Remarks by the First Lady at DC-CAP Graduation Celebration
Wardman Park Mariott
6:15 P.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Well, hello! (Applause.) How is everybody doing? You all rest yourselves.
Well, I am beyond thrilled to be here tonight because we are celebrating these outstanding DC-CAP graduates from the class of 2014. I told you all this when we took -- I am so proud of you all. I am so proud.
And I want to start by thanking Jonathan -- yes -- (applause) -- for that wonderful introduction. And thank you for your service to our country. I’m proud of you. (Applause.) Yes, indeed.
I also want to recognize the CEO of DC-CAP, Argelia Rodriguez. (Applause.) And I know her mom is here, so I’m going to recognize Mom, as well. She told me she’s keeping an eye on her. (Applause.) Yes, indeed. I told her I have one of these at home too -- (laughter) -- keeping an eye on me. I also want to recognize the Board Chairman, Donald Graham. (Applause.) Yes, indeed. And I want to thank them both, as well as the staff and the entire board for all of your outstanding leadership, the wonderful work that you have done to help these young people thrive and succeed. You all are an amazing group of people.
And of course, I want to give a huge shoutout to all of the families here tonight. (Applause.) Yes, the folks who pushed you, who prayed for you, who believed in you every step of the way. Tonight is your night too. Right, graduates? (Applause.) Yes, indeed.
And finally, to our graduates.
MRS. OBAMA: Oh, yes. (Laughter.) That's soon to be. Soon to be. (Laughter.) But congratulations to you all. I know you all have worked so hard. You have journeyed so far and overcome so much to earn your degrees.
Remember how you first felt when you first left home and set foot on that college campus? I know for many of you, being the first from your family or maybe even from your whole neighborhood to attend college must have been pretty unsettling at times.
Maybe there were times when you were overwhelmed in some of your classes, or felt uneasy around your new classmates. Maybe there were months when you ran low on cash and worried about paying for those books or food even -- you can give me an Amen! (Applause.) Maybe you were homesick and desperately missed your family and friends. And maybe there were nights when you lay awake wondering whether you really belonged, or if they had made some terrible mistake by letting you in. (Laughter.)
But here’s the thing, graduates: You didn’t give in to your panic. You didn’t give in to your doubt or despair. Instead, you swallowed your pride and you asked for help. You opened your heart and you made new friends. You patched together scholarships and jobs to make ends meet. And you studied like your life depended on it, because you knew that it did.
And after pushing yourself so hard for so long, you made it. You achieved the dream that has driven you for so many years -- you all are now college graduates. Yes, indeed. (Applause.) And today, you are the pride of your families and communities. And let me tell you something, you are the pride of your President and your First Lady too. (Applause.)
More importantly, you all are role models for young people across this country, especially the DC-CAP high school graduates who are here tonight who are going to follow in your footsteps. So I hope that you all will truly savor this moment. Take a second to sit back and relax. Celebrate a little bit with your friends. Sleep late -- (laughter) -- because you’ve earned it.
I want you to enjoy these moments of calm and satisfaction because, as you will learn, they are rare. For just as you close one chapter, you realize that it’s time to start another. And figuring out your next steps can stir up all those old feelings of anxiety and doubt.
Some of you may not know what’s next. Maybe you don’t have a job yet; maybe you’re worried about finding one. And if you do have a job, maybe you’re wondering whether you’ll succeed at that job. Maybe you’re thinking about graduate school, but you don’t know how you’re ever going to pay for it.
So just when you thought you had it all figured out, you are now faced with a whole new set of challenges. And you’re once again wondering how you’re ever going to make it. Sound familiar?
MRS. OBAMA: Well, I’m here today, graduates, just to assure you that you are going to be just fine, because you have everything you need right here and right now to succeed beyond your wildest dreams.
You see, during your time in college, you weren’t just learning business or biology or sociology, you were learning how to survive and thrive no matter what life throws your way. And that’s what I want to talk with you about today. I want to talk about how the lessons you’ve learned in college have prepared you to succeed out here in the real world. And I want to start with a lesson that you all have been learning your entire lives, and that is to never, ever stop struggling -- because that’s how you got to college in the first place. You struggled for it. And when you got there, you struggled even more.
Maybe you failed your first test. Maybe you got a bad grade on your first paper. But you didn’t just throw up your hands and say, well, I must be stupid, I quit. No, no, you buckled down. You went to those professor’s office hours. You stayed up late solving those problems, writing and rewriting those papers, right? And soon, you mastered that material. Soon, your grades started to improve.
And believe it or not, that all happened because the sheer act of struggling made you smarter. No, I’m serious. This is really important, because there are there are scientific studies that prove this. Science actually shows that when you’re struggling to solve a problem or to understand a concept, you’re forming new pathways and connections in your brain.
So struggling isn’t a bad thing. It is not a sign of weakness -- in fact, it’s a sign of growth. It’s a sign that you’re expanding your capacity to handle the hard challenges that you will inevitably face throughout your entire life. So don’t ever, ever shy away from a good struggle. Instead, I want you to seek it out and dive in head first, because that’s what truly successful people do.
Take my husband, for example. You know the guy. (Laughter.) Barack Obama wasn’t born as President of the United States. He struggled for years to make it to the White House. And then, once he got there, he struggled even harder -- (laughter and applause) -- to create jobs, to get people health care, to help young people like you go to college. See, and here’s the thing -- in a few years, when it’s his time to leave office, he’s going to start all over again with a whole new set of challenges.
See, graduates, that’s what life is. It is an endless process of struggle and success, struggle and success. And in the coming months, as you’re out there looking for a job, you might have to do five or 10 or 20 interviews before you finally get an offer. You might get rejected from dozens of graduate schools before you finally get accepted to one.
But remember, just like in college, that struggle is making you stronger and smarter and more resilient. So no matter how tough it gets, no matter how frustrated you are, I want you all to just keep moving forward. And here’s the thing -- don’t ever let your doubts, or anyone else’s doubts about you, distract you from your path.
And that brings me to the second lesson that I want to discuss today, which is to never, ever listen to the doubters, no matter how convincing they might sound. (Applause.) Indeed. And I know that at some point in college, all of you faced a doubter or two. Maybe it was that professor who took one look at you and made a snap judgment that you wouldn’t succeed. Maybe it was the classmate who heard about where you came from and gave you that look of pity that made you feel like you didn’t belong. Trust me, I know what that’s like. You see, as Jonathan said, I grew up just like many of you. My family didn’t have a lot of money. My parents never went to college. And there were plenty of folks who doubted whether a kid like me had what it took to reach my goals.
I remember one of those doubters in particular. He was a wonderful professor whose class I took at Princeton. Now, let me say this, I aced his class. I blew it out of the water. (Applause.) So at the end of the semester, I asked the professor if I could work with him on a research project and he said yes. Now, I did this in part because I knew that I’d be applying to law school, and between the A that I’d gotten in the class and the research we’d be doing together, I was confident that this man would write me an excellent letter of recommendation.
So we’re working together over a course of months, and eventually I asked him if he would write me that letter. And he said, “Sure, I’ll do it. But really, you’re not the hottest thing I’ve seen coming out of the gate.” Oh, yes. (Laughter.) I was stunned. Now, in hindsight, I appreciated the honesty, but it really felt like he punched me right in my stomach.
But in that moment, I made a decision. I decided that I was going to do everything in my power to make that man regret those words. (Applause.) And at a point, I didn’t even care about the letter anymore. I knew that it was my responsibility to show my professor how wrong he was about me.
So for the rest of my time with him, I worked my butt off for this man. I was in his office every day. I was sitting side by side with him, analyzing data like no one had analyzed it before. And I didn’t say a word about the letter. And then, one day, the professor asked me, well, what are your plans for next year? And I told him -- I said, I applied to law school. And, he said, oh, did I write you a letter for that? And I said, yes, as a matter of fact, you did. He then got very quiet. And, he said, well, how are things going? And I told him that I’d gotten accepted everywhere I’d applied except for Harvard Law, where I’d been waitlisted. He paused for a moment, and then he said, I’m going to write you another letter.
See, at that point, I knew I had won. Whether or not I got into Harvard didn’t even matter. I had shown not just my professor, but myself what I was capable of achieving.
So graduates, when you encounter those doubters -- that boss who doesn’t think you deserve a promotion, that grad school advisor who thinks you’re nothing special -- don’t get angry. Don’t get anxious or insecure. Get better. Work harder. Let your light shine so bright that it blinds the doubters. Because trust me, in the end, success is always your best revenge. And not just because it feels so good -- (laughter) -- because even if you never change those doubters’ minds, at least you’ll have improved yourself while you’re working to prove them wrong. And that’s an investment in yourself that no one can ever take away from you.
Which brings me to the final lesson I want to discuss today: Investing in yourself, no matter what else is going on in your life. So here is what I mean -- I know that for many of you, going away to college meant leaving behind important responsibilities at home. In some of your families, you were the rock. You were the shoulder to cry on, the one who took care of your brothers and sisters when your mom was working, or maybe you worked a job yourself to help pay the bills.
And when you went away to school, some of you may have felt guilty, constantly torn between the needs of your family and your dreams for yourself. And graduates, the truth is, the tug of home won’t go away now that you have that degree. In fact, as you start your career and start earning a paycheck, you might get even more of those late-night phone calls about how someone is sick or someone needs money, can you come home and help.
Now, there is nothing, nothing more important than family. And there will be plenty of times when you need to answer those calls and take care of the people you love. But I can tell you that, ultimately, the best way for you to help your family is to keep investing in yourself. And that’s a hard thing for you to swallow. I know that. (Applause.) I know that’s a tough one. But I’ve dealt with this myself.
You see, back when I was getting my education and starting my career, my parents were no strangers to struggle. They were facing health challenges and any number of other problems. But here is the thing -- no matter what was happening at home, whenever I called to see how my parents were doing, I always got the same answer: Everything is fine, baby, just take care of yourself.
You see, my parents couldn’t offer me a lot in the way of tangible support. They couldn’t give me advice about what classes to take or what jobs to apply for. They didn’t have networks. But what they could do was keep me from getting sucked into their problems. They knew -- amen, and I want the families to hear this as well. (Applause.) They knew that I had enough stress in my life on my own, and they were determined not to add any more stress from their lives. And because my parents gave me the space I needed to succeed, I was able to focus on getting good grades and a good job and earning some money. And before long, I was able to start helping my parents out. And today, my mother never has to worry about money again because my brother and I can afford to take care of her for the rest of our lives. (Applause.)
So graduates, by continuing to focus on your own success, you will ensure that you can keep giving back -- not just to the people you love, but to the communities you come from. And by the way, that last part isn’t a suggestion; it’s an obligation that folks like us share. (Applause.) The obligation to reach back and give others the same chances we’ve had to succeed. And I know that some of you might be thinking to yourselves, well, I’ve dealt with so much on my own, how could I possibly have the time or energy to worry about anyone else? Or maybe you don’t ever want to think about where you came from again. Maybe you just want to walk away and never look back.
But, graduates, you all are here today because a lot of people chose not to walk away from you. And there are so many kids just like you in communities across this country, kids like the DC-CAP high school grads here today, kids who need to meet you. They need to see that your story can be their story.
They need to hear the story of DC-CAP graduates like Rhia Hardman. Rhia’s father and stepmother were both crack addicts, and she spent her teenage years breaking up fights in her own home. She sometimes even had to survive without water or electricity. But Rhia decided to build a different life for herself. And as she wrote in a recent essay, she said, “Every time I wanted to quit, I pushed, knowing someone had the same dream but didn’t get the opportunity.” And today, Rhia is a proud graduate –- with honors –- from Virginia State University. (Applause.)
And then there’s Rashema Melson. Rashema’s family has been homeless for years, and there were times when she didn’t even have clean clothes to wear to school. But Rashema worked hard in her classes at Anacostia, and she ran track. She worked hard, and after four years of struggle, Rashema graduated as valedictorian of her class. And she will be attending Georgetown University on a full scholarship this fall. (Applause.)
I could go on and on, because so many of you have stories just like these –- stories of families who couldn’t support you, of communities where you weren’t safe, schools that maybe didn’t always live up to your promise. But ultimately, despite it all, you chose to succeed. And that is the thread that connects every single one of you. It is your mindset, your fierce belief in your own potential, your unwavering conviction that you deserve something better from life.
And if you all can graduate from college despite such overwhelming odds, then there is no reason why every child in this country can’t follow in your footsteps. (Applause.) Your shining success -- your success -- it’s a powerful message to every young person in America that you don’t have to wait for your neighborhood to improve, or for your school to turn around, or for your family to solve all its problems. Instead, no matter what’s going on in your life, you can find a way to make it to school every day, to go to class, to listen to those teachers, to get the education you deserve.
So, graduates, we need you out there as mentors and role models in our communities. We need you as leaders in your companies, urging them to support programs like DC-CAP. We need you working in our government, pushing our leaders to help every child get a college education no matter where they’re from or how they grew up. (Applause.) Because you know it is not enough just to help a small number of young people like you beat the odds. We need to change the odds for all young people across this country. Because this country, we need you. We really do. We need your passion, your determination, your brilliance, your drive. That’s one of the reasons why I started Reach Higher -- to help all our young people complete their education beyond high school.
So here’s the thing -- I want you all to know that I’m going to be fighting for you, and I am rooting for you and kids like you across this country. I will be doing this work not just for the rest of my time as First Lady, but for the rest of my life. (Applause.) Because, graduates, I believe in you. I really do. I’m so proud of you. I am inspired by you. And I can’t wait to see what you all achieve in the years ahead. So go out there and do some great things.
Thank you all. God bless. (Applause.)
6:37 P.M. EDT