Michelle Obama, in Speech to District Students, Recalls Her Princeton Days
First lady Michelle Obama delivered the commencement address to the Washington Math Science Technology Public Charter High School today in the District, held on the Howard University campus. Her remarks were as follows, according to a White House transcript:
11:25 A.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Yay! (Applause.) Thank you! Congratulations, Class of 2009! (Applause.) All right, this is exciting, right? Nothing more exciting, right? We're so proud of you. I'm delighted to be here.
I want to just thank Jasmine for that lovely introduction and for her invitation to me to come here. I want to thank -- (applause) -- thank you, Jasmine. (Applause.) I want to thank Principal Holbrook and the staff, the faculty, all the trustees, all our elected officials. I want to thank the grandmas, the moms, the dads, the uncles, the aunts, the cousins, everybody who helped get these graduates where they are today. (Applause.)
And I want to especially congratulate Valedictorian Jaren Davis and to Salutatorian Rosmer Portillo on their tremendous achievements. (Applause.) But you all have achieved so much. This is just one of many important milestones that you will hit. And I'm glad to be here.
And I'm here because Jasmine invited me -- (laughter) -- but I got a lot of invitations to speak at commencements this year. More than I did last year. (Laughter.) But I only chose two, and I only chose two because as you know, I'm a working mother and I've got kids, so I try to balance what I do. So it was really important to me that I pick schools that I really believed in. And I knew I wanted to speak at a D.C. public high school because I wanted to celebrate the achievements of young people in my new home town. (Applause.)
And I hadn't chosen one, and then my office received this beautiful letter from Jasmine. And part of what she said was this: "On June 3rd, 2009, we will stop being kids who grew up in the city of Washington, D.C. We will become adults who will be faced with some of the hardest challenges since 1932. We will be put to the test to see if we can withstand the challenges of today's world. This test has no guidelines or study guides on how to pass. We will have to rely on the common sense given to us by our families, the toughness we learned growing up in the conditions that we did, and the timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can." (Applause.) That's what Jasmine wrote.
So because of those words, Jasmine, I'm here today to tell you that you're absolutely right -- that with common sense, hard work, confidence and faith, you can achieve anything you set your minds to, that's for sure. And today is just the beginning. And while we sit here and we celebrate, this is just the beginning, and it should be just the beginning. Your life doesn't end here; it starts here.
And when I look out at you all, I get tears in my eyes because I think about sitting in your seats just a few years ago in my cap and gown. Whitney Young was a magnet public school, so I was a public school graduate, as well. And I was excited like you were because I had gotten into Princeton University. I was excited! (Applause.) I was fired up. I didn't get the kind of money you all got -- (laughter) -- but I was excited.
But I was also worried. I was worried about whether or not I was ready, whether or not I would fit in. And I have realized since then that I probably wasn't alone in my fears, in my worries.
And then I read this story of Judge Sonia Sotomayor. I don't know if you know about this phenomenal woman, but the President -- she's the President's nominee for the Supreme Court -- (applause) -- and she's the first Hispanic woman to be considered for the position. The first.
And she went to Princeton. And in this story she said that when she arrived at Princeton as a freshman -- and this was nine years before I would even think about going -- she said when she stepped on that campus, she said -- and this is a quote -- she said she felt like "a visitor landing in an alien country." (Laughter.) And she said she never raised her hand her first year because -- and this is a quote -- she "was too embarrassed and too intimidated to ask questions."
So despite all of her success at Princeton -- and then she went on to Yale Law School where she was at the top of her class, in both schools -- and despite all of her professional accomplishments, Judge Sotomayor says she still looks over her shoulder and wonders if she measures up.
And when I read her story, I understood exactly how she feels. And I understood what it must have been like for her to step on that campus despite these nagging voices that sometimes rumble around in your head. And for me, the voices came from people who at first told me, don't bother applying to Princeton, not a school like that -- because they said I'd never get in.
Then when I got in, they told me not to go because I wouldn't be able to compete against students who would be more prepared. And then when I decided to attend, they told me that I shouldn't go to a school so far away from home because I would have a hard time making friends; I would feel out of place and I wouldn't make it through. Voices of people sowing seeds of doubt in my head.
And now that I look back, I realize that despite my confident exterior -- because all you all have it, right; you're confident, and I was, too -- there was a part of me that started to believe the doubters. I started to believe people. They were getting into my head. There was a part of me that began to doubt my own abilities and to ignore my own truth; what I knew to be true about me.
So, graduates, for those of you who may be doubting and questioning yourselves -- maybe -- now, you all may not be -- you may be just ready to roll -- but if you are, trust me, I know how you feel. There are a lot of us who know how you feel.
And I also know that some of you family members out here might be feeling a little anxiety, as well.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Amen.
MRS. OBAMA: There may be those -- I can get an "Amen" to that --
MRS. OBAMA: It's okay. (Laughter.) There may be those of you here today who, while you have this immense pride and joy, you might also be a little mixed, just a little concerned. Maybe some of you are apprehensive about sending your kids off to a school far away, not being able to touch them real quick, shake them up when they need to. (Laughter.) Maybe some of you -- and I know I'll get an "Amen" on this -- are not quite sure how you'll manage things financially.
MRS. OBAMA: There you go. (Laughter.) Maybe some of you are worried about how to support a child who has chosen a path that might be very different from your own.
And I can only imagine what my parents, working-class folks who didn't go to college, must have been thinking about when they sent me off to Princeton. And I had a little head start, because I had a brother who went to Princeton, so that helped. But what was true was that unlike many of my classmates at that wonderful institution whose families had attended Princeton for generations, my parents hadn't gone to college, so they couldn't really tell me what to expect or how to prepare. And many of you may be in that situation, as well.
But here's the thing. In the end, the good news is that none of that really mattered. It just really didn't matter. My parents didn't have to be lawyers or doctors or college graduates to help me succeed. I didn't need that from my parents. What mattered was their love. What mattered was their encouragement and unconditional support. (Applause.) That's all that mattered. What mattered was that when I called home, they picked up the phone every time and told me every single second that they were proud of me, no matter what, and they reminded me over and over again that no matter what all those nagging voices said, that I deserved to be where I was.
So parents, family members, I promise you, your love and encouragement and unconditional support will be enough, as well. So don't worry.
And it helps that these young people are graduating from this outstanding school, one of the best in the country. (Applause.) They are coming from a school that believes that all children, young people, can learn -- that's an important start; just hearing the stories of these speakers, a school that is welcoming, that is open, where teachers know and love their kids; a school that believes that all students should be able to succeed and should be held to the highest standards; a school that challenges stereotypes and proves that African American and Latino students can excel in math and science. (Applause.) That's amazing. So let's be clear: These graduates will be just as prepared for anything they do, they will be just as prepared as any other student that will arrive at their new schools.
We have to remember, as we send them off, and they have to remember, that they will not be traveling this journey alone. They didn't start it by themselves, they didn't get through it by themselves, they're not going to end it alone. In addition, graduates, to your families, you have friends you've made here, just like everybody has said.
This small class of you, you need to be supporting each other, and remember these friendships as you go. You have these wonderful teachers and coaches and mentors who supported you these last four years and will be there. They will be there, they'll be happy to see you. They'll be happy to get the call to provide you some guidance and advice over the next four years and beyond. That's why they do what they do. So don't hesitate to reach out to them when those voices start getting loud, because they've got your back.
And you have something more: the knowledge that so many people -- look around you -- so many people are supporting you, and so many people have traveled this journey before you. This isn't new anymore: people who've worked and struggled just like you; people who have defied the odds and defeated low expectations just like you; pioneers and trailblazers who have all challenged stereotypes and emerged as leaders just like I know all of you will.
For example, people like Administrator Charles Bolden. He grew up in the segregated south and became a fighter pilot in the Marines, and then an astronaut. Administrator Bolden has orbited the Earth more than 400 times. Each time he broke away from gravity's hold, he shattered stereotypes. As the new head of NASA, the first African American to hold this post -- (applause) -- Administrator Bolden is going to lead our nation's exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond.
And then there are people like Dr. LaSalle Leffall who works right here at Howard University College of Medicine. (Applause.) He's a surgeon, an oncologist, an educator. The first African American to lead the American Cancer Society, Dr. Leffall has dedicated his career to educating people about cancer risks for minorities. And for more than 48 years, he has trained generations of doctors and surgeons and scientists who have become pioneers and leaders in their own right.
And then there are people like legendary jazz pianist Mr. Herbie Hancock. (Applause.) Let me tell you about Mr. Hancock. Maybe I don't know -- if they know about Herbie Hancock -- (laughter) -- but he was an engineering major at Grinnell College in Iowa at just 16 years old. And while Mr. Hancock's mind was meant for math, his soul was stirred by music, so he combined these two loves and created the first wave of hip hop music with the use of synthesizers and scratching. And last year, at the young age of 67, Mr. Hancock won the Grammy for Best Album of the Year. So, not bad for an old man. (Laughter and applause).
And then there are people like President Barack Obama -- (applause) -- this biracial kid with a funny name from Hawaii of all places -- (laughter) -- who was taught by his grandparents and his mother that with a good education and hard work, that anything is possible in this country.
See, at some point in all of these lives - Judge Sotomayor, Administrator Bolden, Dr. Leffall, Mr. Hancock, President Obama, and even me - we all felt a little like you might feel right now. We all had doubts. We all have doubts. We all heard nagging voices and sometimes we still do, asking us, will we be able to compete in this new arena? Will I fit in? Am I really ready?
But in the end, we were all more than ready. Judge Sotomayor is more than ready. Administrator Bolden is more than ready. Dr. Leffall, more than ready. Mr. Hancock, more than ready. I was more than ready. And Barack Obama certainly is more than ready. (Applause.) And graduates, I am here to tell you that you are more than ready. (Applause.)
You've got folks amongst you like graduate Alexander Allison, a Junior Reserve Officer -- listen to this -- who will attend Kansas State University to major in aviation technology. (Applause.) Maybe, Alexander, you will join Administrator Bolden at NASA and one day travel amongst the stars yourself. Alexander, you are more than ready.
Then there is graduate Jaren Davis, a biochemistry major at Georgetown. (Applause.) Maybe, Jaren, you will assume Dr. Leffall's life's work and discover the keys to an anti-cancer drug that destroys tumors without damaging healthy cells. Maybe that will be you, Jaren, because you are more than ready.
Then there is graduate Kristin Gray-Simon -- Simon -- did I get that right, Kristin? -- who will attend Howard this fall as a music major. (Applause.) Maybe you will combine your love of music with your math and science background and develop new therapies to maybe treat Alzheimers, autism, and other learning disabilities. Maybe you will use your skills like Herbie Hancock, because Kristin, you are more than ready.
And then we've got graduate LeJon Vines, former deputy youth mayor of Washington, D.C.'s. youth government and future English major at Sewanee University of the South. Maybe you will follow in Barack Obama's footsteps and provide your generation the change that they can believe in, because LeJon, guess what, you're more than ready.
To all of you graduates, you are more than ready to assume the mantle of leadership and become the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs, leaders and legends. So you know what, it's time to step up. Step up. It's time. No excuses. Right?
MRS. OBAMA: No excuses. Your future today is in your own hands. See, with this diploma, this education, the doors of opportunity are so open wide to you. Nothing is standing in your way. So it's up to you to make the most of what you've been given.
So here's some advice. When you set foot on the soil of whatever campus that has admitted you, understand that you are responsible for your own experiences. So what I want you to do is own your voice. Own it. Don't be intimidated by your new surroundings. Remember, everyone else is in the same position that you're in. Be an engaged and active participant in all of your classes. Never, ever sit in silence, ever. That first day, raise your hand, use your voice, ask a question. Don't be afraid to be wrong, don't be afraid to sound unclear, because understand this is the only way you'll learn. The only way your lecturers, your professors will know that they're getting to you is for you to speak up. And get to know your professors. Know every single one of them. Introduce yourself. Attend their office hours. Ask them for follow-up questions. Be in their face. Make sure they know who you are. And ask them to clarify anything that you don't understand. That's their job.
And remember, there's more to college than just studying. Parents, I know you don't want to hear that, but there is. (Laughter.) And I want you all to open yourselves up to the entire college experience. Make new friends. Learn about other people's cultures and experiences. Don't just hang out with people who make you feel good. Get to know some of the people that aren't like you. Try some different classes that sound a little intimidating. Learn a language. That's one thing both Barack and I regret -- that we don't know another language. Learn it. Read lots of books. That's one thing Barack Obama does all the time. He reads everything. Travel. Spend a semester abroad. You'll have those opportunities.
And challenge your mind to embrace the diversity of the world that we live in, because this world is so much smaller than this school, than this city, than the campus that you'll be on. This world is big.
And don't be guarded. Let people get to know you. Don't be afraid. Understand that your story, your experiences have value, and people need to hear them.
And if you struggle a little bit, so what? So what? It doesn't mean that you don't belong there. It just means that you have to work a little harder. Maybe a lot harder.
And as everyone has said here today, remember this day. Remember this day and remember all the hard work that went in to getting you to this moment. Don't ever let all that go to waste.
Having made it through tough times and getting to this point, having worked hard and fought hard to create something better for yourselves, having made the most of every opportunity so far that has come your way -- given all that -- just think, you should have more confidence, not less. More confidence, not less.
And no matter what happens, I want you to remember that you already have one of the greatest gifts as a young person that you can ever have. You have a parent or an adult in your life who believes in you.
So graduates of 2009, with a solid education foundation and a firm hold of your dreams, and with the support of your families and a willingness to work hard, I can assure you, you're more than ready. So get to work, and congratulations.
Thank you for having me. (Applause.)
Posted at 2:21 PM ET on Jun 3, 2009
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