First Lady Inspires Students to “Take It Global”

The following is an excerpt of a White House transcript of first lady Michelle Obama’s speech to George Washington University graduates on the National Mall last Sunday.
Read the entire speech on

You understand things that perhaps your parents and I even don’t always have to consider when our world was still separated by walls of concrete and communication.

That we are no longer isolated from what happens on the other side of the world. That it’s in our best interest to look beyond our immediate self-interest, and look out for one another globally. That so many of today’s challenges are borderless, from the economy to terrorism to climate change, and that solving those problems demands cooperation with others. And more than any other generation, yours is fully convinced that you’re uniquely equipped to solve those challenges. You believe that you can change your communities and change the world. And you know what, I think you’re right. Yes, you can.

So today, graduates, I have one more request to make of you, one more challenge, and that is: Keep going. Keep giving. Keep engaging.

I’m asking you to take what you’ve learned here and embrace the full responsibilities that a degree from an institution like GW gives you. I’m asking your generation to be America’s face to the world. It will make the world safer, it will make America stronger, and it will make you more competitive.

Now, you didn’t think I’d show up here without another challenge, did you? (Laughter.)

I know that some of you may be thinking, well, “Hang on, Michelle. I’m in debt, I’ve got to find a job in a tough economy, and now you want me to what?”

And I know there are parents out there thinking the same thing. “Hang on, Michelle. I just shelled out six figures to get my kid to this day, and now you want her to do what?” (Laughter.)

I’m just asking you to keep being you, to keep doing what you’re doing. Just take it global.

Yes, that can mean serving in the world’s most broken places. Or it can simply mean surfing foreign news sources to get an idea of how other young people see things in other parts of the world.

It can mean continuing your own personal and professional growth by traveling far and wide. Or it can mean reaching back to convince the students behind you to try study abroad programs, especially students from communities and backgrounds who might not normally consider it.

It can mean seizing that overseas opportunity with a company. Or it can mean staying here and fixing the world by doing business with the world, and, at the same time, creating opportunity in your own community.

This class of graduates in particular has a leg up, because at GW, you’ve already been trained to think this way. Nearly half of undergraduates here study abroad. As Zoe said, you can’t walk a block without running into the State Department, or the World Bank, or any number of NGOs and faith-based organizations. And all around you, every day, are classmates and friends from more than 130 different countries. So for you, it’s as easy as falling out of bed, even if some of you stay in bed until noon. (Laughter.)

But so many Americans either don’t have those opportunities or simply don’t consider them.

And as interconnected as we are; as quickly as the 21st century global economy moves; we have to find ways to extend those opportunities to as many young people as possible.

And I say this as someone who, like, perhaps many of your parents, didn’t always have or consider those opportunities. As you heard, I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, where the idea of spending some time abroad just didn’t register. My brother and I were the first in our families to go to college, so we were way more focused on just getting in, getting through, and getting on with our lives. And after law school, my priority was paying off my student debt. So, I just never considered that I needed to take an additional journey or expand the boundaries of my own life.

And then I met my husband, whose life was — yeah, yeah — (laughter) — his life was somewhat different than mine. His had been more informed by experiences abroad. And watching him helped me to expand the way I looked at things; to consider my life as connected not just to my country but to the world. And it’s a perspective that we now are trying to instill in our daughters, as well.

And today, fortunately my new role, it affords me extraordinary opportunities to visit foreign countries. And during these trips, I try to spend as much time as possible with young people. And those experiences are what convince me so fully that it’s in this nation’s best interest that your generation get out there, because it’s going to strengthen all of us.

Now, there are some things that government can do, and things that I’ll pursue as First Lady, to bring these opportunities within reach to more young people.

For example, my husband is committed to substantially increasing the number of volunteer opportunities within the Peace Corps. And, by the way, joining the Peace Corps only requires that you be young at heart, because the oldest active member is 85 years old! (Applause.)

We’re also expanding exchange programs, study abroad opportunities; and encouraging universities like GW to create their own, because as those of you who have already participated in study abroad know, the most lasting lessons sometimes don’t always come from books.

But more important than anything government can do will be a sincere willingness on your part to keep sharing your enthusiasm; to keep believing that you can make a difference; to keep going to places where there is brokenness and injustice and despair, and asking what you can do to lift those places up.

It is through the simple act of engaging with your counterparts around the world that you can make the world a safer place. As you know, in times of tension, we tend to focus on what makes us different -– things like color or creed; class or country -– when sometimes, that only serves to deepen misunderstanding and harden mistrust. In the midst of our struggles, we too easily forget about all that we share in common –- that no matter where or how we live, we all have the same dreams: a life of dignity, a chance at opportunity, a better future for our kids.

It reminds me of a story our Secretary of State and friend, Hillary Clinton, told during a visit to one of our embassies earlier this year. She spoke about a meeting she attended with a State Councilor of China, who proudly told her that he had just had his first grandchild.

And Secretary Clinton responded that she thought everyone should bring pictures of their children and grandchildren to international meetings, and set those pictures right in front of them and ask themselves, “Is the decision that we’re about to make going to make their lives better?” And then at the very next meeting together, the first thing he did when he had arrived was pull out a picture of his grandchild.

Now, perhaps some of you have had similar interactions with your classmates; interactions that helped you discover that when we just make that effort to engage with one another; when we share our stories; we begin to build familiarity that often ultimately softens mistrust. We begin to see ourselves in one another. We begin to realize that the forces that bind us are so much more powerful than the forces that blind us.

And 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. 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.

Imagine a child whose first memory of an American is a student who helps him see again. Imagine a community whose first experience with America is a group of youth on winter break standing side by side with them building homes. Imagine a country shattered by a catastrophic earthquake that they see wave after wave of rescuers and doctors and relief workers all wearing the stars and stripes on their sleeve.

Imagine how powerful that is. Imagine what impact thousands of stories like that today can have a decade from now.

Now, this is not to discourage any American from continuing to serve in their own communities in this country as best they can, especially in a time when so many fellow Americans need help here at home. And thanks to the ingenuity of the American people, and a newly strengthened AmeriCorps, there are more opportunities to serve at home than ever before.

But just know that when you serve others abroad, you’re serving our country, too. You’re showing the world the true face of America –- our generosity, our strength, the enduring power of our ideals, the infinite reservoir of our hope.

And yes, serving abroad will make you stronger, more competitive, a more valuable asset for a career in the public or private sectors. Just talk to any of your colleagues who have spent some time abroad. And one of the first things they’ll tell you, for example, is that you’ll never learn a language or develop self-reliance as quickly as you will when you’re on your own in a foreign country!

But they may also tell you that making a difference abroad might just be the thing that inspires you to come back and make a difference here at home. They might tell you that engaging with the world doesn’t just change the course of other people’s lives -– it may change the course of yours, too. You may just find that pivot point that you’ve been looking for, or maybe one that you didn’t even expect at all.

An extraordinary young woman that I met in Mexico last month, during my visit, she told me that in high school, she felt as if she were living in a bubble. So on a whim, she went to Vietnam to volunteer with children.

She described her days there as very “unfair” and “difficult.” She said there were days there “that [made] us feel meaningless.” But she also said there were days “where I felt I could change the world.” And that trip made her realize she wanted to be a doctor. And when she returned to Mexico, she enrolled in medical school. But her journey led her to an important pivot point in her life. She said, and these are her words, “I realized that this is my country. This is where I belong and this is my culture, where I need to help.”

You see, that young woman, she went halfway around the world before she found her way home. And I suspect that something has — like that has happened to many of you.

I know it did for Davina Durgana, who’s a remarkable young woman who’s graduating with you today. A simple mission trip to El Salvador inspired her to take up the cause of human trafficking –- modern day slavery -– when she came back. She found an internship that allowed her to work on an anti-human trafficking campaign, and she’s going to pursue graduate studies in human rights next year at the Sorbonne.

And by the way, Davina, she also serves as a Big Sister to a young girl in Anacostia; she volunteers with wounded warriors at Walter Reed; she helped run a Girl Scouts troop where she encouraged underprivileged girls to get involved; she volunteers as an EMT at the busiest fire department in the D.C. area, and convinced other classmates to join her –- and, somehow, she found time to graduate! That’s for your parents, Davina. (Laughter.)

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.

And more importantly, you can change ours. See, after all, it’s your generation that always has –- often from the very Mall where we’re sitting right now. I mean, just look around you. It was on this Mall where young people marched for women’s rights. It was on this Mall where young people marched for civil rights. It was on this Mall where young people marched for peace, for equality, for awareness.

Decade after decade, young Americans who loved their country; and loved its ideals; who knew that it stood for something larger in the world; came here to this spot to wade into the rushing currents of history because they believed that they could change its course.

And on a cold January morning last year, many of you came here to wade in yourselves. It was the day my husband took the oath of office as President of the United States. And that day, he pledged to seek a new era of American engagement, and he asked each of us to embrace anew our duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world.

Now, I’m not a President. I’m just a citizen. But as a citizen, I’m asking you, as graduates of this global institution, to seize those responsibilities gladly. I’m asking you to fully embrace your role in the next vital chapter of our history. I’m asking you to play your part.

And from what I’ve seen from your class, I have no doubt that you will. Look, we believe in you so deeply. So, your new challenge begins now –- and it’s one that doesn’t end after 100,000 hours.

So thank you, graduates. I wish you God’s grace and the greatest luck on the journey ahead. Congratulations. Thank you. (Applause.)
First Published: May 16, 2010 12:35 PM EDT