The Obamas ensured graduating students across the United States felt celebrated this weekend, even if they couldn’t attend a traditional commencement ceremony due to COVID-19 school shutdowns.
Former United States President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama hosted Dear Class of 2020, a nearly five-hour virtual YouTube special on Sunday. Michelle Obama’s “Reach Higher” education initiative hosted the first hour of the night.
Some of the world’s biggest musicians, actors, and influential figures joined the event to celebrate the graduating class of 2020. Lizzo, Shawn Mendes, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Maluma, Jimmy Kimmel, Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, and more all joined the show.
In the wake of worldwide protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement to stop systemic racism and the murders of Black Americans, several artists shared advice for the current generation on how to be a part of the solution.
Keys highlighted the class of 2020’s role in effecting change in a moving speech.
“The world feels broken right now,” she said. “It is broken right now in so many ways, but you're taking your heartbreak and your outrage and you're putting it into action and you are showing that your generation is the one that's gonna heal this.”
Michelle Obama shared a similar sentiment and opened her vulnerable address by explaining how the fear of police brutality can make it difficult to start reaching your full potential. She went on to offer guidelines for how graduates can move forward during difficult times.
“Life will always be uncertain,” Obama said. “So, graduates, I hope that what you’re going through right now can be your wake-up call, that it pushes you not just to think about what kind of career you want to build, but what kind of person you want to be.”
Young people have the chance to learn valuable lessons faster than previous generations, she said.
“And that leads me to my second lesson: In an uncertain world, time-tested values like honesty and integrity, empathy and compassion — that’s the only real currency in life,” Obama continued. “Treating people right will never, ever fail you.”
Lastly, she encouraged students to use their voices to speak up, and support their protest efforts with policies, organizing, and voting.
“If you’re spending a lot of time just hashtagging and posting right now, that’s useful, especially during a pandemic,” Obama said. “But it’s only a beginning. Go further.”
Beyoncé applauded graduates for amplifying the Black Lives Matter movement and persevering through a global pandemic. The pop star opened up about her experience with sexism in the entertainment industry, and how she’s worked to give Black women opportunities within her company. She encouraged women to acknowledge their power, young men to challenge gender roles, and everyone to lean into their differences.
“There’s so many different ways to be brilliant,” Beyoncé said. “I believe you and every human being is born with a masterful gift. Don’t let the world make you feel that you have to look a certain way to be brilliant.”
Lady Gaga shared her hope with the class of 2020 that they will become forces of change. Eradicating racism will require time, effort, and grace, she explained.
“We can control time and sufficient effort,” Lady Gaga said. “We can’t control divine grace, but I believe divine grace is the faith we can choose to place in each other, to prosper lovingly and effectively.”
Former President Obama helped close the night and urged the class of 2020 to challenge the status quo.
“You don’t have to accept the world as it is,” he said. “You can make it into the world as it should be and could be. You can create a new normal, one that is fairer, and gives everyone opportunity, and treats everyone equally, and builds bridges between people instead of dividing them.”
Obama also advised graduates to stand up for what’s right, listen, and respect each other, and have faith in the country’s democracy.