By Sarah Hogsed
Register News Writer
Touching on her own college experiences, First Lady Michelle Obama urged Eastern Kentucky University graduates to live a life of service while building on valuable character traits that will benefit the entire nation.
Obama visited Richmond as the featured speaker for EKU’s evening commencement. She chose to speak at the ceremony because of the university’s recognized commitment to serving student military veterans.
Eastern graduated 2,407 students Saturday in three ceremonies throughout the day. The evening ceremony was President Doug Whitlock’s last commencement as the university’s leader, and he was given the title of president emeritus by the board of regents.
Also at the ceremony, 14 graduates of the ROTC program were commissioned as second lieutenants in the United States Army.
When she appeared on stage at Alumni Coliseum, Obama was met with a lengthy standing ovation and loud cheers and whistles that continued for more than a minute.
Starting her speech with a rousing “Go Colonels!”, Obama noted how many students had stood up earlier when they were recognized as first-generation college graduates in their families.
“For so many of you, I know that graduating from college was not a foregone conclusion,” Obama said.
She said with pride that her working-class parents did everything they could to support her college dreams. Although they did not have much money, the values they instilled in her were a much greater gift.
The First Lady recognized graduates’ parents who had given the same gift to the young men and women that were receiving degrees Saturday.
To highlight the importance of developing key values, skills and talents, Obama posed three questions to the graduates.
“Who do you want to be?”
Obama asked the graduates how they would react to the difficult times in life – failing to get that dream job, having students who don’t respond to lessons or a boss who sets seemingly unattainable goals.
“These are the moments that define us — not the day you get the promotion, not the day you win teacher of the year, but the times that force you to claw and scratch and fight just to get through the day,” Obama said. “The moments when you get knocked down and you’re wondering whether it’s even worth it to get back up.”
The First Lady said a growing body of research has shown that character traits like resilience and conscientiousness matter more for overall success than IQ or test scores.
“How will you serve others?”
Obama recognized EKU’s “extraordinary culture of service” and the fact the school awards college credit for military experience.
“But graduates, you can’t stop serving once you leave here,” the First Lady said.
She also touched on the strong role EKU has played in veterans’ lives with her third question to graduates.
“Who will you include in your lives?”
Obama asked the audience to imagine what it would be like to go from combat to attending classes on a college campus. She noted it can be an isolating experience, but EKU has worked hard to make veterans a part of the “vibrant” campus community.
“As you move on, you’re going to come across all kinds of people from all different places and faiths and walks of life,” Obama said. She urged the graduates to reach out to those who are different than them.
“That’s what’s always made this country great — embracing the diversity of experience and opinion that surrounds us everywhere we go,” the First Lady said.
She told students if they engage others with an open mind and open heart, “I guarantee you’ll learn something.”
“So you can either choose to use those opportunities to continue fighting the fights that we’ve been locked in for decades, or you can choose to reject those old divisions and embrace folks with a different point of view,” she said.
The answers to the three questions are key values that will move businesses, schools and the country forward, Obama said in the conclusion of her speech.
“They’re the values you learned from your parents, from the communities you grew up in,” Obama said. “They’re the skills you developed here at EKU as you worked so hard to make it to this day.”
The First Lady ended her speech by telling students they can go anywhere they choose in life.
“So be proud, and never, ever doubt yourselves,” she said. “Walk boldly on that road ahead, no matter where it takes you. And please spread those values everywhere you go. We need it more than ever before.”