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Obama's Commencement Speech: Never Rest On Your Laurels

06/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Adam Sneed, writing for The State Press, broke the ASU story that made headlines in early April.

When President Barack Obama spoke to Arizona State University's graduating class Wednesday night, he made one thing clear: He has not achieved enough in his lifetime.

In his first commencement speech as president, Obama said he wanted to "clear the air" about the honorary degree controversy, which he turned into an encouraging message to graduates.

"I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven't yet achieved enough in my life," he said. "I come to embrace it, to heartily concur, to affirm that one's title - even a title like president - says very little about how well one's life has been led, and that no matter how much you've done, or how successful you've been, there's always more to do, more to learn, more to achieve."

The university's original explanation for its decision against awarding a degree was that "Obama's body of work is yet to come," as spokeswoman Sharon Keeler said April 7.

Many were upset with this reasoning, believing the university was saying he hadn't achieved enough in his career to earn an honorary degree.

But Wednesday night at Sun Devil Stadium, Obama stressed the importance of always building that body of work.

Students have achieved a great deal by earning their degrees, he said, but must continue to do more. Obama urged graduates to apply their knowledge and experience to large-scale projects like teaching in high-need schools or leading a green revolution, as well as to individual tasks like mentoring a troubled child or finding friends at a local homeless shelter.

"That's what building a body of work is all about," he said. "It's about the daily labor, the many individual acts, the choices large and small that add up to a lasting legacy."
New alumna Lindsay Traub, who graduated Wednesday with a degree in English literature, said Obama's call to action in hard times was very encouraging.

"Just like he said, ... it doesn't matter as long as you're helping people," she said. "It gives me hope for the future."

Rebecca Sommer, who graduated with a degree in biology, said the strongest point of Obama's message was that one person really can make a difference.
"It makes you reassured that with the economy the way it is, you still have a place and you can still do good," she said.

Sommer said she was torn as to whether or not Obama should have received an honorary degree from ASU, but thought he handled it in the best way possible by joking about it and then turning it into a serious message to graduates.

Obama called the situation "much ado about nothing," but added in jest that everyone had learned important lessons from the debacle.

"I learned to never again pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA bracket," he said. "And your university president and board of regents will soon learn all about being audited by the IRS."

But all joking aside, Obama told graduates to look past individual achievements and failures in life.

"One thing I know about a body of work is that it's never finished," he said. "It's cumulative. It deepens and expands with every day that you give your best, and give back, and contribute to the life of this nation."