Barack and Michelle Obama both participated in YouTube’s four-hour livestream commencement event, Dear Class of 2020, held for graduating seniors who cannot participate in in-person commencement ceremonies due to COVID-19.
In a clip from Barack Obama’s speech, courtesy of YouTube Originals, the former president highlighted the challenges that the Class of 2020 and the rest of their generation are currently up against, which go well beyond the coronavirus pandemic.
“In a lot of ways, the pandemic just brought into focus problems that have been growing for a very long time,” he said, “whether it’s widening economic inequality, the lack of basic healthcare for millions of people, the continuing scourge of bigotry and sexism, or the divisions and dysfunctions that plague our political system.”
Obama also noted that the ongoing protests in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop and other black Americans are not just a response to these particular tragedies, but to a systemic problem that has pervaded the U.S. for centuries. “They speak to decades of anguish and frustration over unequal treatment and a failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system.”
He continued: “These shocks to the system that we’re seeing right now, just as you prepare to go out into the world — they remind us that we can’t take things for granted. We have to work to make things better.”
In her speech, Michelle Obama expressed empathy with all the young people who right now feel as if “everything in your life is turned upside down,” she said, and wanted to impart lessons onto the graduates to help them make it through.
“Life will always be uncertain,” she affirmed. “It is a lesson that most of us get the chance to learn over the course of years and years, even decades, but one that you’re learning right now… .Look, I’ve been there many times in my life. I felt it most profoundly when my father and my best friend died within a year of each other. I was in my late twenties — oh, it felt like my whole world was collapsing in on itself. I would’ve given anything — anything — to bring them back.”
She went on to say that the experience gave her “a kind of clarity,” and a motivation to forge a new path on her own — one devoted to public service. “Graduates, I hope that what you’re going through right now can be your wake-up call. That it pushes you not just to think about what kind of career you wanna build, but what kind of person do you want to be.”
In addition to the Obamas, Dear Class of 2020 also featured speeches by Lady Gaga, BTS, Lizzo, Alicia Keys, Condoleeza Rice and more.