Obama also asked students to help instill that hunger in younger generations.
"Today, I stand before a sea of young geniuses. Oh, yeah," said First Lady Michelle Obama in her commencement speech to the graduates of Dillard University in New Orleans on May 10. "And you should be so proud, and so happy, and so excited about your futures. But what you shouldn’t be is satisfied."
Throughout her remarks, which included several references to the HBCU's history and its legacy, the enormous sacrifices of those who fought for educational opportunities for Blacks in Louisiana and the obstacles that even some of the graduates overcame to get to their big day, the first lady stressed how important education is. She also urged them to not lose their hunger for higher education and to help others reach that goal, despite many ongoing challenges in African-American and other communities, such as "structural inequality, schools that lag behind, workplace and housing discrimination."
"That’s still no excuse to stand on the sidelines. Because we know that today, education is still the key to real and lasting freedom — it is still true today," Obama said. "So it is now up to us to cultivate that hunger for education in our own lives and in those around us."
The first lady also noted the sacrifice and enormous risks young people around the world have been willing to take to get an education, like the 16-year-old Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who was nearly assassinated for her advocacy, and the Nigerian girls who've been abducted by an extremist group that vehemently opposes education.
"That's the kind of hunger for education we have to reignite in all of our communities," Obama told the audience. "When our young people fall behind in school, they fall behind in life."
She recalled how her own mother volunteered every day at her school and never feared to hold teachers accountable if she felt they were falling short, which for a child was "a bit mortifying," but which as an adult the first lady realizes helped ensure that she and her classmates got a better education.
"So just imagine the kind of impact that you’re going to make. Imagine how you can inspire those around you to reach higher and complete their own education," Obama said. "And you can start small. Start by volunteering at an after-school program, or helping some high school kids fill out their college applications. Show them the path that you took. Or you can think a little bigger — you can get your entire congregation or your community to start a mentoring program; maybe convince your new employer to sponsor scholarships for underprivileged kids. Or maybe you could think a little higher — maybe you could run for school board or Congress, or, yes, even president of the United States."
On a lighter note, the first lady, who was presented an honorary degree by the university, also took her first commencement selfie with senior class president Nicole Tinson. Tinson, who is heading to Yale this fall to pursue graduate studies, was responsible for convincing Obama to deliver the 2014 commencement address. Her presence, the younger woman said, would show that HBCUs still matter.
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter @BETpolitichick.
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(Photo: Jonathan Bachman/AP Photo)