Against a picturesque backdrop on the National Mall, in front of 5,000 graduates and their families, first lady Michelle Obama challenged the graduating class to “keep going” with the University’s dedication to community service Sunday morning at the University-wide Commencement ceremony.
Obama – who received an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree from the University – lauded the GW community for far surpassing the service challenge she issued back in September.
Obama said if the GW community logged 100,000 hours of community service, she would speak at Commencement. Yet GW students, faculty and staff exceeded that number, logging 163,980 hours of service.
Although the GW community completed her challenge, Obama said she had one more request of the graduating class.
“I have one more request to make of you, one more challenge, and that is: Keep going. Keep giving. Keep engaging,” Obama said.
Obama’s speech was GW focused, offering stories about the service projects GW students, faculty and staff partook in over the year. She spoke about the accomplishments of the GW community, saying she is proud of what the University accomplished after she issued her challenge.
The first lady also stressed the need for graduates to think globally with their service initiatives, adding that GW students already serve the global community by participating in the Peace Corps, studying abroad and doing service projects around the world.
“I’m asking your generation to be America’s face to the world,” Obama said to the crowd of nearly 25,000. “It will make the world safer, it will make America stronger, and it will make you more competitive.”
Obama said by volunteering or studying abroad, America’s message of freedom and of the importance of community service will spread, helping forge a peaceful global community.
“Because many of you already serve around the world, this class knows firsthand that each one of those interactions in the world has the power to start a chain reaction,” Obama said. “Every child that learns to read can teach another. Every girl taught that she has power inspires dozens of others. Every school built improves thousands of lives. And just as that makes the world safer, it also makes America stronger.”
She added, “In the end, the simple act of opening your mind and engaging abroad — whether it’s in the heart of campus or in the most remote villages — can change your definition of what’s possible.”
University President Steven Knapp said he could not have imagined the ceremony going any better than it did Sunday morning.
“I thought it was truly remarkable how perfectly the themes of her address matched the passion, commitment, and achievements of our graduating students,” Knapp said in an e-mail after the ceremony. “She gave example after example of the kinds of concrete actions her challenge had inspired; she spoke to the university’s global scope and aspirations; and she eloquently linked the national and global situations to the opportunities for service our students face as they carry the George Washington culture into their future lives and careers.”
Knapp added, however, that he was saddened to have to announce the death of GW sophomore Taylor Hubbard. The 20-year-old student was pronounced dead Sunday morning after falling the night before from a fifth-story window in Guthridge Hall.
“The only thing I wish had been different was the tragic news that our sophomore Taylor Hubbard had succumbed to his injuries, when so many of us had been hoping and praying for his recovery,” Knapp said.
Obama was not the only speaker at the two-hour-long ceremony.
Graduating senior Zoe Petkanas addressed her fellow students as the student speaker at the event. She spoke about her experience freshman year watching a presidential motorcade drive by on her way to class. It was experiences like that, Petkanas said, that make the GW experience “anything but typical.”
She urged her classmates to “find their passion” and said despite the tough economic times and the daunting “real world” that is upon them, she knows the class of 2010 will succeed.
“When you look around, you see people who so badly want to do good,” Petkanas said. “Honestly I can’t think of any group of people more suited, more qualified to tackle the world’s problems than this year’s graduating class.take these motivations, find your passion, be bold and do good, I can’t wait to see what we accomplish.”
GW alumnus Dave Brubeck – an award-winning pianist and composer – received a Doctor of Music, honoris causa.
Upon receiving his honorary degree, Brubeck told students to help spread freedom throughout the world and received a standing ovation from the crowd.
A. James Clark, a trustee emeritus and construction entrepreneur, received a Doctor of Engineering, honoris causa.
Students on the Mall said the increased security, which required graduates to pass through metal detectors before taking their seats, went smoothly. Almost every student interviewed said the security lines moved quickly, faster than they had thought they would.
“I thought there would be more people,” said Graduating student Ian Watt, who arrived at the National Mall at 7 a.m.
Elena Lumby arrived to the Mall at 8 a.m. and said getting through the security line was a breeze.
“It was much more organized than the Inauguration,” Lumby said, adding that she enjoyed Obama’s speech.
“It’s nice to hear that things are difficult but to get the acknowledgement that we are going out and going great things despite the current climate,” Lumby said. “It’s uplifting. It’s leaving on a high note.”