President Obama Speaks at Barnard College Commencement Ceremony


The President:
Thank you. (cheers and applause) Thank you, President Spar,
trustees, President Bollinger. Hello, Class of 2012! (cheers and applause) Congratulations on
reaching this day. Thank you for the honor of
being able to be a part of it. There are so many people
who are proud of you — your parents, family,
faculty, friends — all who share in
this achievement. So please give them a
big round of applause. (cheers and applause) To all the moms
who are here today, you could not ask for a better
Mother’s Day gift than to see all of these folks graduate. (cheers and applause) I have to say, though, whenever
I come to these things, I start thinking about
Malia and Sasha graduating, and I start tearing up and — (laughter) — it’s terrible. I don’t know how you guys
are holding it together. (laughter) I will begin by telling a
hard truth: I’m a Columbia college graduate. (laughter and applause) I know there can be a little
bit of a sibling rivalry here. (laughter) But I’m honored nevertheless
to be your commencement speaker today — although
I’ve got to say, you set a pretty high bar
given the past three years. (cheers and applause) Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep — (cheers and applause) — Sheryl Sandberg — these
are not easy acts to follow. (applause) But I will point out Hillary is
doing an extraordinary job as one of the finest Secretaries
of State America has ever had. (cheers and applause) We gave Meryl the Presidential
Medal of Arts and Humanities. (cheers and applause) Sheryl is not just
a good friend; she’s also one of our
economic advisers. So it’s like the
old saying goes — keep your friends close, and
your Barnard commencement speakers even closer. (laughter, cheers and applause) There’s wisdom in that. (laughter) Now, the year I graduated —
this area looks familiar — (laughter) — the year I
graduated was 1983, the first year women were
admitted to Columbia. (cheers and applause) Sally Ride was the first
American woman in space. Music was all about
Michael and the Moonwalk. (laughter) Audience Member:
Do it! The President:
We had the Walkman — (laughter, cheers and applause) The President:
No. (cheers and applause) No Moonwalking. (laughter) No Moonwalking today. (laughter) We had the Walkman, not iPods. Some of the streets around here
were not quite so inviting. (laughter) Times Square was not
a family destination. (laughter) So I know this is
all ancient history. Nothing worse than commencement
speakers droning on about bygone days. (laughter) But for all the differences, the
Class of 1983 actually had a lot in common with all of you. For we, too, were heading out
into a world at a moment when our country was still recovering
from a particularly severe economic recession. It was a time of change. It was a time of uncertainty. It was a time of passionate
political debates. You can relate to this because
just as you were starting out finding your way
around this campus, an economic crisis struck that
would claim more than 5 million jobs before the end
of your freshman year. Since then, some of you have
probably seen parents put off retirement, friends
struggle to find work. And you may be looking toward
the future with that same sense of concern that my generation
did when we were sitting where you are now. Of course, as young women,
you’re also going to grapple with some unique challenges,
like whether you’ll be able to earn equal pay for equal work;
whether you’ll be able to balance the demands of
your job and your family; whether you’ll be able to
fully control decisions about your own health. And while opportunities for
women have grown exponentially over the last 30
years, as young people, in many ways you have it
even tougher than we did. This recession has been more
brutal, the job losses steeper. Politics seems nastier. Congress more
gridlocked than ever. Some folks in the financial
world have not exactly been model corporate citizens. (laughter) No wonder that faith in our
institutions has never been lower, particularly when good
news doesn’t get the same kind of ratings as bad news anymore. Every day you receive a steady
stream of sensationalism and scandal and stories with a
message that suggest change isn’t possible; that you
can’t make a difference; that you won’t be able to close
that gap between life as it is and life as you want it to be. My job today is to tell
you don’t believe it. Because as tough as
things have been, I am convinced you are tougher. I’ve seen your passion and
I’ve seen your service. I’ve seen you engage and
I’ve seen you turn out in record numbers. I’ve heard your voices amplified
by creativity and a digital fluency that those of us
in older generations can barely comprehend. I’ve seen a generation
eager, impatient even, to step into the rushing
waters of history and change its course. And that defiant, can-do spirit
is what runs through the veins of American history. It’s the lifeblood
of all our progress. And it is that spirit which we
need your generation to embrace and rekindle right now. See, the question is not whether
things will get better — they always do. The question is not whether
we’ve got the solutions to our challenges — we’ve had
them within our grasp for quite some time. We know, for example, that this
country would be better off if more Americans were able to
get the kind of education that you’ve received
here at Barnard — (cheers and applause) — if more people could get the
specific skills and training that employers are
looking for today. We know that we’d all be better
off if we invest in science and technology that sparks
new businesses and medical breakthroughs; if we developed
more clean energy so we could use less foreign oil and reduce
the carbon pollution that’s threatening our planet. (applause) We know that we’re better off
when there are rules that stop big banks from making bad
bets with other people’s money when — (applause) — when insurance companies
aren’t allowed to drop your coverage when you need
it most or charge women differently from men. (cheers and applause) Indeed, we know we are better
off when women are treated fairly and equally in every
aspect of American life — whether it’s the salary
you earn or the health decisions you make. (cheers and applause) We know these things to be true. We know that our challenges
are eminently solvable. The question is
whether together, we can muster the will
— in our own lives, in our common institutions,
in our politics — to bring about the
changes we need. And I’m convinced your
generation possesses that will. And I believe that the
women of this generation — that all of you will
help lead the way. (cheers and applause) Now, I recognize that’s a cheap
applause line when you’re giving a commencement at Barnard. It’s the easy thing to say. But it’s true. It is — in part,
it is simple math. Today, women are not
just half this country; you’re half its workforce. (cheers and applause) More and more women are
out-earning their husbands. You’re more than half of
our college graduates, and master’s
graduates, and PhDs. (cheers and applause) So you’ve got us outnumbered. (laughter) After decades of slow, steady,
extraordinary progress, you are now poised to make this
the century where women shape not only their own destiny but
the destiny of this nation and of this world. But how far your leadership
takes this country, how far it takes this world —
well, that will be up to you. You’ve got to want it. It will not be handed to you. And as someone who
wants that future — that better future — for
you, and for Malia and Sasha, as somebody who’s had the good
fortune of being the husband and the father and the son of
some strong, remarkable women, allow me to offer just
a few pieces of advice. That’s obligatory. (laughter) Bear with me. My first piece of advice is
this: Don’t just get involved. Fight for your
seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat
at the head of the table. (cheers and applause) It’s been said that the most
important role in our democracy is the role of citizen. And indeed, it was 225 years ago
today that the Constitutional Convention opened in
Philadelphia, and our founders, citizens all, began crafting
an extraordinary document. Yes, it had its flaws — flaws that this nation has strived to perfect over time. Questions of race and
gender were unresolved. No woman’s signature graced
the original document — although we can assume that
there were founding mothers whispering smarter things in the
ears of the founding fathers. (laughter, cheers and applause) I mean, that’s almost certain. What made this document special
was that it provided the space — the possibility — for those
who had been left out of our charter to fight their way in. It provided people the language
to appeal to principles and ideals that broadened
democracy’s reach. It allowed for
protest, and movements, and the dissemination of new
ideas that would repeatedly, decade after decade,
change the world — a constant forward movement
that continues to this day. Our founders understood that
America does not stand still; we are dynamic, not static. We look forward, not back. And now that new doors
have been opened for you, you’ve got an obligation to
seize those opportunities. You need to do this not just for
yourself but for those who don’t yet enjoy the choices
that you’ve had, the choices you will have. And one reason many workplaces
still have outdated policies is because women only account
for 3% of the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. One reason we’re actually
refighting long-settled battles over women’s rights is because
women occupy fewer than one in five seats in Congress. Now, I’m not saying that the
only way to achieve success is by climbing to the top of the
corporate ladder or running for office — although,
let’s face it, Congress would get a
lot more done if you did. (laughter and applause) That I think we’re sure about. (cheers and applause) But if you decide not to
sit yourself at the table, at the very least you’ve got
to make sure you have a say in who does. It matters. Before women like Barbara
Mikulski and Olympia Snowe and others got to Congress,
just to take one example, much of federally-funded
research on diseases focused solely on their effects on men. It wasn’t until women like Patsy
Mink and Edith Green got to Congress and passed Title
IX, 40 years ago this year, that we declared women, too,
should be allowed to compete and win on America’s playing fields. (cheers and applause) Until a woman named Lilly
Ledbetter showed up at her office and had the courage to
step up and say, you know what, this isn’t right, women
aren’t being treated fairly — we lacked some of the tools
we needed to uphold the basic principle of equal
pay for equal work. So don’t accept somebody else’s
construction of the way things ought to be. It’s up to you to right wrongs. It’s up to you to
point out injustice. It’s up to you to hold the
system accountable and sometimes upend it entirely. It’s up to you to stand
up and to be heard, to write and to lobby, to
march, to organize, to vote. Don’t be content to
just sit back and watch. Those who oppose change, those
who benefit from an unjust status quo, have always bet on
the public’s cynicism or the public’s complacency. Throughout American history,
though, they have lost that bet, and I believe they
will this time as well. (cheers and applause) But ultimately, Class of
2012, that will depend on you. Don’t wait for the person next
to you to be the first to speak up for what’s right. Because maybe, just maybe,
they’re waiting on you. Which brings me to my
second piece of advice: Never underestimate the
power of your example. The very fact that
you are graduating, let alone that more women now
graduate from college than men, is only possible because
earlier generations of women — your mothers, your
grandmothers, your aunts — shattered the myth that you
couldn’t or shouldn’t be where you are. (cheers and applause) I think of a friend of
mine who’s the daughter of immigrants. When she was in high school,
her guidance counselor told her, you know what, you’re
just not college material. You should think about
becoming a secretary. Well, she was stubborn, so
she went to college anyway. She got her master’s. She ran for local office, won. She ran for state
office, she won. She ran for Congress, she won. And lo and behold, Hilda
Solis did end up becoming a secretary — (laughter) — she is America’s
Secretary of Labor. (cheers and applause) So think about what that means
to a young Latina girl when she sees a Cabinet secretary
that looks like her. Think about what it means to a
young girl in Iowa when she sees a presidential candidate
who looks like her. Think about what it means to
a young girl walking in Harlem right down the street when
she sees a U.N. ambassador who looks like her. Do not underestimate the
power of your example. This diploma opens up new
possibilities, so reach back, convince a young girl
to earn one, too. If you earned your degree in
areas where we need more women — like computer science
or engineering — (cheers and applause) — reach back and
persuade another student to study it, too. If you’re going into fields
where we need more women, like construction or
computer engineering — reach back, hire someone new. Be a mentor. Be a role model. Until a girl can
imagine herself, can picture herself as
a computer programmer, or a combatant commander,
she won’t become one. Until there are
women who tell her, ignore our pop culture obsession
over beauty and fashion — (cheers and applause) — and focus instead on studying
and inventing and competing and leading, she’ll think those are
the only things that girls are supposed to care about. Now, Michelle will say, nothing
wrong with caring about it a little bit. (laughter) You can be stylish
and powerful, too. (laughter, cheers and applause) That’s Michelle’s advice. (laughter, cheers and applause) And never forget that the most
important example a young girl will ever follow is
that of a parent. Malia and Sasha are going to
be outstanding women because Michelle and Marian Robinson
are outstanding women. So understand your
power, and use it wisely. My last piece of advice
— this is simple, but perhaps most
important: Persevere. Persevere. Nothing worthwhile is easy. No one of achievement
has avoided failure — sometimes catastrophic failures. But they keep at it. They learn from mistakes. They don’t quit. You know, when I first
arrived on this campus, it was with little
money, fewer options. But it was here that I tried
to find my place in this world. I knew I wanted to
make a difference, but it was vague how in
fact I’d go about it. (laughter) But I wanted to do my part to do
my part to shape a better world. So even as I worked after
graduation in a few unfulfilling jobs here in New York — I
will not list them all — (laughter) — even as I went from motley
apartment to motley apartment, I reached out. I started to write letters to
community organizations all across the country. And one day, a small group of
churches on the South Side of Chicago answered, offering
me work with people in neighborhoods hit hard by steel
mills that were shutting down and communities where
jobs were dying away. The community had been
plagued by gang violence, so once I arrived, one of the
first things we tried to do was to mobilize a meeting
with community leaders to deal with gangs. And I’d worked for
weeks on this project. We invited the police;
we made phone calls; we went to churches;
we passed out flyers. The night of the meeting we
arranged rows and rows of chairs in anticipation of this crowd. And we waited, and we waited. And finally, a group of older
folks walked in to the hall and they sat down. And this little old lady
raised her hand and asked, “Is this where the
bingo game is?” (laughter) It was a disaster. Nobody showed up. My first big community
meeting — nobody showed up. And later, the volunteers I
worked with told me, that’s it; we’re quitting. They’d been doing this for two
years even before I had arrived. They had nothing to show for it. And I’ll be honest, I felt
pretty discouraged as well. I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought about quitting. And as we were talking, I looked
outside and saw some young boys playing in a vacant
lot across the street. And they were just throwing
rocks up at a boarded building. They had nothing better
to do — late at night, just throwing rocks. And I said to the
volunteers, “Before you quit, answer one question. What will happen to
those boys if you quit? Who will fight for
them if we don’t? Who will give them a
fair shot if we leave? And one by one, the volunteers
decided not to quit. We went back to those
neighborhoods and we kept at it. We registered new voters, and
we set up after-school programs, and we fought for new jobs, and
helped people live lives with some measure of dignity. And we sustained ourselves
with those small victories. We didn’t set the world on fire. Some of those communities
are still very poor. There are still a lot
of gangs out there. But I believe that it was those
small victories that helped me win the bigger victories of
my last three and a half years as President. And I wish I could say that
this perseverance came from some innate toughness in me. But the truth is,
it was learned. I got it from watching
the people who raised me. More specifically, I got it
from watching the women who shaped my life. I grew up as the son of a single
mom who struggled to put herself through school and
make ends meet. She had marriages
that fell apart; even went on food stamps at
one point to help us get by. But she didn’t quit. And she earned her degree,
and made sure that through scholarships and hard work,
my sister and I earned ours. She used to wake me up when
we were living overseas — wake me up before dawn to
study my English lessons. And when I’d complain, she’d
just look at me and say, “This is no picnic for
me either, buster.” (laughter) And my mom ended up dedicating
herself to helping women around the world access the money
they needed to start their own businesses — she was an
early pioneer in microfinance. And that meant, though,
that she was gone a lot, and she had her own struggles
trying to figure out balancing motherhood and a career. And when she was gone, my
grandmother stepped up to take care of me. She only had a high
school education. She got a job at a local bank. She hit the glass ceiling, and
watched men she once trained promoted up the
ladder ahead of her. But she didn’t quit. Rather than grow hard or angry
each time she got passed over, she kept doing her job
as best as she knew how, and ultimately ended up being
vice president at the bank. She didn’t quit. And later on, I met a woman who
was assigned to advise me on my first summer job at a law firm. And she gave me such good
advice that I married her. (laughter) And Michelle and I gave
everything we had to balance our careers and a young family. But let’s face it, no matter how
enlightened I must have thought myself to be, it often fell
more on her shoulders when I was traveling, when I was away. I know that when she
was with our girls, she’d feel guilty that she
wasn’t giving enough time to her work, and when she
was at her work, she’d feel guilty she wasn’t
giving enough time to our girls. And both of us wished we had
some superpower that would let us be in two places at once. But we persisted. We made that marriage work. And the reason Michelle had the
strength to juggle everything, and put up with me and
eventually the public spotlight, was because she, too, came from
a family of folks who didn’t quit — because she saw her dad get up and go to work every day even though he never
finished college, even though he had crippling
MS. She saw her mother, even though she never finished
college, in that school, that urban school, every day
making sure Michelle and her brother were getting the
education they deserved. Michelle saw how her
parents never quit. They never indulged
in self-pity, no matter how stacked the
odds were against them. They didn’t quit. Those are the folks
who inspire me. People ask me sometimes, who
inspires you, Mr. President? Those quiet heroes all
across this country — some of your parents and
grandparents who are sitting here — no fanfare, no
articles written about them, they just persevere. They just do their jobs. They meet their
responsibilities. They don’t quit. I’m only here because of them. They may not have set out to
change the world, but in small, important ways, they did. They certainly changed mine. So whether it’s starting a
business, or running for office, or raising a amazing family,
remember that making your mark on the world is hard. It takes patience. It takes commitment. It comes with plenty of setbacks
and it comes with plenty of failures. But whenever you feel
that creeping cynicism, whenever you hear those voices
say you can’t make a difference, whenever somebody tells you
to set your sights lower — the trajectory of this
country should give you hope. Previous generations
should give you hope. What young generations have done
before should give you hope. Young folks who marched and
mobilized and stood up and sat in, from Seneca Falls
to Selma to Stonewall, didn’t just do it
for themselves; they did it for other people. That’s how we achieved
women’s rights. (cheers and applause) That’s how we achieved
voting rights. That’s how we achieved
workers’ rights. That’s how we
achieved gay rights. (cheers and applause) That’s how we’ve made
this Union more perfect. (cheers and applause) And if you’re willing
to do your part now, if you’re willing to reach up
and close that gap between what America is and what
America should be, I want you to know that I
will be right there with you. (cheers and applause) If you are ready to
fight for that brilliant, radically simple idea of America
that no matter who you are or what you look like, no matter
who you love or what God you worship, you can still
pursue your own happiness, I will join you every
step of the way. (cheers and applause) Now more than ever
— now more than ever, America needs what you, the
Class of 2012, has to offer. America needs you to reach
high and hope deeply. And if you fight for
your seat at the table, and you set a better example,
and you persevere in what you decide to do with your life, I
have every faith not only that you will succeed, but
that, through you, our nation will continue to be
a beacon of light for men and women, boys and girls, in
every corner of the globe. So thank you. Congratulations. (cheers and applause) God bless you. God bless the United
States of America. (cheers and applause)

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