Obama's Message to Graduating Seniors: "Set The World On a Different Path"

Monica Chon
Photo credit: Getty Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images - Getty Images

From Oprah Magazine

  • On Saturday evening, May 16, Barack Obama delivered a commencement address to the high school Class of 2020, whose graduations were cancelled due to coronavirus.

  • Below, watch and read the 44th president's full inspiring message and speech closing out the "Graduate 2020" event.

While the Class of 2020 may not have envisioned a graduation ceremony where they were sitting at home watching a livestream, Saturday evening's Graduate Together: America Honors the Class of 2020 program more than made up for the disappointing end to an important year for this year's graduates. The live-streamed event, produced by XQ Institute, EIF, and the LeBron James Family Foundation, featured former president Barack Obama as the virtual commencement speaker.

Starting off with a touching video montage of various seniors enjoying their last year of school across the country, as well as a virtual high school choir singing the national anthem via video stream together, a whole host of famous faces joined in congratulating the Class of 2020 on their big accomplishment.

Among the star-studded appearances included names like: LeBron James, Yara Shahidi, Malala Yousafzai, Zendaya, The Jonas Brothers, Kevin Hart, Bad Bunny, Dua Lipa, Megan Rapinoe, and Timothée Chalamet, just to name a few.

"Class of 2020, this is for you," said NBA star James, as he kicked off the event, which started at 8PM ET on May 16. "You should have had a real graduation, I know. You made a sacrifice on behalf of all of us, thank you." Black-ish actress Yara Shahidi took a moment to highlight the creative ways students were getting through the pandemic and helping others, noting, "You've pushed the bounds of what it means to be a hero." Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who is also missing her own graduation ceremony due to COVID-19, also made an appearance: "The class of 2020 won't be defined by what we lost to this virus, but by how we responded to it."

As the last speaker in the hour-long event, Obama's seven minute speech touched on the tumultuous times due to the pandemic, calling on the new generation of young leaders to go forward and create a better world. "Your graduation marks your passage into adulthood," the former president noted. "And given the current state of the world, that may be kind of scary."

While demonstrating at times that he hadn't lost his quick wit or cultural relevancy—Obama joked about how his "big ears" looked under his own graduation cap, the added in a reference to the viral Netflix show Tiger Kingthe looming public health crisis, and advising seniors on how to make the most of this moment, was rightfully his main focus.

For those in the Class of 2020 wondering how they're going to change the world for the better, Obama gave three pieces of advice: Don't be afraid, do what you think is right, and build a community along the way. "Be alive to one another's struggles," he urged. "Stand up for one another's rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us: sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed. Set the world on a different path."

Watch and read Obama's full speech to the high school Class of 2020 below.

I couldn't be prouder of all of you in the graduating class of 2020—as well as the teachers, the coaches, and most of all, parents and family who guided you along the way.

Now, graduating is a big achievement under any circumstances. Some of you've had to overcome serious obstacles along the way, whether it was an illness, or a parent losing a job, or living in a neighborhood where people too often count you out. Along with the usual challenges of growing up, all of you had to deal with the added pressures of social media, reports of school shootings, and the specter of climate change.

And then, just as you're about to celebrate having made it through, just as you've been looking forward to proms, senior nights, graduation ceremonies, and lets face it, a whole bunch of parties, the world is turned upside down by a global pandemic. As much as I'm sure you love your parents, I'll bet that being stuck at home with them and playing board games or watching Tiger King on TV is not exactly how you envisioned the last few months of your senior year.

Now, I'll be honest with you. The disappointments of missing a live graduation, those will pass pretty quick. I don't remember much of my own high school graduation. I know that not having to sit there and listen to a commencement speaker isn't all that bad. Mine usually go on way too long. Also, not that many people look great in those caps, especially if you have big ears like me. And you'll have plenty of time to catch up with your friends, once the immediate public health crisis is over.

But what remains true is that your graduation marks your passage into adulthood. The time when you begin to take charge of your own life. It's when you get to decide what's important to you, the kind of career you want to pursue, who you want to build a family with, the values you want to live by. And given the current state of the world, that may be kind of scary.

If you planned on going away for college, getting dropped off at campus in the fall—that's no longer a given. If you were planning to work while going to school, finding that first job is going to be tougher. Even families that are relatively well off are dealing with massive uncertainty. Those who were struggling before, they're hanging on by a thread.

All of which means that you're going to have to grow up faster than some generations. This pandemic has shaken up the status quo and laid bare a lot of our countries deep-seated problems. From massive economic inequality, to ongoing racial disparities, to a lack of basic healthcare for people who need it.

It's woken a lot of young people up to the fact that the old ways of doing things just don't work. That it doesn't matter how much money you make, if everyone around you is hungry and sick. And that our society and our democracy only work when we think, not just about ourselves, but about each other.

It's also pulled the curtain back on another hard truth. Something that we all have to eventually accept once our childhood comes to an end. All those adults you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? Turns out they don't have all the answers. A lot of them aren't even asking the right questions. So if the world's going to get better, it's going to be up to you.

That realization may be kind of intimidating, but I hope it's also inspiring. With all the challenges this country faces right now, nobody can tell you "oh you're too young to understand," or "this is how it's always been done." Because with so much uncertainty, with everything suddenly up for grabs, this is your generation's world to shape.

Since I'm one of the old guys, I won't tell you what to do with this power that rests in your hands. But I'll leave you with three quick pieces of advice:

First, don't be afraid. America's gone through tough times before. Slavery, civil war, famine, disease, the Great Depression, and 9/11. Each time we came out stronger. Usually because a new generation—young people like you—learned from past mistakes and figured out how to make things better.

Second, do what you think is right. Doing what feels good—what's convenient, what's easy—that's how little kids thing. Unfortunately a lot of so-called grownups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way. Which is why things are so screwed up. I hope that instead you decide to ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others. You won't get it right every time, you'll make mistakes like we all do. But if you listen to the truth that's inside yourself even when it's hard, even when it's inconvenient, people will notice. They'll gravitate toward you, and you'll be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

And finally, build a community. No one does big things by themselves. Right now, when people are scared, it's easy to be cynical and say let me just look out for myself, or my family, or people who look or think or pray like me. But if we're going to get through these difficult times, if we're going to create a world where everybody has opportunity to find a job and afford college, if we're going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we're going to have to do it together.

So be alive to one another's struggles. Stand up for one another's rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us: sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed. Set the world on a different path.

When you need help, Michelle and I have made it the mission of our foundation to give young people like you the skills and support to lead in your own communities. And to connect you with other young leaders around the country and around the globe.

But, the truth is you don't need us to tell you what to do. Because in so many ways you've already started to lead. Congratulations, Class of 2020. Keep making us proud."

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