In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd to demand racial justice, and a slew of presidential primaries, former President Barack Obama addressed the Class of 2020 in a virtual commencement speech on Sunday afternoon.
The global commencement ceremony on YouTube, 'Dear Class of 2020,' also featured speeches and performances by Michelle Obama, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Malala Yousafzai, Condoleezza Rice, Lady Gaga, and more.
Originally scheduled for June 6, the address was rescheduled and streamed live on June 7 so that it would not conflict with honoring Floyd at his memorial service.
The ceremony was the third of three events planned to celebrate the Class of 2020. At the two other commencements, which were streamed on May 16, Barack Obama addressed Historically Black College and University graduates and high school graduates.
The trifecta of celebratory commencements came to fruition shortly after Eagle Rock High School graduating senior and incoming California State University, Los Angeles first-year Lincoln Debenham tweeted the request on April 14, which he said he was inspired to do after listening to the former president’s endorsement speech for former Vice President and Penn Presidential Professor of Practice Joe Biden.
“[Barack Obama] released a 10-minute video about not only Joe Biden as a candidate, but what I focused on was the state of America,” Debenham said in an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian. “He did highlight that things are dark right now, but he also gave a pretty hopeful message, and that reminded me of what an inspirational speaker he’s always been.”
The tweet quickly went viral, and prompted Barack Obama to announce the three celebrations on May 5.
The Sunday afternoon commencement ceremony interspersed musical numbers, clips of both college and high school students sharing their educational journeys, and inspirational speeches from celebrities. Some speeches, including from the Obamas, Beyoncé, and Lady Gaga, centered heavily on the country’s current racial climate.
“In a lot of ways, the pandemic just brought into focus problems that have been growing for a very long time,” Barack Obama said in the Sunday event. “Similarly, the protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Nina Pop aren't simply a reaction to those particular tragedies, as heartbreaking as they are. They speak to decades worth of anguish and frustration over unequal treatment, and a failure to reform police practices in the broader criminal justice system.”
“But that doesn’t mean we should feel hopeless, just the opposite," Michelle Obama added. "Because what we finally do have is focus.”
The former First Lady's message, in addition to her later statement that “life will always be uncertain,” resonated with 2020 College graduate Eren Ozer.
“I wanted to see that, as much as everyone else, these figures who have a lot of experience and a lot of moral integrity and authority also feel at least a little bit of uncertainty about the future,” Ozer said.
Yareqzy Munoz, a 2020 College graduate, tuned in to the ceremony hoping to gain advice from the speakers. In addition to appreciating the statement Barack Obama gave regarding police brutality, Munoz said she enjoyed the accompanying montages of graduates from around the world.
“You feel so alone in the graduation process [this year], even though you know that you’re not the only one graduating,” Munoz said. “The montage of students was so special, because you felt connected not just to your own graduating class at your specific school, but as part of a graduating class so much larger — nationally and globally.”
While she said the speech was hopeful and inspiring, she also said that Obama’s "job as a politician to appease all sides" came through, and was frustrating to hear as a young person hoping to see visible change in the country.
The former president used similar rhetoric in his previous two speeches on May 16, in which he touched upon the importance of using the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption of daily life as fuel to challenge the notion that only older generations and people in power have the tools needed to effect change.
“All those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? Turns out they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions. So, if the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you," Obama said.
Incoming College first-year Navraj Singh said he “disliked the message that adults have failed, so it's the next generation's turn to make a change and take control of the world,” adding that people in older generations still hold offices, while many members of his own generation still cannot vote.
Beyond this particular message, Singh said he enjoyed Barack Obama's speech, particularly his advice to meet and have difficult conversations with people who hold other beliefs. “I think that's a big lesson I'm going to have to learn, because I don't come from a very diverse community, and Penn is extremely diverse,” Singh said.
Incoming College first-year Rushil Vellala said Obama’s message resonated strongly with him, as it denounced narratives that children are too young to cultivate change, and inspired him to be positive about the future of society.
“I tuned in because, with all of the horrific things happening in our world today, I felt somewhat purposeless, in that I'm only a kid, and I probably don't have a say in these pertinent issues,” Vellala said. “But I felt like finally, I'm in a realm where I can be who I want to be without being discouraged, without being disheartened, and it's nice to know that there are people out there who value my opinion and guidance.”
Rising College senior Henry Platt, who performed in the May 16 high school special with his brothers Ben Platt and Jonah Platt, was similarly inspired by the former president's speech, even though he himself is not a graduate.
Reflecting upon the ceremonies, which had once just been a pipe dream, Debenham said it made him happy to see how well the events turned out.
“It felt pretty great to see it come to life,” Debenham said. “Social media is a really powerful tool, and this generation is definitely going to learn how to harness it better than anybody else.”
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