Students at two historically black colleges received send-offs they will never forget courtesy of President and First Lady Obama. Over the weekend, the President spoke to more than a thousand students at Virginia's Hampton University and the First Lady addressed nearly 270 grads at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Their speeches were distinct in tone but unified in their hopeful message.
This was the first time either of them had addressed a historically black college and it couldn't have come at a better time. The Obamas did their best to offer words of encouragement to students who must feel a bit ambivalent about launching into a workforce that is far from welcoming. With the black unemployment rate in the double digits, the new grads' hopeful aspirations will be tempered by harsh realities once they leave the safety of their campus cocoons.
The First Couple drew inspiration from those early students who bravely dared to pursue education during a time when slavery had barely begun to loosen its grip. The President talked about Hampton's founders saying, "They recognized, as Frederick Douglass once put it, that education means emancipation. They recognized that education is how America and its people might fulfill our promise." Similarly, Mrs. Obama evoked the legacy of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's first seven students. She said, "If those seven students could have the audacity to take their place here 135 years ago, if they could insist on fulfilling their God-given potential and staking their claim on the promise of this great nation, then surely, all of you can too."
But the risky job climate was not lost on the President and First Lady. It was the elephant in the room and nobody was ignoring it. President Obama encouraged students to use their education like a weapon to meet the challenges of today."You’re entering the job market, in an era of heightened international competition, with an economy that’s still rebounding from the worst crisis since the Great Depression." The First Lady also acknowledged that tough times lie ahead but told students, “Whenever you get discouraged — and you will, when you start to lose heart and you want to give up — and you will, I want you to think about all those who came before you."
These commencement addresses were more than mere pep talks like those given to soldiers before they enter battle. The Obamas left graduates with a set of challenges to meet. The President enlisted students to become role models for their peers back home and to help close the education gap that looms over our community. "All of us have a responsibility, as Americans, to change this," the President said. "to offer every child in this country an education that will make them competitive in our knowledge economy." Mrs. Obama told students not to rest on their new degrees but bring others with them along the way. She said, "Plenty of folks who've been raised in privilege have gone on to change the world because they had the discipline and drive to set high expectations for themselves, to use their resources to meet those expectations - and to pull others up along the way."
Back in 1991, President H.W. Bush was the featured speaker at Hampton University's commencement. But this time, the nation's first African American president walked away with a gift for his time and effort. President Obama received a seedling from a tree on Hampton's campus which served as a meeting place where escaped slaves learned to read and write. Obama promises to plant that seedling at the White House, a fitting tribute for someone is now planting seeds of hope in the hearts of the newest crop of young black leaders, the Class of 2010.