An appearance by the First Lady at a commencement can add a healthy dose of prestige and attention to an event already filled with pomp and circumstance. In the case of the Spelman College ceremonies on Sunday, Michelle Obama delivered powerful words the graduates and their families could live by.
The First Lady spoke to the undergraduate class of 2011 at the Georgia International Convention Center in Atlanta. A large crowd of graduates, families, alumnae, and proud on-lookers cheered them on.
Mrs. Obama’s uplifting and empowering speech showcased Spelman’s history as a tiny school founded to help former slaves learn to read, write, and eventually become college-educated. She used the founders as an example of how graduates can find ways to overcome any obstacle, despite the odds.
“You have an obligation to see each setback as a challenge and as an opportunity to learn and grow. You have an obligation to face whatever life throws your way with confidence and with hope,” Mrs. Obama stressed to the graduates.
The First Lady also encouraged each of the women to reach back and help someone else who has lots of potential, but may not have the resources to fully achieve their goals.
“Wherever you go, I guarantee you that you will find folks who have been discounted or dismissed, but who have every bit as much promise as you have. They just haven’t had the chance to fulfill it,” she reminded the crowd.
“It is your obligation to bring Spelman to those folks -– to bring that same presumption of value and worth, to make that same kind of sacrifice, to be as ambitious for them as Spelman has been for you,” she added.
Mrs. Obama went on to describe her personal journey as a successful attorney who later gave up significant income to make an impact on her community through public service. She encouraged the graduates to pursue opportunities to give back wherever possible in the public or private sector.
Landing the First Lady as this year’s commencement speaker was not an easy feat for the private liberal-arts college in Atlanta. After lobbying by students, alumnae, and the school’s president, Dr. Beverly Tatum, Mrs. Obama agreed to the speak at the event. Her trip director, Kristen Jarvis, is also an alumnae of the college. The school’s history as only one of two universities in the U.S. dedicated to the education of African-American women was surely an additional selling point.
But, larger than the persistent invitation, Spelman College has always stressed community service and high achievement to all its students and alumnae. One of the First Lady’s self-described “heroines,” Marian Edelman Wright, was a 1960 graduate of the college. On Sunday, Mrs. Obama received an honorary law degree from the school.
Spelman College was one of four commencements where the First Lady will speak. She recently spoke in ceremonies at the University of Northern Iowa on May 8. This year, she will also address graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Quantico Middle High School. The latter is a group of 26 students whose parents serve at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia.