Commentary: A Message for Graduates

Five tips for the class of 2013.

Posted: 05/24/2013 01:03 PM EDT

President Obama delivered the commencement address at Morehouse College and First Lady Michelle Obama did the same at Bowie State University. It was a moment our ancestors could only have dreamed about — a Black president and a Black first lady speaking at the graduation ceremonies at historically Black colleges and universities.

The two speeches caused some controversy, as some critics complained the president and first lady were essentially telling young Black kids to shut up and stop making excuses for racism. Other critics noted that President Obama went out of his way to acknowledge the presence of Black gay men at Morehouse but said nothing about the incarceration of young black men in the nation's prisons.

Unfortunately, the critics missed the point. This was a historic moment for African-Americans, and the message delivered by the first couple was directed at a relatively privileged group the president himself admitted was part of W.E.B. DuBois's "'talented tenth' — a class of highly educated, socially conscious leaders in the black community."

President Obama told that group: "I want you to set your sights higher." That's the crux of his speech. It was not a speech on race, as some tried to describe it. It was a graduation speech. It was an inspirational call to overcome life's obstacles and give something back to the community. That's what graduation speeches do.

I know. I speak at a lot of college campuses, and students always ask me the same questions. They ask about law school and college majors. And they ask how to break into a career in broadcasting, journalism or politics. No matter where I go, I always get the same questions, and I always give the same advice. So with that in mind, I would like to add to the president's remarks with a few words of my own to graduates.

First, just do it. Don't spend a lot of time trying to figure out the right way to do what you want to do. Often there is no one right way. You have to make your own. Just start doing it. If you want a job in a field you can't break into, try an internship. If that doesn't work, offer to work for free. If you can't do that, create your own way to get started. Just get your foot in the door and do something.

Second, do you. Don't follow what everyone else is doing. That road is way too crowded. Take risks. You'll have much more success and much more happiness if you throw yourself into your own dreams, not someone else's.

Third, don't stop learning. The world is always changing and you could easily fall behind if you don't keep up. Try new things. Travel to different places. Continue to meet new people. Open your mind to new ideas. In today's competitive global economy, you have to stay relevant and continue to explore new options as you grow. Learning is a lifelong experience. It doesn't stop after graduation.

Fourth, give back. No matter how smart, hard-working or talented you are, you got here because somebody else helped you along the way. Nobody does it alone, so don't think you did it all by yourself. That's why you should return the favor and help someone else along the way. I'm not just talking about helping your family, although that's a good place to start. But use your talents and skills to help make your community, not just your household, a better place.

Fifth and finally, it's all about love. Avoid the cynics who try to tear down your dreams and recruit you to join their ranks. Do what you love. Love who you want. And no matter how many heartbreaks you experience in life, don't be afraid to give love or to be loved. As the old song says, "the greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return."

Remember this advice as you move out in the world, but don't forget to take a moment to celebrate what you've done. After all the early morning classes, all the late night cram sessions, all the boring lectures, all the days when you were broke, all the times when you were happy and all the moments you didn't know how you would make it through, you survived, and no doubt you've grown. We're all proud of you. Now go live your life.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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