The White House
Office of the First Lady
Remarks by the First Lady at Oregon State University Commencement
4:53 P.M. PDT
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you so much. (Applause.) I can’t tell you how much this means. I am so proud to receive this honorary degree from this phenomenal university. And I am thrilled to be here today to celebrate the Oregon State University class of 2012! Go Beaves! (Applause.)
I want to start by thanking President Ray for that very kind introduction and for the degree. I also want to thank Provost Randhawa. I also want to recognize Mayor Julie Manning, who’s here, and all of the outstanding faculty, staff, administrators and university leaders here at OSU.
I also want to acknowledge Tonga as well, and all of the student speakers who are going to be on the stage today. We are so proud of you all. And of course, to the stars of today’s show, the class of 2012 -- congratulations! (Applause.)
We are all so proud of you. We are proud of how hard you’ve worked, how much you’ve grown, and all that you’ve achieved during your time here at Oregon State. And I know that none of you did this alone. As the President said earlier, you all are here today in large part because of those beautiful people up in the bleachers -– the folks who pushed you, and believed in you, and answered the phone every time you called, even when you were just calling for money. (Laughter.)
So, graduates, again, let’s give another round of applause to your family, especially to all of the fathers out there on this beautiful Father’s Day. Today is their day, too. (Applause.)
Now, like all of you, I am here today because of my family. As you know, Craig Robinson, your men’s basketball coach, is my big brother. (Applause.) And last fall, Craig called me up and he said that if I didn’t speak at this year’s commencement, he was going to tell mom on me. (Laughter.) And since our mother now lives with me, that threat actually still carries some weight. (Laughter.)
But seriously, I’m not here today just because Craig has turned the Obama family into Beaver Believers, which he has. (Laughter and applause.) I am also here, proudly, because of everything this university is doing for this country. You have built one of the most sustainable campuses in America. You’re conducting groundbreaking research on everything from agriculture, to nanotechnology, to childhood obesity. You are serving others in so many ways -- tutoring children, joining our armed forces, fighting hunger and disease here in America and around the world.
So let me just say, I can see why Craig feels so at home here at OSU. Because in so many ways, the values you all embody are the values that he and I were raised with.
Craig and I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and our family was very close –- I mean literally close, real close. My mom, my dad, Craig and I, we lived in a little-bitty apartment, and for years Craig and I shared a bedroom divided by a wooden partition to give us the illusion of separate rooms. And at night, Craig and I would whisper to each other through the cracks in that partition until one of us feel asleep, or mom yelled and said, shut up, be quiet -- one or the other. (Laughter.)
But while we didn’t have much space, our little home was bursting with love. We spent lots of time together as a family laughing and sharing stories at dinner each night; playing board games, card games for hours, huddled around the kitchen table. We enjoyed the simple pleasures in life, like getting our report cards because good grades meant pizza for dinner -- that was a highlight. Trying to hold in our giggles as Craig put shaving cream on my dad’s glasses while he napped. Sleeping on the back porch on hot summer nights when the temperature in our little apartment became unbearable.
But it wasn’t all fun and games growing up. Our parents were big believers in everyone doing their part around the house. Craig often compared Saturday chores to boot camp. And my parents were even more serious about our academics. My mom taught Craig and I to read long before kindergarten started, and she spent hours volunteering in our neighborhood public school, making sure we got the education she knew we deserved. See, that was the kind of childhood we had.
And one day -- I will never forget, when my brother was about 10, he asked my dad a simple question. He said, “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: 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.
And, 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 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 multiple sclerosis 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 of 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 catch a ball, or hold a 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 to give me and Craig the kind of opportunities he’d never dreamed of for himself.
And there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about how our dad -- and how much he sacrificed for me and Craig to be the people we are today. And 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 visiting wounded warriors in military hospitals all across 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 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’re reimagining their futures. They tell me that they’re not just going to walk again, they’re going to run and they’re going to 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 this -- 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.”
And, 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 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?
And I know that many of you in this graduating class have already faced this choice in your own lives -- Tonga shared with us today. But there is 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 four-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. (Applause.) Yes, indeed. 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, Nicolas Sitts, who’s earning his degree in Chemical Engineering. I understand that as a member of OSU’s Solar Vehicle Team, Nicolas 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 Nicolas 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. (Laughter.)
Vanessa and Nicolas 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.
Now, 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? And as you grow older, often it’s just easier to 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 resumés. But the truth is, neither of us was all that fulfilled.
I didn’t want to be up 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. (Laughter.) But we were excited about our new careers. 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 of complications from his MS when I was in my mid-twenties. 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. And 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 the luckiest guy ever to walk the earth.
And 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 -- (laughter) -- nor does following them on Twitter. (Laughter.) What counts is making the time to be there in person.
Because I can promise you that years from now, you will not remember the texts 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. (Laughter.) You will remember all the hours spent diligently studying in the library -- that one's for the parents. (Laughter.)
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 back when Craig and I were growing up in that little apartment in Chicago.
You see, when I come out here to Corvallis and I visit my family, I’m not the First Lady. I’m Coach Robinson’s little sister. I’m “Miche” to Craig and to my niece and nephews. I sleep on the pullout 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 with everyone huddled together in the kitchen, laughing and teasing and driving 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 experience -- 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.
So congratulations again to all of you on all that you've achieved. And now, the wind has started -- (laughter) -- so it's time for me to end.
Thank you all, and God bless.
5:14 P.M. PDT