The novel coronavirus pandemic has upended plans, and life in general, for people around the world. Birthdays have turned into drive-by car parades, catching up with friends usually happens on Zoom, and plenty of high school and college upperclassmen had to take their proms and graduations digital in order to abide by social distancing guidelines. It’s undeniable that the class of 2020 is likely feeling bummed that they’re entering the world in a scary new normal. To help ease some of their worries, celebs and leaders from all over are coming together to remind them that it’s still worth celebrating their major achievement — even if the party looks a little different than they had anticipated.
Among those famous faces is former president Barack Obama, who gave two commencement addresses on Saturday, May 16. The first was delivered to graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), during the “Show Me Your Walk H.B.C.U. Edition” virtual commencement. The second, aimed at high school graduates, debuted later, and was part of the Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020 special, which was hosted by basketball legend LeBron James.
“Graduating from college is a big achievement under any circumstances,” the 44th United States president said in a video broadcast for “Show Me Your Walk.” “And so many of you overcame a lot to get here. You navigated challenging classes, and challenges outside the classroom. Many of you had to stretch to afford tuition. And some of you are the first in your families to reach this milestone. So even if half this semester was spent at Zoom University, you’ve earned this moment. You should be very proud.”
— UNCF (@UNCF) May 16, 2020
He also acknowledged that while HBCU grads were likely looking forward to turning up for their walk, “these aren’t normal times. You’re being asked to find your way in a world in the middle of a devastating pandemic and a terrible recession. The timing is not ideal.” He also pointed to the ways in which black American communities have been uniquely ravaged by the coronavirus crisis. “Let’s be honest — a disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country,” he said.
But Obama underscored the unique ways in which the collegiate class of 2020 is also primed to transform the world into a better, more just place. “If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you,” he said. “With everything suddenly feeling like it’s up for grabs, this is your time to seize the initiative. Nobody can tell you anymore that you should be waiting your turn. Nobody can tell you anymore “this is how it’s always been done.” More than ever, this is your moment — your generation’s world to shape.”
He imparted similar advice to high school graduates. “With all the challenges this country faces right now, nobody can tell you, ‘No, you’re too young to understand.’ Or, ‘This is how it’s always been done,'” he said in the Saturday evening broadcast. “Because with so much uncertainty, with everything suddenly up for grabs, this is your generation’s world to shape.”
— The Obama Foundation (@ObamaFoundation) May 17, 2020
The speech also acknowledged the disappointment that high school seniors must be feeling toward the sudden disruption in their plans, as well as the general uncertainty that surrounds whether many will be able to go to college in the fall, or find a job now that they’ve graduated. “You’re going to have to grow up faster than some generations,” he said — but the president’s speech was also infused with a shoutout to Netflix’s Tiger King, as well as some other good-natured jokes that have become the dad-in-chief’s signature, and helped make the tough reality of what today’s graduating seniors are facing a little less painful to swallow.
“Since I’m one of the old guys, I won’t tell you what to do with this power that rests in your hands,” Obama added. Instead, he offered up three pieces of advice to the Class of 2020 — don’t be afraid, do what you think is right, and build a community — that he hopes will serve them well.
“Be alive to one another’s struggles,” he said. “Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed. And set the world on a different path.”
Before you go, check out our gallery of other inspiring celebrity dads: