The following are excerpts from First Lady Michelle Obama’s commencement speech at Bowie State University on May 18.
On congratulating the graduates: “You don’t know how proud we all are of you.
Just look at you. We’re so proud of how hard you worked, all those long hours in the classroom, in the library. Oh, yeah. Amen. (Laughter.) All those jobs you worked to help pay your tuition. Many of you are the first in your families to get a college degree. (Applause.) Some of you are balancing school with raising families of your own. (Applause.) So I know this journey hasn’t been easy. I know you’ve had plenty of moments of doubt and frustration and just plain exhaustion.
But listen, you dug deep and you kept pushing forward to make it to this magnificent day.”
On the history of Bowie State: “As you all know, this school first opened its doors in January of 1865, in an African Baptist church in Baltimore. And by 1866, just a year later, it began offering education courses to train a new generation of African American teachers. Now, just think about this for a moment: 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 to within an inch of their lives.
Anyone — black or white — who dared to teach them could be fined or thrown into jail. And yet, just two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, this school was founded not just to educate African Americans, but to teach them how to educate others. It was in many ways an act of defiance, an eloquent rebuttal to the idea that black people couldn’t or shouldn’t be educated.”
On the hard road to educational freedom: “Many of these schools were little more than drafty log cabins with mud floors, leaky roofs and smoke-wood stoves in the corner. Blackboards, maps, and even books were considered luxuries. And both students and teachers faced constant threats from those who refuse to accept freedom for African Americans. In one Eastern Shore town, a teacher reported to work one morning to find that someone had smashed the windows of her schoolhouse. Other black schools across Maryland were burned to the ground.
Teachers received death threats. One was even beaten by an angry mob. But despite the risks, understand, students flocked to these schools in droves, often walking as many as eight to ten miles a day to get their education. In fact, the educational association that founded Bowie State wrote in their 1864 report that—and this is a quote—‘These people are coming in beyond our ability to receive them.’”
On educational apathy: “…More than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 50 years after the end of “separate but equal,” when it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can’t be bothered. Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper. (Applause.) Right now, one in three African American students are dropping out of high school. Only one in five African Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 has gotten a college degree — one in five.
On the need to focus on education: “People who earn a bachelor’s degree or higher make nearly three times more money than high school dropouts, and they’re far less likely to be unemployed. A recent study even found that African American women with a college degree live an average of six and a half years longer than those without. And for men, it’s nearly 10 years longer. So yes, people who are more educated actually live longer…We 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…It’s even in the words of your school song: “Oh Bowie State, dear Bowie State, may you forever be the flame of faith, the torch of truth to guide the steps of youth.” And that’s not just a lyric — it is a call to action. Many of you will answer that call by carrying on the proud Bowie State tradition of serving as teachers, devoting your careers to guiding the steps of the next generation.But for those of you who aren’t going into education, you’re not off the hook. Oh, no. Oh, no. No matter what career you pursue, every single one of you has a role to play as educators for our young people. So if you have friends or cousins or siblings who are not taking their education seriously, shake them up.
Go talk some sense into them. Get them back on track.”
Her goodbye: “And now it is up to all of you to carry that legacy forward, to be that flame of fate, that torch of truth to guide our young people toward a better future for themselves and for this country. And if you do that, and I know that you will, if you uphold that obligation, then I am confident we will build an even better future for the next generation of graduates from this fine school and for all of the children in this country because our lives depend on it. I wish you Godspeed, good luck. I love you all. Do good things. God bless.