Congratulations to client Dillard University's class of 2014. First Lady Michelle Obama inspired and challenged 226 graduates in Saturday's ceremony:
"This is your obligation. I want you to keep reaching higher. I want you all to keep raising your bars, letting the next generation know that there is no greater investment than a good education."
Michelle Obama in New Orleans: College graduates must help others reach that goal
by Danielle Dreilinger, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
on May 10, 2014
First Lady Michelle Obama told New Orleans' Dillard University graduates Saturday they were like her: success stories who, in graduating from college, beat the long odds facing many young African-Americans. But she also challenged them to help the next generation of young people reach the same goal.
"Today I stand before a sea of young geniuses. Oh, yeah," Obama said, to cheers. "But what you shouldn't be is satisfied."
She spoke at the Lakefront Arena in front of a crowd thrilled by the first lady's interest in a small university. Senior class president Nicole Tinson convinced Obama to speak by writing to her and saying it would highlight the ongoing significance of historically black institutions.
During her New Orleans visit, Obama also met privately with a group of military spouses.
In her commencement speech, Obama highlighted the history of black higher education in New Orleans. When Dillard broke ground for its library in the 1930s, Howard University's then-president invoked "many a black genius" who was "lying in unmarked graves" due to the inability to go to college, Obama said.
She cited the ongoing racial gap in graduation rates and the dismal unemployment rates among black men. In 2011, 52 percent of black male New Orleanians were out of work.
"You might think, 'Those numbers are terrible. But I'm not part of the problem,'" she said. "And you might think that because you're not one of those statistics ... you can go on our way and never look back. But folks like you and me, we can't afford to think like that."
She reminded the students how their parents and grandparents worked so that they might succeed. "The only way to pay back that debt is by making the same kind of sacrifices and investments for the next generation," Obama said.
She recalled how her own mother, who never went to college, volunteered at Obama's school every day, making sure the teachers and administrators did their jobs. Though her mother's omnipresence embarrassed her as a child, "looking back, I have no doubt that my classmates and I got a better education because she was there looking over their shoulder," she said.
Obama evoked the throngs of students who flooded two colleges that preceded Dillard after the Civil War, part of a spate of new Southern institutions for former slaves who were finally free to learn. She quoted from a speech the Rev. Emperor Williams made at the Uptown groundbreaking of New Orleans University, one of those colleges.
"'For 20 years I was a slave on these streets. It was a penitentiary offense to educate a Negro ... but today here I am speaking where a building is to be erected for the education of the children of my people,'" she read, citing Williams' words.
The children were unprepared. They came in barely speaking English. Most classes had to be taught at a high school level. But "those students were hungry," Obama said. "You hear me? Hungry. They studied like their lives depended on it."
Also hungry, she said, were people around the world today who find the school room door barred: 16-year-old Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt in 2012, and dozens of girls kidnapped in Nigeria for pursuing their education. Obama addressed their abduction in her weekly radio address Saturday, saying it was "unconscionable."
"That's the kind of hunger for education we have to reignite in all of our communities," she told the Dillard audience. "When our young people fall behind in school, they fall behind in life."
Where can graduates start? Obama said they could volunteer in an after-school program, or urge their new employers to start a scholarship fund. Or "maybe you could run for school board or Congress or even, yes, President of the United States," she said, as students cheered. "You could build preschools for every one of our kids. Maybe you could turn that pipeline to prison into a highway to college," she said, alluding to the disproportionally high incarceration rates among African-Americans.
That was the vision and passion of a people who named a high school New Orleans University, and an enslaved woman who named her baby Emperor, Obama said. If it continues, "I cannot wait to see the world that your children will be born into."
Among those listening to Obama's speech were Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, who like Obama received an honorary doctorate Saturday, and a graduate of the Dillard's first graduating class. That graduate, now in her 90s, earned her master's degree in New York at Louisiana's expense - and roomed with Martin Luther King Jr.'s sister - because Louisiana State University refused to let a black woman enroll.
Obama's high spirits came out in lighter ways as well. She rocked along to the Dillard choir, took a selfie with Tinson, the class president, remarking, "I think that's the first selfie I've done at a commencement." The first lady also joked about the nickname of Dillard President Walter Kimbrough, a music fan: "My husband has been called many things over the years but he has never had the honor of being called the 'Hip Hop President.'"
Later in the day, Obama and Landrieu met privately with about a dozen military spouses to hear about their experiences with the transition back to civilian life as part of her Joining Forces initiative.
Obama said such roundtables give her a crucial reality check.
"We're all up in Washington hoping that what we're doing is impacting you all on the ground," she said before the session started. "It gives us a sense of what's working, what's not."
She said she finds the strength and sacrifices of military families inspiring. "You all keep me going," she said, leaning forward and pressing her hands on the table. "There are so few people who understand what it means to do the kind of service you're doing."
Before the event, panelist Maribeth del Castillo of Uptown New Orleans said she appreciated the first lady's interest and was hopeful something would come from the conversation. She'd heard a previous Joining Forces event "resulted in some caregiver coordination" and other improvements in services.
Transcript: Read Michelle Obama's speech.
Audio: Listen to Michelle Obama's speech.