When Michelle Obama took the stage at Oregon State University’s commencement yesterday, the crowd–packed into the football stadium, eating popcorn, snapping photos of their grads in the processional, and running the wave as Pomp and Circumstance bellowed–paused, then rose to their feet and erupted into applause.
Her black graduation gown and blue-orange hood, while admittedly not her best sartorial ensemble, made her right at place with the near-5,000 graduates in matching attire.
In her third university graduation speech this spring, the First Lady demonstrated again why the American people take to her so well. When Oregon State University awarded her an honorary degree, she clutched her diploma and flashed a beaming, genuine smile to the crowd. When she turned the attention back to what she called the “stars” of the day–the class of 2012–shouting, “GO BEAVS!!!” you couldn’t help but cheer. Her notably un-political presence–she didn’t mention her husband or his campaign even once in the entire speech–endeared her to the crowd, unifying 30,000 audience members of varying political backgrounds under a message drawn from childhood experiences and values instilled by her parents.
Here, my transcription of her advice to the class of 2012 on living a rich life, no matter how much money you have:
“One day I will never forget: When my brother was about ten he asked my dad, ‘Dad, are we rich?’ To answer this question, my dad took his next paycheck from his job at the city water plant, and instead of depositing that check, he cashed it in small bills. He then came home and dumped out all that money on the kitchen table. Craig was impressed. With all that money, he thought we must be rich. But then my dad started explaining where all the money went each month. A little bit for rent, that much for gas, this much for groceries, and by the time he was done there wasn’t a penny left on that table. And Craig was shocked–and so was I. I mean, here we were, two kids growing up in a family that was just barely working class, but we were convinced that we were wealthy. We knew it.
Graduates, that’s what I’d like to talk with you about today. I’d like to talk about what Craig and I learned from our family about leading a rich life no matter how much money you have. And while there are plenty of lessons that I could share, there are three that I’d like to emphasize today.
The first: No matter what struggles or setbacks you face in your life, focus on what you have, not on what you’re missing. My dad taught us this lesson every day by how he lived his life. My dad was diagnosed with M.S. when my brother and I were still very young. And as he got sicker it got harder for him to walk, and it took him longer to dress himself in the morning. My dad had been an athlete all his life. He was a boxer and a swimmer in high school, so it must have been hard for him to feel his body declining–to go from being an active, vibrant young man to barely being able to make it up the stairs. But if he was in pain, if he was at all disappointed with his fate, he never let on. He never stopped smiling and laughing and even as he struggled to prop himself up on his crutches to teach us to throw a ball, or to hold the bat, or throw a punch–no matter how bad he was feeling, he hardly ever missed a day of work because he was determined to be our family’s provider, and he was determined to give me and Craig the kind of opportunities he’d never dreamed of for himself. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about how much he sacrificed for me and Craig, to be the people we are today.
Today as First Lady I see that same spirit, that same kind of sacrifice in people I meet all across this country. I see it in parents like my dad struggling to support their families. I see it in students like all of you working so hard to get an education. I see it in young people who are serving this country in uniform, facing challenges that most of us couldn’t even imagine. And I’ve seen this firsthand, the sacrifices that our American heroes are making.
As First Lady I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of seeing wounded warriors in hospitals all around this country. Many of them are your age, or younger, and they have suffered terrible injuries. Some of them have lost a limb, some of them have lost two limbs, some three. They’ve endured dozens of surgeries, they’ve spent months learning to walk again and to talk again, but despite the challenges they persevere. They aren’t looking back. They aren’t dwelling on what they’ve lost. Instead they are making plans for their lives. They are re-imagining their futures. They tell me they aren’t just gonna walk again, they’re gonna run, and they’re gonna run marathons.
I recently met a young Navy lieutenant named Brad Snyder who’d been blinded by an IED explosion in Afghanistan. He competed in this year’s Warrior Games as a runner and a swimmer. And of his service, he said, ‘I am not going to let my blindness build a brick wall around me. I’d give my eyes 100 times again to have the chance to do what I have done and what I can still do.’
Graduates, more than anything else, that will be the true measure of your success. Not how well you do when you’re healthy and happy and everything is going according to plan, but what do you do when life knocks you to the ground and all your plans go right out the window. In those darkest moments, you will have a choice: do you dwell on everything you’ve lost, or do you focus on what you still have, and find a way to move forward with passion, with determination, and with joy?
I know that many of you in this graduating class have already faced this choice in your own lives. Tonga shared this with us today, but there’s also one of today’s graduates, Vanessa Vasquez. Vanessa’s parents are agricultural workers with a grade-school education, and she came to Oregon State determined to build a better life for her 4-month old daughter. In addition to being a single mom, she’s juggled a full course load and a part-time job–but it all paid off, and today she’s receiving her degree in construction engineering and management. Her advice to other young people is very simple. She says, ‘With hard work and dedication anything is possible.’ And then there’s another member of the class of 2012, Nicholas Sitz, who is earning his degree in chemical engineering. I understand that as a member of OSU’s solar vehicle team Nicholas spent two years painstakingly building a solar car. But when he took it out for a test drive last summer it caught fire and exploded, and Nicholas sustained second and third degree burns on his arm, face and leg. But instead of throwing in the towel, within a month the team was back at work building another hopefully less explosive car.
Vanessa and Nicholas and the OSU solar team didn’t give up when things got hard–instead they just dug deeper and worked harder and refused to give up on the success that they dreamed of.
And that actually brings me to the second lesson I want to share about leading a rich life, and that is to define success on your own terms. Growing up, my parents always told me and Craig to be true to ourselves, but really when you’re a kid it’s hard to know what that means, right? As you grow older it’s easier to just grab for those gold stars and try to get that brass ring–and Craig and I both know this from experience. After graduating from college we did everything we thought we should do to be successful. Craig went to business school, I went to law school, we got prestigious jobs at an investment bank, and me at a law firm. We soon had all the traditional markers of success: the fat paycheck, the fancy office, the impressive lines on our resumes. But the truth is, neither of us was all that fulfilled. I didn’t want to be in some tall office building writing legal memos. I wanted to be down on the ground helping the folks I grew up with. I was living the dream, but it wasn’t my dream, and Craig felt the same way, unbeknownst to me. So eventually we quit those corporate jobs. I went to work in the mayor’s office, Craig got a job coaching basketball, and we both took salary cuts that made our mother cringe. But we were excited about our new careers, and we looked forward to going to work every morning. And we both realized that success isn’t about how your life looks to others, it’s about how it feels to you. We realized that being successful isn’t about being impressive, it’s about being inspired. And that’s what it means to be your true self. It means looking inside yourself and being honest about what you truly enjoy doing, because graduates, I can promise you that you will never be happy plodding through someone else’s idea of success. Success is only meaningful and enjoyable if it feels like your own.
But of course a successful career alone does not make for a rich life. As you’ve all learned from the friends you’ve made and the relationships you’ve formed here at OSU, what makes life truly rich are the people you share it with.
And that brings me to the final lesson I want to offer today. And that is: Wherever you go, whatever you do, don’t leave behind any unfinished business with the people you love. You see, our dad died from complications from his M.S. when I was in my mid-20s, and let me tell you, for months I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I had this physical sense of grief, this emptiness in my life, that I just couldn’t fill. But as hard as it was to lose my dad, and as much as I still miss him, every day I knew that I had never missed a chance to tell my dad I loved him–and he’d always done the same for me. Whenever Craig and I saw him struggling to walk and we worried that life was getting too hard for him, my mom would always reassure us that he was so proud of us, so proud to be our father that he felt like he was the luckiest guy ever to walk the earth. All of that gave me a sense of peace–a sense that I had no unfinished business with my dad. And that’s what allowed me to move forward.
So graduates, as you make your way in the world, I urge you not to leave behind any unfinished business. If you’re in a fight with someone, make up. If you’re holding a grudge, let it go. If you hurt someone, apologize. If you love someone, let them know. And don’t just tell people that you love them–show them. And that means showing up. It means being truly present in the lives of the people you care about. “Liking” them on Facebook doesn’t count, nor does following them on Twitter. What counts is making the time to be there in person, because I can promise you that you will not remember the texts that you’ve exchanged with your friends here at OSU, but you will remember how they cheered you on at your game, right? You will remember how they brought you chocolate and spent hours comforting you when your boyfriend or girlfriend dumped you–what jerks! You will remember all the hours spent diligently studying in the library–that one’s for the parents. But seriously, those are the memories that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life. Those are the experiences that make you who you are, and that is as true for me today as it was when Craig and I were growing up in that little apartment in Chicago.
When I come out here to Corvallis and I visit my family, I am not the First Lady–I am coach Robinson’s little sister. I am Miche to Craig and to my niece and nephews. I sleep on the pull-out couch in Craig’s guest room, and my daughters pile into the living room with their cousins for a sleepover. It reminds me of old times, when everyone huddled together in the kitchen laughing and teasing and drivin’ each other crazy, telling stories late into the night. And just like when we were little, Craig and I feel very, very rich.
So graduates, that is my wish for all of you today. I wish for you a life rich in all the things that matter. I wish for you work that inspires you. I wish for you those experiences that help you learn and grow. I wish for you people who love you and support you every step of the way. And I can tell from the energy in this stadium you have all that and you will have more.”
Watch the entire speech here.