Obama Encourages Graduating Seniors in 2020 Commencement Speech

Former president Barack Obama’s 2020 commencement speech for high school seniors was live on television on May 16th.
Photo courtesy of NBC News.

Former president Barack Obama’s 2020 commencement speech for high school seniors was live on television on May 16th. Photo courtesy of NBC News.

Ashley Kim, Editor-in-Chief

On May 16th, former President Barack Obama gave a virtual commencement speech to the graduating high school class of 2020.  In his speech, Obama encouraged the rising generation to stay courageous and true in the face of uncertainty, especially considering the unrest caused by the global coronavirus pandemic.

The commencement speech was televised on a “Graduate Together” special, organized by XQ Institute, the LeBron James Family Foundation, and the Entertainment Industry Foundation.  The event also featured a variety of other public figures: Lakers basketball star LeBron James, activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, and Broadway actor Ben Platt.  The television special was a part of a movement to honor 2020’s graduation class in light of the interruption caused by COVID-19.

“This pandemic has shaken up the status quo and laid bare a lot of our country’s deep-seated problems,” Obama said.  He mentioned economic inequality, climate change, and the integrity of the American democracy.  Obama’s address was a call to action, setting responsibility on the shoulders of graduating students.

His speech also respectfully rebuked current leadership―in particular, President Donald Trump.

“Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy—that’s how little kids think,” Obama said.  “Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way.”

Still, Obama’s criticism of the Trump administration was in the context of encouragement and optimism.  According to him, despite the failings and crises the U.S. has been through, the nation has always prevailed with the resilience of young generations: “Young people like you learned from past mistakes and figured out how to make things better.”

His speech concluded with three pieces of advice: be brave, do what’s right, and build a community.  In the context of coronavirus, Obama implored the rising generation to stay strong and fight to create a better world.  “So be alive to one another’s struggles,” he urged.  “Stand up for one another’s rights.”

A graduating senior and viewer of Obama’s address, Eleah Kang (12), commented, “He was putting a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of young people, but it was still a message of encouragement.”

Others harbored more mixed feelings about the commencement address.  Encouragement has been running high for high school seniors this year.  However, Mae Trice (12) remarked, “It felt like some people genuinely cared about the senior class, while others just pitied us.”  She felt that the graduating class only received attention because of the circumstances.  However, Trice did agree with Obama’s message.

Ultimately, though the former president laid out a multitude of problems and obstacles, his speech was a rousing reminder to stay true, courageous, and strong.  His words were a passing of the mantle to the rising generation―an encouragement for young people to pick up responsibility and change the world for the better.