Former U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a nationally televised high school commencement speech Saturday night and challenged the graduates to shape the world, amid the pandemic and uncertainties around.
He addressed both the universal fear and liberation that comes with being a graduate, and what it means to mark the milestone amid a global pandemic.
“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,” he said.
He noted the heartache of canceled graduation ceremonies, proms and a whole bunch of parties.
The former president, who cut his political teeth in Chicago, also recognized that the COVID-19 outbreak and its domino effect — shuttered schools and businesses among them — may be one in a line of major hurdles they’ve leapt to get to this moment.
“Graduating is a big achievement under any circumstances, some of you have had to overcome very 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,” the president said in his address.
“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 let’s face it, a whole bunch of parties, the world is turned upside down by a global pandemic.”
But virus or no, “what remains true is that your graduation marks your passage into adulthood, the time when you begin to take charge of your own life.”
He didn’t mince words about these being frightening times but said the constants will still be there: family, work and dreams.
He even suggested the unknown offered an opportunity for graduates to ignore the well-meaning adults offering unsolicited platitudes and chart their own course.
“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, but I hope it’s all inspiring,” Obama said.
“With all the challenges this country faces right now, no one 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.”
A-list celebrities were on hand, too, for the commencement speeches.
Among the celebrities were the Jonas Brothers, Yara Shahidi, Bad Bunny, Lena Waithe, Pharrell Williams, Megan Rapinoe and H.E.R.
The event was hosted by the education advocacy group XQ Institute, The LeBron James Family Foundation and The Entertainment Industry Foundation.
The country’s first African American president also delivered a virtual commencement earlier on Saturday for the graduates of historically African-American universities.