Obama to Class of 2020 graduates from historically black universities: ‘You’re all role models now’

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted the lives of students around the world, but the college Class of 2020 may have felt those impacts harshest of all — making them the class of Covid-19

The Class of 2020 has been forced to quickly pack their lives into boxes and car trunks, rush their goodbyes to friends and professors and begin their professional careers during one of the most hostile labor markets in the history of the United States. 

They also will go without traditional graduation ceremonies, and many are mourning the loss of traditional milestones that generations before have enjoyed. 

In order to recognize the accomplishments of the Class of 2020, President Barack Obama spoke during a virtual celebration for the roughly 27,000 graduates from the country’s 78 historically black colleges and universities. 

“Congratulations to HBCU Class of 2020! Michelle and I are so proud of you,” said the former president during the two-hour “Show Me Your Walk H.B.C.U. Edition” event, which was sponsored by JPMorgan Chase.

“Graduating from college is a big achievement under any circumstances, and so many of you overcame a lot to get here. You navigated challenging classes and challenges outside the classroom, many of you had to stretch to afford tuition and some of you are the first in your families to reach this milestone,” he said. “So even if half the semester was spent at ‘Zoom University,’ you’ve earned this moment. You should be very proud.”

Obama also addressed the uniquely difficult circumstances that HBCU graduates face, referencing the pandemic’s impact on black communities as well as the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot by two white men while jogging.

“You’re being asked to find your way in a world, in the middle of a devastating pandemic and a terrible recession. The timing is not ideal and let’s be honest, a disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country,” he said. “We see it in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our communities, just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning.”

The former president went on to give students three pieces of advice: to address challenges in their own communities, to build bridges with others and to be role models.

“You’re all role models now, whether you like it or not,” said Obama. “Your participation in this democracy, your courage to stand up for what’s right, your willingness to forge coalitions — these actions will speak volumes. And if you’re inactive, that will also speak volumes.”

He continued, “You’ve earned your degree. It’s now up to you to use it.”

The speech marked Obama’s first public address during the pandemic but not his first time addressing HBCU graduates. While in office, he delivered the commencement addresses at Hampton University, Howard University and Morehouse College — three historically black schools.

Many others spoke during the event celebrating HBCU graduates, including comedian Kevin Hart, athlete Chris Paul, musician Common and Senator Kamala Harris.

“I know this is a trying time, but please do not let the moment of this crisis dampen your ambitions, your hopes or your dreams, because your country needs you. Your country needs your talent, needs your drive and needs your determination,” said Senator Harris, who attended Howard University. “And I want you to remember please, that you are never alone and that your HBCU family will always be with you. So congratulations graduate, we are so proud of you”

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