Michelle Obama Speaks At Spelman Graduation and Urges Graduates to Pursue Life of Service

First Lady Michelle Obama addresses Spelman graduates at their May 15, 2011 commencement. (Image: Julie Yarbrough, Spelman College)

On May 15, First Lady Michelle Obama addressed the Class of 2011 at Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta that was one of Black Enterprise’s “Top 50 Colleges for African Americans.”

Evidence of emotion and excitement about Mrs. Obama’s appearance were plentiful throughout the entire day. Lines to get in were wrapped around the convention center six hours before the graduation was scheduled to begin. Honorary degree recipient and entertainer Debbie Allen danced down the aisle during the procession. Backstage, convention center staffers pressed their faces through the cracks of doors just to get a glimpse of the nation’s first black first lady.

In her commencement address, Mrs. Obama charged the 550 graduating seniors to pay it forward as they change the world.

“As you climb those career ladders, just remember to reach down and pull others up behind you,” she said in her message about the responsibilities of receiving an excellent education. “Find folks who have so much potential–but so little opportunity–and do for them what Spelman has done for you.”

She also recounted the story of Spelman’s beginnings—two white women who made an extraordinary commitment in 1881 to educate black women by founding an institution that would produce pioneer alumnae, including Obama’s heroine, Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman.

“At a time when many workplaces were filled with not just glass ceilings, but brick walls, this school was urging black women to become doctors and lawyers, engineers, ambassadors,” said Obama, who was introduced as a “servant leader” by Spelman President Beverly Daniel Tatum.

The first lady shared advice from her own life about how to remain encouraged against naysayers and self-doubt. “That is the story of Spelman College: that unyielding presumption of promise, that presumption of brilliance, that presumption that every woman who enrolls at this school has something infinitely valuable to offer this world … That legacy is now your inheritance.”

Graduate Khadijah Robinson was moved by the words of Mrs. Obama, who accepted the Spelman’s invitation to be commencement speaker after a four-year campaign of letters and a compelling student-produced video. “The unyielding presumption of promise really resonated with me,” Robinson said. “I can look at my first lady and she looks just like me. She’s so composed, so beautiful, so intelligent and she had so many words of wisdom for us. I cried just walking into the auditorium.”

“She has this mix of grace and realness,” said Dr. Jocelyn Hicks-Garner, president of the school’s Los Angeles alumnae association. “She was so encouraging that it was as if she was speaking to us as a friend, or mother or sister who you really look up to. She commanded that respect and that dignity. At Spelman, you are around brilliant women who are doing wonderful things; but seeing the first lady felt like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.”