President Obama at Hampton University

The President:
Thank you. (applause) Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you, Hampton. Thank you, Class of 2010. (cheering and applause) Please, everybody,
please have a seat. Audience Member:
I love you! The President:
I love you back. (cheering) That’s why I’m here. I love you guys. Good morning, everybody. 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
our 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. Globally, it’s not even close. In 8th grade science
and math, for example, American students are ranked
about 10th overall compared to top-performing countries. But African Americans are ranked
behind more than 20 nations, lower than nearly every
other developed country. So all of us have a
responsibility, as Americans, to change this; to offer every
single child in this country an education that will make them
competitive in our knowledge economy. That is our obligation
as a nation. (applause) But I have to say,
Class of 2010, all of you have a
separate responsibility. To be role models for your
brothers and sisters. To be mentors in
your communities. And, when the time comes,
to pass that sense of an education’s value
down to your children, a sense of personal
responsibility and self-respect. To pass down a work ethic and an
intrinsic sense of excellence that made it possible
for you to be here today. So, allowing you to compete in
the global economy is the first way your education
can prepare you. But it can also prepare
you as citizens. With so many voices clamoring
for attention on blogs, and on cable, on talk radio,
it can be difficult, at times, to sift through it all;
to know what to believe; to figure out who’s telling
the truth and who’s not. Let’s face it, even some of the
craziest claims can quickly gain traction. I’ve had some experience
in that regard. Fortunately, you will be well
positioned to navigate this terrain. Your education has honed
your research abilities, sharpened your
analytical powers, given you a context for
understanding the world. Those skills will come in handy. But the goal was always to
teach you something more. Over the past four years, you’ve
argued both sides of a debate. You’ve read novels and histories
that take different cuts at life. Audience Member:
Amen! The President:
You’ve discovered — see,
I got a little “Amen” there, somebody — (laughter) — you’ve discovered interests you didn’t know you had. You’ve made friends who didn’t
grow up the same way you did. You’ve tried things
you’d never done before, including some things we won’t
talk about in front of your parents. (laughter) All of this, I hope, has had the
effect of opening your mind; of helping you understand what
it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes. But now that your
minds have been opened, it’s up to you to
keep them that way. It will be up to you to open
minds that remain closed that you meet along the way. That, after all, is the
elemental test of any democracy: whether people with differing
points of view can learn from each other, and work
with each other, and find a way forward together. And I’d add one
further observation. Just as your education
can fortify you, it can also fortify
our nation, as a whole. More and more, America’s
economic preeminence, our ability to outcompete
other countries, will be shaped not
just in our boardrooms, not just on our factory
floors, but in our classrooms, and our schools, at
universities like Hampton. It will be determined
by how well all of us, and especially our parents,
educate our sons and daughters. What’s at stake is more than
our ability to outcompete other nations. It’s our ability to make
democracy work in our own nation. Now, years after he left office,
decades after he penned the Declaration of Independence,
Thomas Jefferson sat down, a few hours’ drive from
here, in Monticello, and wrote a letter to
a longtime legislator, urging him to do
more on education. And Jefferson gave one
principal reason — the one, perhaps, he
found most compelling. “If a nation expects to be
ignorant and free,” he wrote, “it expects what never
was and never will be.” What Jefferson recognized, like
the rest of that gifted founding generation, was that
in the long run, their improbable experiment
— called America — wouldn’t work if its
citizens were uninformed, if its citizens were apathetic,
if its citizens checked out, and left democracy who those — to those who didn’t have the best interests of all
the people at heart. It could only work if each of
us stayed informed and engaged; if we held our
government accountable; if we fulfilled the
obligations of citizenship. The success of their
experiment, they understood, depended on the participation
of its people — the participation of
Americans like all of you. The participation of all those
who have ever sought to perfect our union. I had a great honor of
delivering a tribute to one of those Americans last week, an
American named Dorothy Height. (applause) And as you probably know, Dr.
Height passed away the other week at the age of 98. One of the speakers at this
memorial was her nephew who was 88. And I said that’s a sign of a
full life when your nephew is 88. Dr. Height had been on the
firing line for every fight from lynching to desegregation to the
battle for health care reform. She was with Eleanor Roosevelt
and she was with Michelle Obama. She lived a singular life;
one of the giants upon whose shoulders I stand. But she started
out just like you, understanding that to make
something of herself, she needed a college degree. So, she applied to Barnard College — and she got in. Except, when she showed up, they
discovered she wasn’t white as they had believed. And they had already given their
two slots for African Americans to other individuals. Those slots, two, had
already been filled. But Dr. Height was
not discouraged. She was not deterred. She stood up, straight-backed,
and with Barnard’s acceptance letter in hand, she marched
down to New York University, and said, “Let me in.” And she was admitted right away. I want all of you to think
about this, Class of 2010, because you’ve gone through
some hardships, undoubtedly, in arriving to
where you are today. There have been some hard
days, and hard exams, and you felt put upon. And undoubtedly you will face
other challenges in the future. But I want you to think
about Ms. Dorothy Height, a black woman, in 1929, refusing
to be denied her dream of a college education. Refusing to be
denied her rights. Refusing to be
denied her dignity. Refusing to be denied
her place in America, her piece of America’s promise. Refusing to let any barriers
of injustice or ignorance or inequality or unfairness
stand in her way. (applause) That refusal to
accept a lesser fate; that insistence on a better
life, that, ultimately, is the secret not only of
African American survival and success, it has been the secret
of America’s survival and success. (applause) So, yes, an education can
fortify us to meet the tests of our economy, the tests
of our citizenship, and the tests of our times. But what ultimately
makes us American, quintessentially American, is
something that can’t be taught — a stubborn insistence
on pursuing our dreams. It’s the same insistence that
led a band of patriots to overthrow an empire. That fired the passions of union
troops to free the slaves and union veterans to found
schools like Hampton. That led foot-soldiers the same
age as you to brave fire-hoses on the streets of Birmingham
and billy clubs on a bridge in Selma. That led generation after
generation of Americans to toil away, quietly, your parents
and grandparents and great-grandparents and
great-great grandparents, without complaint, in the hopes
of a better life for their children and grandchildren. That is what makes
us who we are. A dream of brighter days ahead,
a faith in things not seen, a belief that here,
in this country, we are the authors
of our own destiny. That is what Hampton
is all about. And it now falls to
you, the Class of 2010, to write the next great
chapter in America’s story; to meet the tests
of your own time; to take up the ongoing work of
fulfilling our founding promise. I’m looking forward to watching. Thank you, God bless you, and
may God bless the United States of America. (applause)

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