The Best Advice From Obama's Commencement Speeches As President

Let's recap what he told grads over the past 8 years.
Mike Theiler / Reuters

President Barack Obama gave a small handful of commencement speeches each spring. He usually gave one at an historically black college, one at a public college or university, and another at a military academy.

Obama may still give graduation speeches after he leaves office, but he's done giving commencement addresses as POTUS. So we took a look back at his speeches to pluck out some of the best words of wisdom he had to offer college graduates during his tenure in the White House.

Rutgers University, 2016: The "good old days" weren't always that great.

"When you hear someone longing for the “good old days,” take it with a grain of salt. Take it with a grain of salt. We live in a great nation and we are rightly proud of our history. We are beneficiaries of the labor and the grit and the courage of generations who came before. But I guess it's part of human nature, especially in times of change and uncertainty, to want to look backwards and long for some imaginary past when everything worked, and the economy hummed, and all politicians were wise, and every kid was well-mannered, and America pretty much did whatever it wanted around the world.

Guess what. It ain’t so. The “good old days” weren’t that great. Yes, there have been some stretches in our history where the economy grew much faster, or when government ran more smoothly. There were moments when, immediately after World War II, for example, or the end of the Cold War, when the world bent more easily to our will. But those are sporadic, those moments, those episodes. In fact, by almost every measure, America is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even eight years ago."

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Howard University, 2016: "Be confident in your blackness."

"Be confident in your heritage, be confident in your blackness. One of the great changes that’s occurred in the country since I was your age is the realization there’s no one way to be black, take it from someone who’s seen both sides of the debate about whether I’m black or not. ...

Even as we each embrace our own beautiful and unique and valid versions of our blackness, remember the tie that does bind us as African Americans and that is our particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle. That means we cannot sleepwalk through life. We cannot be ignorant of history. We can’t meet the world with a sense of entitlement."

Lake Area Technical Institute, 2015: Today might be hard, but tomorrow will be better with hard work.

"So that’s why I came here today — to this little tiny school, in this little tiny town. I didn’t come here to inspire you. I came here because you, the graduates, inspire me. That’s why I came here. You have lived through some of the toughest economic times in your country’s history, and you still chose to come here and invest in yourself, because you still believe that America is a place where you can make it if you try. That’s what hope is — the belief that even if today is hard, with a little hard work, there’s something better around the bend.

And it is that promise that has always set this country apart. It’s the idea that through hard work and through sacrifice, each of us can pursue our individual dreams, but we still come together as one American family to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams as well; that we take responsibility for looking after our own kids, but we’re also thinking about somebody else’s kids. That if we got a good break and did well, you know what, we’re going to have turn around and make sure that somebody else gets a break too. It’s the idea, as Colin said, that we’re family, and we’ll do anything to help each other along. And we know that if we’re helping somebody else, as some point we may need help too."

Larry Downing / Reuters

University of California, Irvine, 2014: Don't fall victim to cynicism.

"I’m here to tell you: Don’t believe the cynicism. Guard against it. Don’t buy into it. … I want to show you how badly we need you – both your individual voices and your collective efforts – to give you the chance you seek to change the world and maybe even save it."

Morehouse College, 2013: Don't just improve life for yourself, improve the lives of others.

"With doors open to you that your parents and grandparents could not even imagine, no one expects you to take a vow of poverty. But I will say it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do.

So, yes, go get that law degree. But if you do, ask yourself if the only option is to defend the rich and the powerful, or if you can also find some time to defend the powerless. Sure, go get your MBA, or start that business. We need black businesses out there. But ask yourselves what broader purpose your business might serve, in putting people to work, or transforming a neighborhood. The most successful CEOs I know didn’t start out intent just on making money -- rather, they had a vision of how their product or service would change things, and the money followed."

U.S. Air Force Academy, 2012: A defense of Soft Power.

"And when other people in other countries see that we’re rooting for their success, it builds trust and partnerships that can advance our interests for generations. It makes it easier to meet common challenges, from preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to combating climate change. And so we seek an international order where the rights and responsibilities of all nations and peoples are upheld, and where counties thrive by meeting their obligations and they face consequences when they don’t."

Larry Downing / Reuters

Miami Dade College, 2011: We can fix societal problems if we work for it.

"We’ve gone through periods of great economic turmoil, from an economy where most people worked on farms to one where most people worked in factories to now one fueled by information and technology. Through it all, we’ve persevered. We’ve adapted. We’ve prospered. Workers found their voice, and the right to organize for fair wages and safe working conditions. We carried forward.

When waves of Irish and Italian immigrants were derided as criminals and outcasts; when Catholics were discriminated against, or Jews had to succumb to quotas, or Muslims were blamed for society’s ills; when blacks were treated as second-class citizens and marriages like my own parents’ were illegal in much of the country -- we didn’t stop. We didn’t accept inequality. We fought. We overcame. We carried the dream forward."

University of Michigan, 2010: Listen to your critics.

"If you’re someone who only reads the editorial page of the New York Times, try glancing at the page of the Wall Street Journal once in awhile. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website."

JIM WATSON via Getty Images

Arizona State University, 2009: Success is not found in material things.

"The problem with the old approach to success is that a relentless focus on the outward markers of success can lead to complacency. It can make you lazy. We too often let the external, the material things, serve as indicators that we’re doing well, even though something inside us tells us that we’re not doing our best; that we’re avoiding that which is hard, but also necessary; that we’re shrinking from, rather than rising to, the challenges of the age. The thing is, in this new, hyper-competitive age, none of us can afford to be complacent."

University of Notre Dame, 2009: Hold onto your faith.

"In this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. Stand as a lighthouse.

But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame."

Jason Reed / Reuters
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