George Washington University is in its 189th year since an act by Congress held its commencement ceremony on the National Mall. This year, GWU president Steven Knapp conferred Honorary Degrees to well known jazz legend David Brubeck, businessman James Clark, owner of Clark Construction and a Honorary Doctor of Public Service to First Lady Michelle Obama.
Amid cheers, Mrs. Obama, the third First Lady in the history of the university to speak at GW's Commencement, welcomed the students, acknowledged their families and loved ones who supported them on their journey in both known and unknown ways. She congratulated the students for not only meeting her 100,000 service hours challenge, but far surpassing the final total with 163,890 hours of service to others. Students volunteered building houses, tutoring, mentoring, serving meals at soup kitchens, shoveling snow after "Snowmageddon", picking up groceries for senior citizens, helping veterans, hosting a prom for senior citizens, helping with rebuilding projects in New Orleans over spring break and other impressive acts of kindness. Activities helped local neighbors, those in other states and other countries.
First Lady Michelle Obama's challenge was clear: "Complete 100,000 hours of community service by May 1st and I'll be your commencement speaker." She joked: Had I known they would accumulate over 3,000 hours the first day, 19,000 hours in seven weeks, she should have increased the numbers. With letters updating the progress, she soon realized she would need to start working on her commencement speech. No one was disappointed!
"You have fully joined a generation of activists and doers. And when you think about how your generation has come of age, that's pretty astounding. I mean, you all have seen so much. Just since you were in middle school, you've witnessed terrorism touch our soil, you've seen the cost of war reach into our communities. You've watched unimaginable devastation and suffering in the aftermath of a tsunami; a hurricane; an earthquake. You've felt the wrath of a recession that's changed your towns and even your families."
GW graduate Shakir Cannon-Moye (Edgewater Park, NJ) participated in a Habitat for Humanity community service project with President and Mrs. Obama at the Deanwood Housing Project in Northeast Washington, D.C. as part of the MLK Day's events. Shakir will continue with GWU in the fall as a Presidential Administrative Fellow earning his MBA. This past winter, he participated in a community build in Cusco, Peru as part of a university-supported alternative winter break. GW students come from 130 countries and 50 percent of GW students travel abroad during some part of their school career. For the second year in a row, the university came in first in number of students applying to the Peace Corps and Teach for America for a school of its size.
Mrs. Obama stated she was here for a reason, not just because it's a quick commute! She emphasized the uniqueness of the position of the university. In introduction of the First Lady, Zoe Petkanas (Putnam Valley, NY) said, "On my first day in 2006 I was on Pennsylvania Avenue when the Presidential motorcade went by, I knew this would not be your usual University experience." You walk out of a building and you are running into the State Department, or the World Bank, or any number of NGOs and faith-based organizations. We witnessed history, our professors enriched lessons with their own depth of experience and knowledge.
Mrs. Obama reflected on her own upbringing; she and her brother were first in their family to attend college. She wished the graduates would continue to do amazing things and take it global.
"When we received the challenge from the First Lady, we knew there was no question that George Washington University students, faculty and staff would rise to that very exciting opportunity. But we had no idea we would reach the goal so far in advance of the May 1st deadline," said GW President Steven Knapp. "Thanks to Mrs. Obama, service became the focus of school spirit for the entire academic year, pulling together the entire university community in a unique way."
In the ending of an eloquent speech, Doctor Michelle Obama continued: "So for every ill of this interconnected world, you've tried to find a way to make good. Where there's hate, you've tried to heal it. Where there's need, you've tried to fill it. Where there's devastation, you've tried to rebuild it." Obama continued: "So today, graduates, I have one more request to make of you, one more challenge, and that is: Keep going. Keep giving. Keep engaging." And they will.