First lady Michelle Obama, having just used the regular White House radio address to condemn the recent kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls, told Dillard University graduates Saturday that education remains “the key to real and lasting freedom.”
She urged them to join in the struggle for those still shut out of opportunities to learn in the United States and around the world.
Speaking at the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena rather than Dillard’s campus because of Friday’s heavy rain, she briefly traced the history of New Orleans’ historically black schools, from the education advocacy of the Rev. Emperor Williams, a former slave, to Dillard’s founding in the 1930s.
She asked the graduates to see their commencement as part of a continuing effort to spread educational opportunities to those who lack them, noting the persistence of disproportionately high school dropout rates among black Americans.
“I hope you understand that this day is not just the culmination of your own dreams but the realization of the dreams of so many who came before you,” she said. “You should be so proud and so happy and so excited about your futures. But what you shouldn’t be is satisfied.”
That line and many others drew rapturous applause from an adoring and vocal audience at the packed Lakefront Arena.
The senior class president, Nicole Tinson, introduced Obama by recalling the personal letter she sent the White House asking the first lady to attend Dillard’s commencement.
“I stand here today to let everyone know that anything is possible when you keep your mind and your heart on your goal,” she said.
For the first lady, a trip to Dillard offered a timely platform to speak about education. It came just a few days after the launch of her “reach higher” campaign, an effort to encourage more students to pursue education after high school, and on the same day she publicly condemned the Nigerian militants who kidnapped more than 200 girls from their school dormitory last month.
“This unconscionable act was committed by a terrorist group determined to keep these girls from getting an education,” she said, taking over the weekly radio address usually delivered by her husband. “Grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls.”
In her speech, the first lady drew attention to the barriers that still exist for many seeking an education in the United States as well, and she called on the school’s graduates to keep up the struggle for opportunities.
“I know it can seem like the deck is stacked way too high against our young people,” she said. “And the truth is, some of the problems we face — structural inequality, schools that lag behind, workplace and housing discrimination — those problems are too big for one person to fix on their own.”
“But,” she continued, “that’s still no excuse to stand on the sidelines, because we know that today education is still the key to real and lasting freedom.”
She reminded the graduates of those still having to risk their lives and safety in order to gain access to classrooms.
“We see that hunger all around the world,” she said, mentioning the Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head on her school bus in 2012 for advocating that girls be educated, and the “200 girls kidnapped from their own school in Nigeria for wanting an education.”
She also noted a fitting coincidence: Dillard’s valedictorian and all three salutatorians this year, students who maintained a 4.0 grade-point average throughout their tenure, are themselves all from Nigeria, having won scholarships to study here.
“See, now that’s the kind of hunger for education that needs to be ignited in all of us,” she said.