Michelle Obama at Bowie State: Be Examples of Excellence

The first lady urges African-Americans to have a hunger for education.

Posted: 05/17/2013 03:45 PM EDT

First Lady Michelle Obama urged the 600 members of the graduating class at Bowie State University to be "an example of excellence for the next generation" and to live up to the legacy of the university's founders.

“Just think about this for a moment — for generations, in many parts of this country, it was illegal for black people to get an education,” Obama told the crowd of several thousand who turned out to hear her speak Friday morning. “Slaves caught reading or writing could be beaten within an inch of their lives.”

The first lady recalled the risks that more modern-day African-Americans have made to get a decent education, such as the Little Rock Nine, who for months faced abuse every day, and praised their hunger to learn and succeed.

Citing the school dropout rate among African-Americans and the low level of college enrollment, Obama lamented that today too many Black students "can't be bothered" and are not realistic about their options.

"Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they're sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they're fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper," she said to applause.

She urged African-Americans to have the same hunger for education as those who, years ago, risked their safety and in some cases their lives to get one and to "reject the slander that says a Black child with a book is trying to act white."

"We need to start feeling that hunger again," she said. "We need to once again fight to educate ourselves and our children like our lives depend on it, because they do."

Obama also pointed out the benefits of a higher education, noting that people who have at least a bachelor's degree earn three times more income than high school dropouts. And, she added, education is also good for the health and African-American women and men with degrees live a respective six-and-a-half and ten years longer than those without.

Obama delivered the second of the three commencement speeches she will give this year at Comcast Center on the campus of the University in Maryland in College Park because the crowd was so large, marking the first time the historically Black university has held its graduation ceremony off campus.

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(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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