didn’t get up.

And that first day, they were there for just an hour or so.  Then they went back to campus and told other students what they’d done — and some didn’t even believe them.  But the next day, about 20 more students showed up.  And within a week, it was more than a thousand.

In the coming weeks and months, the demonstrations spread from Greensboro to places like Richmond, and Nashville, and Jackson and more than 50 other cities all across the country.  (Applause.)  And by end of July, Woolworth’s — one of the biggest chain stores in the world — was forced to end their policy of discrimination.  And the Civil Rights movement was growing stronger every day.  (Applause.)

And all of this started because of a bus ride and some dorm room conversations.  It all started because a small group of young people had their eyes open to the injustices around them.  It all started because they decided, as one of the four told the newspaper on the first day of the protests, that it was “time for someone to wake up and change the situation.”  And that, more than anything else, is the story of our nation’s progress right from the very beginning.

It’s the story of the farmers and cobblers and blacksmiths who took on an empire; the abolitionists who ran that Underground Railroad; the women who mobilized; the workers who organized; the individuals of every background, color, creed and orientation who worked in ways large and small to give us the country that we have today.  Every single one of them decided that at some point, it was time to wake up and change the situation.

And that is what I want to talk with all of you about today –- how all of the work and the sweat and the passion that so many people poured into this country must be met with work and sweat and passion of our own.  (Applause.)  And as graduates of this proud university, as young people like those who always stoked the fires of progress, our country is counting on all of you to step forward and help us with the work that remains.  We need you.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that it can be easy to lose sight of that responsibility — especially when you first graduate from college.  You’re struggling to pay off your student loans, and you’re putting in extra hours to make a name for yourself at work.  You’re trying to figure out who you want to spend the rest of your life with.  Oh yeah, and I remember that like it was yesterday.  (Laughter.)

Like all of you, I worked hard all through school.  I earned my BA, my JD — and I had the student loans to show for it.  So I did what I thought I should do — I got a great job at one of the biggest law firms in Chicago, and before long, I was checking all the boxes you were supposed to check.  Fat paycheck — got it.  Nice car — got it.  Big, fancy office — got it.

But then, when I was 26 years old, one of my best friends from college died of cancer.  Like that, she was gone.  Less than a year after that, my father died after battling multiple sclerosis for years.  Just like that, I’d lost two of the people I loved most in the world.

So there I was, not much older than all of you, and I felt like my whole world was caving in.  And I began to do a little bit of soul searching.  I began to ask myself some hard questions.  Questions like:  If I die tomorrow, what did I really do with my life?  What kind of a mark would I leave?  How would I be remembered?  And none of my answers satisfied me.

I had everything I was told I should want, but it still wasn’t enough.  And I realized that no matter how long I stayed on that job, no matter how many years I pursued someone else’s definition of success, I was never going to have a life that felt like my own.

And so, to the surprise of my family and friends, I quit that high-paying job and I took a job in the mayor’s office.  That hurt.  (Laughter.)  Then, as the Chancellor said, I became the executive director of Public Allies, a nonprofit organization that trained young people to pursue careers in public service.

Oh, I was earning a fraction of my law firm salary, and I added years to my student loan repayment process.  But let me tell you, I woke up every morning feeling engaged and inspired in ways that I had never felt before.  (Applause.)  I spent every day feeling like I was doing something that truly made a difference in people’s lives.  And twenty years later, looking back on my journey, I see that all of that started with those questions I asked myself in that law office.

So today, as you all are looking ahead toward your own journeys, I would like to pose three of those questions to all of you.

The first question I asked myself was, “Who do I want to be?”  Not what do I want to be, but who.

And it’s so easy to think about your future as a series of lines on a resume.  In many ways, that’s how our society is wired.  And as an adult, when you meet somebody new, they often ask you — the first question — they say, what do you do?  And you quickly give the simplest answer — I’m a nurse, I’m an engineer, I’m a teacher, I’m a lawyer, whatever it is — and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  A meaningful, fulfilling career that — can be the cornerstone of a happy life.

But I also want to stress that your job title and responsibilities, those things are merely what you do, and they will always be.  They are not who you are.  (Applause.)

So as you all are thinking about your careers, I want you to think about what’s important to you.  How does your job fit into a full life — a complete life?  How are you going to give back?

Are you going to be an engineer, or are you going to be an engineer who volunteers in a science class at a local school twice a week?  (Applause.)  Are you going to go into business, or are you going to be the CEO who sponsors community theater productions, and those 5K runs, and the local little league team?

Who are you going to be?

Are you going to be the nurse who serves in the National Guard every other weekend, and writes the weekly bulletin for church?  Are you going to be the award-winning journalist who raises a beautiful family, who serves on the PTA, who drives the carpool, who was in every single way — voted in every election, every year, every single year?

It is critical that you start thinking about these things now, and keep coming back to them.  Because I’m going to warn you –- those daily to-do lists that will creep up on you, those deadlines at work, the pressure to keep climbing and achieving and acquiring –- trust me, all of that adds up.  It forms a powerful current.  And if you’re not focused on who you want to be and how you want to live your life, trust me, it will sweep you away.

So you have got to keep your bearings.  You’ve got to figure out what matters to you and stay true to those values.  You’ve got to keep your eyes open as you make your way in the world.

And that leads me to my second question.  I want you to ask yourselves, “What’s going on in the world around me?”

It’s true that the world is different today than it was for the Greensboro Four and others who came before them.  You won’t see any “whites only” water fountains.  You won’t see women turned away at the polls.  You may not hear the words of hatred and discrimination every day.  And all of that, those are signs of how much progress that we’ve made.  But we all know that there are still plenty of serious injustices crying out for our attention.  (Applause.)  We know this.

Yes, we outlawed segregation in our public schools nearly sixty years ago, but we all know that every child is not getting the same quality of education today.  (Applause.)  That we know.

Yes, women gained the right to vote nearly a century ago, and women now make up nearly half of our work force — yet they still earn only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, and for African American women, it’s just 64 cents.  (Applause.)

Yes, we passed a federal hate crimes law, but we all know that prejudice of all kinds exists — all kinds — for all kinds of people.  Too often that still remains.

So take a look around, and I guarantee you that you will see that there is plenty of work left to be done.

Maybe it’s the school on the other side of town with crumbling classrooms and a couple of old computers, and teachers who are as outnumbered as they are overworked.  Or maybe it’s the cash-strapped homeless shelter that keeps dozens of people warm every night, but their grant money ran out.  Maybe it’s the city hall in dire need of fresh ideas.  Maybe it’s a river lined with trash.

Everywhere we look, there are wrongs just waiting to be made right.  But again, I warn you –- those wrongs won’t go away.  And they will entrench themselves deeper and deeper unless we act.

And that leads me to the third and final question.  We need you to ask yourselves:  “How can I help?”  It’s a simple question.  “How can I help?”  And the answers are often obvious.

That failing school?  Volunteer there before work.  Donate your old laptop.  Organize a group to paint a mural on the playground.  The homeless shelter in danger of shutting its doors?  Start a fundraising drive.  That filthy river bed?  Put on some gloves and pick up a bucket.  Those nationwide inequalities?  That stagnant city hall?  Immerse yourselves in information.  Become familiar with your elected representatives.  Vote –- not just once in a while, but every year, in every election.  (Applause.)  And even better, run for a seat at the table yourself.

The fact is, we simply cannot move forward unless all of us are engaged.  And being engaged means not simply recognizing what’s wrong, not simply complaining about and talking about our problems, but acting.  It means waking up and changing the situation.  And that’s a lesson that so many of you have already begun to learn during your time here at A&T.

This year alone, students at this university have volunteered nearly 35,000 hours of service.  (Applause.)  You’ve mentored your peers and helped young people, students, transition to college.  You’ve marched and walked for causes you believe in.  You’ve cleaned up streets.  You’ve served at the YMCA, Habitat for Humanity and so many other organizations.  And some of you have committed yourselves to serving our country — including 11 of you who will be commissioned as officers in the Army and the Air Force later this afternoon.  (Applause.)

And with that kind of action and that kind of commitment, all of you have begun to carry on that proud legacy of the Greensboro Four.  And today, I’m reminded of a quote from one of those young men.

Years after he’d made history at that lunch counter, Franklin McCain said these words.  He said:  “This is my country.  I fought for the chance to make it right.  No one’s going to deny me the opportunity.  I am going to be a full participant in every aspect of this community, as well as my kids.”

That’s what they were fighting for.  That’s why they sat down on those stools — so that they could be full participants in their communities, and that so could you.  They were fighting so that all of you — and me — could have opportunities they couldn’t even imagine.  And look around.  Just look around.  That’s exactly what we’ve got.

We’re not weighed down by the kind of baggage that folks had back then.  We do live in a country that’s more supportive, more open, more inclusive than ever before.  We’ve got rights and freedoms and possibilities that they would have given anything to have for themselves.  But with all of those advantages comes a set of responsibilities.

We’ve got a responsibility to protect the ground that’s already been won, because it can just as easily be lost.  (Applause.)  It can be gone.  We’ve got a responsibility to live up to the legacy of those who came before us by doing all that we can to help those who come after us.  That’s how we’ve always made progress — each generation doing its part to lift up the next.

Each generation does its part to perfect our union.  Each generation looks at the world around them and decides that it’s time to wake up and change the situation.  And we’ve always looked to our young people to lead the way.  We always have.

So graduates, now it’s your turn.  It’s time for you to take that baton.  Take it.  It’s time for you to carry the banner forward.  It’s time for you to wake the rest of us up and show us everything you’ve got.

That’s what Aggies like you have always done.  (Applause.)  And that is your history, and that is your legacy.  That is who you are.  Never forget that.

And let me tell you something — that is why me and my husband and the folks all across this country, man, we are so proud of you all.  We are so proud.  And because of you, we are so hopeful about our future.  Yes we are.  Know that.  (Applause.)

So graduates, I love you all.

AUDIENCE:  We love you too!

MRS. OBAMA:  I cannot wait to see that all you will achieve and all that you will contribute in the years ahead.  You have everything before you.

God bless you all, and good luck.

END
11:08 A.M. EDT

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