If there’s anyone who can offer inspiring speech amidst a pandemic, recession, and ongoing protests against systemic racism in the US, it’s Barack Obama. Recently, for the “Graduate Together: High School Class of 2020 Commencement,” organised by XQ Institute, the former US president offered several words of wisdom and advice to the Class of 2020.
True to his legacy, the gifted orator’s speech offered a balm against bleak data. In the US, around 20 million are without jobs, despite May jobs report on June 5 recording a sharp 2.5 million increase in employment. It is this troubled job market graduates will enter, but Obama urged them not to give up on their goals.
College is no longer a guarantee; getting a job will be tougher. Even the well-off are dealing with “massive uncertainty, he said.
This means this year’s graduating class will have to grow up faster than some generations, but there is no need for fear. Instead, look back on the country’s history, he urged.
“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.”
It’s a sobering pick-me-up that fits these uncertain times — much better than the message “This is a rocket ship!” sends.
Here are more highlights from his commencement speech:
Be part of the solution, not the problem
Obama urged students to ground themselves in values that last — such as honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity and respect for others.
He said, “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.”
Graduates have a unique opportunity to step up
Adults in charge don’t really know what they are doing. And they don’t have all the answers. They’re not even asking the right questions.
“So, if the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you,” Obama said.
This is a scary realisation, but he hoped it would inspire instead.
“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.”
Build your community
Obama pressed that being a community where people can lean on one another is more important than ever. Hard times make people cynical and selfish, but that’s not how “big things” will be achieved, he said.
“But if we’re going to get through these difficult times; if we’re going to create a world where everybody has the 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.”
He also urged students to stand up for each other’s rights and leave behind the old ways of thinking that divided the US community in the past — such as sexism, racial prejudice, status and greed — and set the world on a different path.
Obama ended his speech by offering the help of the Obama Foundation, which will give “skills and support” to lead in their communities or to connect with young leaders around the world.
“But the truth is that 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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