First Lady Michelle Obama at EKU Commencement
RICHMOND— Despite the huge amount of fanfare surrounding the attendance of sitting U.S.First Lady Michelle Obama, Eastern Kentucky University's 106th commencement was about as normal as them all — if you consider an hour of security sweeps and two hours of check-in normal.
EKU's Alumni Coliseum was at capacity for this event, which capped the student ticket allowance at six. Check-in for the event started at 5:30 p.m. for the evening commencement two hours later. The crowd of about 6,200 was able to hear Obama speak because of EKU's highly touted work in servicing the higher education needs of veterans. In her speech, she noted Military Times EDGE Magazine naming of Eastern as the nation’s number one four-year school for veterans two out of the last three years.
Rather than lecture students about her accomplishments and personal history, the First Lady delivered an inspirational speech challenging graduates serve their community, determine who they will be rather than what they want to do and persevere through the rough times.
"These are the moments that define us -- not the day you get the promotion, not the day you win teacher of the year, but the times that force you to claw and scratch and fight just to get through the day; the moments when you get knocked down and you’re wondering whether it’s even worth it to get back up." Obama said. "Those are the times when you’ve got to ask yourself, who am I going to be?"
Matt Thacker, 29, graduating with a history and economics degree, said the First Lady's question of who you are going to be resonated the most with him.
"It's not about the degree that we earned, but what we are going to do and how we are going to impact people."
Thacker is also a Marine Corps veteran, serving two tours of duty inIraqand one inAfghanistan. Because he started a veterans’ group on campus, he was able to take a picture with Obama.
"I wished [EKU] would have had one large ceremony so everybody had that experience [of seeing the First Lady]," Thacker said.
The First Lady related her own experience and resilience as reasons for her success and encouraged graduates to exude the same behaviors and turn weaknesses into strengths. She said college was like a mystery to her and something as simple as having the right size sheets was beyond her initial comprehension. She said being a first generation college student meant she didn't have any guidance when it came to choosing classes, but the love of her parents eased that tension.
"But when you come from a family like mine, that's what you do." Obama said. “You make the most of what you've got. You use all that good common sense and you don’t make excuses. You work hard, and you always finish what you start. And no matter what, you
give everybody a fair shake, and when somebody needs a hand, you offer yours."
Perhaps the most relevant part of Obama's speech to today's political landscape was her she challenge to graduates to seek out different perspectives and learn from divergent viewpoints.
"If you’re a Democrat, spend some time talking to a Republican," Obama said. "And if you’re a Republican, have a chat with a Democrat. Maybe you’ll find some common ground, maybe you won’t. But if you honestly engage with an open mind and an open heart, I guarantee you’ll learn something. And goodness knows we need more of that, because we know what happens when we only talk to people who think like we do — we just get more stuck in our ways, more divided, and it gets harder to come together for a common purpose. That’s what’s always made this country great — embracing the diversity of experience and opinion that surrounds us everywhere we go. So I encourage you all — seek it out."
Obama's address to students included a personal touch, highlighting the amount of community service the school had tallied in the past year. Still, she encouraged graduates to continue to serve after graduation.
"Whether you’ve worn our country’s uniform or not, we’re all called to serve and to give back to those around us," Obama said. “And you don’t have to travel across the globe or even across the country to find ways to serve. All you have to do is take a look around your own community. The least you can do is reach back and give a hand to somebody else who could use that help."
Wesley Robinson is a journalism senior at EKU. He will serve as the editor-in-chief of the Eastern Progress in the fall.