In his second commencement speech of 2020, former President Barack Obama implored graduating high schoolers to be brave in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, and to reject old ways of doing things while working together to solve pressing problems, from economic inequality to the climate crisis.
“If the world’s gonna get better, it’s gonna be up to you,” Obama said during the television special “Graduate Together” on Saturday. “Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed. And set the world on a different path.”
The speech followed one Obama delivered to graduates of historically black colleges and universities in which he offered both pointed criticisms of the Trump administration — specifically that “this pandemic has fully finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing” — and his signature optimistic rhetoric.
Saturday evening’s remarks also contained a few gentle rebukes of the Trump administration, with the former president telling the graduates that adults “don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions,” and that “things are so screwed up” because “a lot of so-called grownups — including some with fancy titles and important jobs” do “what’s convenient, what’s easy” rather than what is right. But the speech’s focus was on inspiring the graduates to use the pandemic as an opportunity to improve both themselves and their countries.
“Your graduation marks your passage into adulthood,” Obama said, noting that passage can be frightening, but arguing that with adulthood comes new agency. “With all the challenges this country faces right now, nobody can tell you, ‘No, 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.”
Read the full rush transcript of Obama’s speech below:
Hi, everybody! Aniyah, thank you for that beautiful introduction. I could not be prouder of everything you’ve done in your time with the Obama Foundation. And, of course, I couldn’t be prouder of all of you in the graduating class of 2020. As well as the teachers, and 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 have 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 have 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 and senior nights, graduation ceremonies, and — let’s face it — a whole bunch of parties, the world has turned upside down by a global pandemic. And 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 — what 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 to 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 country’s deep-seated problems. From massive economic inequality, to ongoing racial disparities, to a lack of basic health care 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. And it doesn’t matter how much money you make, if everyone around you is hungry and sick. And that our society and 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. You know all those adults that 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 gonna get better, it’s gonna 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, “No, 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. And 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 think. 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 towards 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 gonna get through these difficult times, if we’re gonna create a world where everybody has opportunities to find a job and afford college, if we’re gonna save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we’re gonna 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. And 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.