I had the honor of hearing President Obama speak to the Class of 2013. I wondered if he would keep the speech light and optimistic, or if he would address some of the tough issues facing the country that these students are about to encounter up-close as they enter the work force.
The President chose to focus his speech primarily on the topic of citizenship. He stressed to the new graduates that they must take an active role in their country’s government in order for it to succeed.
“Because we understand that this democracy is ours,” he said, “And as citizens, we understand that it’s not about what America can do for us; it’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government. And, Class of 2013, you have to be involved in that process.”
Many of these new graduates are Millennials who have grown up in a time of increasing partisan gridlock, political extremism, and a government that appears to be controlled by special interest groups and not the people they’re supposed to be representing. It’s not hard to see why this generation is reportedly becoming more cynical of government, with apathy overtaking passion. Even my generation is experiencing burnout from the growing inequality we’re witnessing and the inability of our elected officials to make any significant changes.
But who’s ultimately to blame for the failures of government? The politicians who ignore their constituents and play political games rather than work together for common good? Or is it the fault of private citizens who allow politicians like that to stay in power, because they don’t think that their vote matters, or don’t take the time to let their representatives know how they feel about issues, or don’t bother to find out what their representatives really stand for and check the box next to (R) or (D) out of habit?
Obama addressed this issue with the graduates, warning them:
“[W]hen we turn away and get discouraged and cynical, and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who will gladly claim it. that’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda; and policies detached from what middle-class families face every day; the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business — and then whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you don’t get. that’s how a small minority of lawmakers get cover to defeat something the vast majority of their constituents want.”
Notice the not-so-subtle dig at Congress about gun control and background checks in there? The audience certainly noticed and appreciated that nod. It was an important lesson to the Class of 2013 — if you want democracy to work for you, you must also work for it. Our system of government depends on citizens being actively involved in their government, using their voices and actions to shape the government the way the people – not the special-interests – want.
Obama did not use this speech to push for larger or smaller government, instead only asking the graduates to remember the responsibilities of being a citizen along with the rights granted to them. The importance of community was also stressed, referencing recent tragedies as examples of how Americans have shown they can come together as a community, with strangers joining to support each other in a common spirit of compassion and unity in our darkest times.
Along with asking for participation in government, he asked one other thing from the Class of 2013: to persevere. It’s a lesson we can all appreciate, young and old. In this age of instant gratification, it’s easy to get discouraged by failure. But rarely does any great accomplishment happen without a few bumps in the road. Or all-out failures. Obama reminded the audience that he lost his first race for Congress, yet stuck with his choice to be in electoral politics, and became President.
To young graduates currently feeling on top of the world, this was such an important message. The transition to the work world from college is often a bumpy road, leading many to question their abilities and their dreams. Even though the economy is improving, we know that graduates can’t expect a job as soon as they graduate. Success will come to those who don’t give up after that first rejection. Or the tenth rejection. The message was simple: failure isn’t a problem unless it keeps you from getting up and trying again.
The President’s own words on this were especially powerful:
“So you can’t give up your passion if things don’t work right away. You can’t lose heart, or grow cynical if there are twists and turns on your journey. The cynics may be the loudest voices — but I promise you, they will accomplish the least. It’s those folks who stay at it, those who do the long, hard, committed work of change that gradually push this country in the right direction, and make the most lasting difference.
“So whenever you feel that creeping cynicism, whenever you hear those voices saying you can’t do it, you can’t make a difference, whenever somebody tells you to set your sights lower — the trajectory of this great nation should give you hope. What generations have done before you should give you hope. Because it was young people just like you who marched and mobilized and stood up and sat in to secure women’s rights, and voting rights, and worker’s rights, and gay rights — often at incredible odds, often at great danger, often over the course of years, sometimes over the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime — and they never got acknowledged for it, but they made a difference.”
He ended his speech with one powerful challenge: do better, and dream bigger than those who have come before you. I can only imagine the overwhelming weight of that request on these young women and men as they heard those words spoken by the current President of the United States. But with the education they have achieved, and the support they’ve received from their families and communities, they have the tools to meet that challenge.
8,200 students were seated in front of the stage, awaiting their diplomas, with 8,200 dreams ahead of them. I hope that President Obama’s words affected not only those 8,200 personal dreams, but also each person’s sense of community, reminding them that by working together we can all achieve even more than we can individually.
I also hope that those family members in attendance took the message to heart as well. As someone who received her first college degree fifteen years ago, today’s message still held relevance: be a responsible citizen and member of my community, keep dreaming big, and don’t give up. A good lesson for any student, young or old.
Contributor Christina McMenemy is a technical writer, registered nurse, mom of two, and self-professed geek. She can be found on Twitter at @mommystory. She blogs about parenting, autism, healthy living and more at her personal blog, A Mommy Story. Christina lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband, two daughters, and a goofy dog named Cosmo.
Image courtesy Christina McMenemy.