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FAMOUS LAST WORDS

The most inspiring words from Obama’s 22 graduation speeches so far

Reuters/Molly Riley
Listen up, grads.
  • Amy X. Wang
By Amy X. Wang

Reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

It’s its own tradition. Come spring every year, the sitting US president picks a handful of colleges and high schools to visit, dispensing wisdom and advice at their commencement ceremonies.

Barack Obama has followed the trend faithfully in 2016. He spoke at Howard University last weekend, is heading to Rutgers tomorrow (May 14), and will give the 24th—and final—address of his presidency at the US Air Force Academy in June.

While two dozen graduation speeches might seem a lot, Obama has touched on a wealth of topics, and you don’t have to be a new grad to feel inspired by them.

On the value of old-fashioned, hard work

To Kalamazoo High School on June 8, 2010:

Understand that your success in life won’t be determined just by what’s given to you, or what happens to you, but by what you do with all that’s given to you—what you do with all that happens to you. How hard you try, how far you push yourself, how high you’re willing to reach.  True excellence only comes with perseverance. This wasn’t something I really understood when I was back your age.

On the opinions of others

To the University of Michigan on May 1, 2010:

These arguments we’re having over government and health care and war and taxes—these are serious arguments. They should arouse people’s passions, and it’s important for everybody to join in the debate, with all the vigor that the maintenance of a free people requires.

But we can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialists” and “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascist” and “right-wing nut”—that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes.

On national unity

To the University of Notre Dame on May 17, 2009:

The major threats we face in the 21st century—whether it’s global recession or violent extremism; the spread of nuclear weapons or pandemic disease—these things do not discriminate. They do not recognize borders. They do not see color.  They do not target specific ethnic groups. Moreover, no one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone. Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and greater understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history.

On embracing blackness

To Howard University on May 8, 2016:

If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be–what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into–you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies. You’d choose right now. If you had to choose a time to be, in the words of Lorraine Hansberry, “young, gifted, and black” in America, you would choose right now.

On steady, unfailing character

To the US Naval Academy on May 24, 2013:

We need your honor. That inner compass that guides you, not when the path is easy and obvious, but when it’s hard and uncertain; that tells you the difference between that which is right and that which is wrong. Perhaps it will be a moment when you think nobody is watching. But never forget that honor, like character, is what you do when nobody is looking. More likely it will be when you’re in the spotlight, leading others—the men and women who are looking up to you to set an example.

Never ask them to do what you don’t ask of yourself. Live with integrity and speak with honesty and take responsibility and demand accountability.

On working toward gender equality

To (the all-female class) of Barnard College on May 14, 2012:

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.

On self-reliance

To Arizona State University on May 13, 2009:

Graduates: it’s now abundantly clear that we need to start doing things a little bit different. In your own lives, you’ll need to continuously adapt to a continuously changing economy. You’ll end up having more than one job and more than one career over the course of your life; to keep gaining new skills—possibly even new degrees; and you’ll have to keep on taking risks as new opportunities arise.

On responsibility—and humility

To Lake Area Technical Institute on May 8, 2015:

I hope that’s something you keep in mind as you walk across the stage today: that gratification that comes with helping someone find their path; for making yourself useful not just to yourself, but to others. For you haven’t just earned new opportunities with this degree; you’ve also earned responsibilities along with it.

That’s who we are as Americans. We are rugged individuals. We haven’t lost that pioneering spirit that brought many of our grandparents and great-grandparents to these plains. We ask for nothing more than the chance to blaze our own trail. And yet each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, helped us find our path.

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