First Lady Michelle Obama Addresses Graduates at Spring Commencement

Michelle Obama photo

United States First Lady Michelle Obama came not with answers but with questions for the Eastern Kentucky University degree candidates she addressed at spring commencement today.

The first was “Who are you going to be?”

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Explaining that it will be their response to adversity, their resilience and determination that defines them, the First Lady told the graduates, “If you’re willing to dig deep, if you’re willing to pick yourself up when you fall, if you’re willing to work and work until your weaknesses become your strengths, you’ll develop a set of skills that you can mold and apply to any situation you encounter, any job you might have, any crisis you may confront.”

Then, she said, the graduates must ask themselves how they can take the skills and experiences they’ve gained and use them to serve others.

“We’re all called to give back to those around us,” she said. “All you have to do is take a look around your own community. We can all find a way to open our arms and welcome folks around us into our lives and communities.”

Mrs. Obama’s third question to the graduates was “Who are you going to include in your life?”

“As you move on, you’re going to come across all kinds of people from all different places and faiths and walks of life,” she said. “You can choose to pass them by without a word, or you can choose to reach out to them, no matter who they are or where they come from or what ideas they might have. That’s what’s always made this country great – embracing the diversity of experience and opinion that surrounds us everywhere we go.

“If you honestly engage with an open mind and open heart, I guarantee you’ll learn something. And goodness knows we need more of that, because we know what happens when we only talk to people who think like we do.”

In the day’s final ceremony, the First Lady addressed graduates from the Colleges of Business & Technology and Education, as well as a sprinkling of graduates from the University’s three other academic colleges. Mrs. Obama, who also received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University and was greeted on several occasions by thunderous applause, selected EKU among three commencement speech visits this year as part of her Joining Forces initiative to assist military families.

Eastern has received national recognition in recent years for its commitment to helping veterans further their education. Home to more than 1,200 veterans and dependents, EKU earned a No. 1 national ranking in 2012 and 2012 from Military Times EDGE magazine in its annual “Best for Vets” issue.

Other keynote speakers at EKU’s Spring Commencement were Dr. Charles Wethington, former president of the University of Kentucky, and author and educator Silas House, both of whom earned undergraduate degrees at Eastern. Across three ceremonies, EKU recognized a total of 2,428 degree candidates: 1,806 bachelor’s degree candidates, 490 master’s degree candidates, 115 associate degree candidates, 10 specialist degree candidates, and seven doctoral degree candidates.

Wethington, who addressed candidates from the Colleges of Health Sciences and Justice & Safety in the morning ceremony, said: “More than ever before, the world we live in will require critical thinkers to handle an ever-changing set of questions. We need individuals who can analyze, evaluate and interpret information quickly and correctly, individuals who are flexible and who can react to a changing set of circumstances, and individuals who listen and can communicate efficiently and effectively.”

“Eastern Kentucky University has given you a good base to do these things,” he continued. “But to do this successfully will require continued learning and interaction. Take the time to explore new technology, new ideas, new ways of doing things.

“No matter where you go, continue your education. Keep your eyes open to the world and always see in others what they are capable of being and becoming.”

House, addressing graduates from the College of Arts and Sciences in the afternoon ceremony, House urged the graduates, as they begin their careers, “to keep your mind open, to be accepting, to love others for exactly who they are.

“Our world is so fractured at this moment, and I think that one thing that feeds so much of the hatred in the world is the current state of disrespect that people so freely spew to one another. While our new global and digital world has allowed us access to things we only dreamed of twenty years ago, the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle have divided us as much as united us.

“We all have to be a part of changing the climate of disrespect,” House added. “We must all be revolutionaries. I ask you to be a guardian for others. I ask you not only to make sure that you respect everyone but that you demand that others do the same.” 

Wethington received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree and House an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.

Speaking on behalf of their graduating classes were Kayla Lee, Frankfort; Allison Miller, Clarksville, Tenn.; and Candace Moberly, Berea. Kristina Hamon, of Frankfort, received the President’s Outstanding Senior Award.

Published on May 11, 2013