By Sarah Hainesworth
First lady Michelle Obama delivered a message of personal responsibility and self-determination to the graduating class of Bowie State University on May 17 during commencement exercises at the Comcast Center.
In her keynote address, Obama exhorted the 600 graduates to use their degrees to make the world a better place not only for themselves but for future generations. She emphasized the importance of the occasion by placing it in the context of the historically black university's legacy as a bridge between slavery and freedom.
"That is the story of Bowie State University, the commitment to educating our next generation and building ladders of opportunity for anyone willing to work for it," Obama told the estimated 14,000 people gathered in the arena in College Park.
"All of you are now part of that story. And with that tremendous privilege comes an important set of responsibilities --- responsibilities that you inherit the moment you leave this stadium with that diploma in your hand," she said.
Obama reminded the graduates, faculty and administrators proudly swathed in colorful academic robes, hoods, stoles and honor cords that at one time they would have had to steal away to dark dirt-floored school rooms lit by candles and warmed by potbelly stoves.
“For generations, in many parts of this country, it was illegal for black people to get an education. Slaves caught reading or writing could be beaten. Anyone black or white, who dared to teach them could be fined or thrown into jail,” she said.
Today’s generation of students, Obama said, "need to dig deep and find the same kind of grit and determination that drove those first students at this school and generations of students who came after them.”
The first lady associated grit and determination with graduates Ariel Williams-Edwards and Audrey Lugmayer. Williams-Edwards used her own life experience to influence her decision to major in social work and help others like herself. Lugmayer maintained a 4.0 GPA while working a full time job and caring for her ailing father.
Obama related her own college experience to the BSU graduates when she explained that she had to take out loans for school. “When it came time for my brother and I to go to college, most of our tuition came from student loans and grants.”
A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Obama also expressed gratitude toward her parents for making sure that she was able to attend college.
“My parents didn’t go to college but they were determined to give us that opportunity,” she said. “There is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about the sacrifices that my mom and dad made for me. There is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about living up to the example they set.”
Turning her attention away from the graduating class, Obama spoke directly to the parents of the next generation of college graduates imploring them to take control of the media images in their children's lives.
"And when it comes to your own kids, if you don't like what they're watching on TV, turn it off. If you don't like the video games they're playing, take them away. Take a stand against the media that elevates today's celebrity gossip instead of the serious issues of our time. Take a stand against the culture that glorifies instant gratification instead of hard work and lasting success," she said to rousing applause.
Obama generated thunderous applause and shouts when she apparently affirmed what thousands in the crowd already knew: "And as my husband has said often, please stand up and reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white. Reject that."