Transcript of President Barack Obama's Commencement Address at Hampton University | Community Spirit
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I love you!
THE PRESIDENT: I love you back. (Applause.) That's why I'm here. I love you guys.
Good morning, everybody.
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AUDIENCE: Good morning.
THE PRESIDENT: To all the mothers in the house: As somebody who is surrounded by women in the White House -- (laughter) -- grew up surrounded by women, let me take a moment just to say thank you for all that you put up with each and every day. We are so grateful to you, and it is fitting to have such a beautiful day when we celebrate all our mothers. Thank you to Hampton for allowing me to share this special occasion -- to all the dignitaries who are here, the trustees, the alumni, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins -- that's a cousin over there. (Laughter).
Now, before we get started, I just want to say, I'm excited the Battle of the Real H.U. will be taking place in Washington this year. (Laughter.) You know I am not going to pick sides. (Laughter.) But my understanding is it's been 13 years since the Pirates lost. (Applause.) As one Hampton alum on my staff put it, the last time Howard beat Hampton, The Fugees were still together. (Laughter.)
Well, let me also say a word about President Harvey, a man who bleeds Hampton blue. In a single generation, Hampton has transformed from a small black college into a world-class research institution. (Applause.) And that transformation has come through the efforts of many people, but it has come through President Harvey's efforts, in particular, and I want to commend him for his outstanding leadership as well as his great friendship to me. (Applause.)
Most of all, I want to congratulate all of you, the Class of 2010. I gather that none of you walked across Ogden Circle. (Laughter.) You did? Okay.
You know, we meet here today, as graduating classes have met for generations, not far from where it all began, near that old oak tree off Emancipation Drive. I know my University 101. (Laughter and applause.) There, beneath its branches, by what was then a Union garrison, about 20 students gathered on September 17th, 1861. Taught by a free citizen, in defiance of Virginia law, the students were escaped slaves from nearby plantations, who had fled to the fort seeking asylum.
And after the war's end, a retired Union general sought to enshrine that legacy of learning. So with a collection from church groups, Civil War veterans, and a choir that toured Europe, Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute was founded here, by the Chesapeake ?- a home by the sea.
Now, that story is no doubt familiar to many of you. But it's worth reflecting on why it happened; why so many people went to such trouble to found Hampton and all our Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The founders of these institutions knew, of course, that inequality would persist long into the future. They were not naïve. They recognized that barriers in our laws, and in our hearts, wouldn't vanish overnight.
But they also recognized the larger truth; a distinctly American truth. They recognized, Class of 2010, that the right education might allow those barriers to be overcome; might allow our God-given potential to be fulfilled. They recognized, as Frederick Douglass once put it, that "education?means emancipation." They recognized that education is how America and its people might fulfill our promise. That recognition, that truth ?- that an education can fortify us to rise above any barrier, to meet any test ?- is reflected, again and again, throughout our history.
In the midst of civil war, we set aside land grants for schools like Hampton to teach farmers and factory-workers the skills of an industrializing nation. At the close of World War II, we made it possible for returning GIs to attend college, building and broadening our great middle class. At the Cold War's dawn, we set up Area Studies Centers on our campuses to prepare graduates to understand and address the global threats of a nuclear age.
So education is what has always allowed us to meet the challenges of a changing world. And Hampton, that has never been more true than it is today. This class is graduating at a time of great difficulty for America and for the world. You're entering a job market, in an era of heightened international competition, with an economy that's still rebounding from the worst crisis since the Great Depression. You're accepting your degrees as America still wages two wars ?- wars that many in your generation have been fighting.
And meanwhile, you're coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't always rank that high on the truth meter. And with iPods and iPads; and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- (laughter) -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it's putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.
Class of 2010, this is a period of breathtaking change, like few others in our history. We can't stop these changes, but we can channel them, we can shape them, we can adapt to them. And education is what can allow us to do so. It can fortify you, as it did earlier generations, to meet the tests of your own time.
And first and foremost, your education can fortify you against the uncertainties of a 21st century economy. In the 19th century, folks could get by with a few basic skills, whether they learned them in a school like Hampton, or picked them up along the way. As long as you were willing to work, for much of the 20th century, a high school diploma was a ticket into a solid middle class life. That is no longer the case.
Jobs today often require at least a bachelor's degree, and that degree is even more important in tough times like these. In fact, the unemployment rate for folks who've never gone to college is over twice as high as for folks with a college degree or more.
Now, the good news is you're already ahead of the curve. All those checks you or your parents wrote to Hampton will pay off. (Laughter.) You're in a strong position to outcompete workers around the world. But I don't have to tell you that too many folks back home aren't as well prepared. Too many young people, just like you, are not as well prepared. By any number of different yardsticks, African Americans are being outperformed by their white classmates, as are Hispanic Americans. Students in well-off areas are outperforming students in poorer rural or urban communities, no matter what skin color.