During one of the most momentous Tuskegee University commencement ceremonies in the institution’s history, United States first lady Michelle Obama addressed the Class of 2015. Obama, one of the most recognizable female figures in the world, is only the second first lady to visit the university. She delivered words of encouragement and perseverance to more than 500 participants during today’s Spring Commencement Services.
“After today, all of you will take your spot in the long line of men and women who have come here and distinguished themselves and this university,” Obama said as she looked over the grads crowded on the floor of Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Arena.
Drawing from her personal experiences and Tuskegee history, Obama shared stories about how she and other African-Americans overcame stereotypes and adversity. She stressed the importance of being a person who rises above misconceptions and paves the way for others such as the Tuskegee Airmen.
“When they hit the ground, folks treated them like they were nobody. Now, those Airmen could have easily let that experience clip their wings,” she said. “But as you all know, instead of being defined by the discrimination and the doubts of those around them, they became one of the most successful pursuit squadrons in our military.”
Obama said that generations of Tuskegee’s students have shown they have the same tenacity and “grit” as the Airmen and other trailblazers linked to the university. She charged the Class of 2015 with taking up the cause of advancing the progress of African-Americans.
She also cautioned the graduates against becoming overwhelmed by the pressure of helping to pave the way. She said she understands the scrutiny, doubts and the stress that can come with being a trailblazer. Obama said she faced many misplaced assumptions and questions about her personality before becoming first lady. She said the she finally reconciled to not be what others wanted her to be.
“We need you to channel the magic of Tuskegee toward the challenges of today,” Obama said.
“At the end of the day, by staying true to the me I always known, I have found that this journey is incredibly freeing,” she said of being first lady.
She said she could only have faith in God’s plan for her life, block out the noise of others, and do the work that she truly cares about. She advised the graduates to do the same.
“I want you all to stay true to the most real, most sincere, most authentic parts of yourselves,” Obama said. “I want you to act with both your mind, but also your heart. No matter what path you choose, I want you to make sure it’s you choosing it and not someone else.”
Before her address and being introduced by Dr. Brian L. Johnson, Tuskegee University’s seventh president, Obama was presented with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.
“You’re genuinely true to your values. You’re genuinely true to your principles. You inspire the world,” Johnson said before giving Obama the degree.