Michelle Obama fulfilled her promise to speak to 5,000 graduates at The George Washington University commencement on the National Mall. In September 2009 she vowed that if the GW students, staff, faculty, and trustees completed 100,000 hours of community service, she would be their graduation speaker. Not only did the GW community rally to meet this goal a month before the challenge's May 1 deadline, but the community far exceeded it, completing 163,980 hours of service in the greater Washington, D.C., community and throughout the world.
Obama was impressed with the university's dedication to service. "If I had known that you'd complete more than 3,300 hours on the first day of the challenge," Obama said, "I'd probably have picked a higher number!" The GW students gave back locally by volunteering in homeless shelters and local schools, as well as throwing a prom for senior citizens, shoveling snow for neighbors after "Snowmageddon," and running a medical clinic in Southeast D.C. Some students traveled thousands of miles across the globe on alternative break trips to comfort the sick in Ecuador or build a school in Guatemala.
Obama congratulated the graduates on joining a "generation of activists and doers" noting that for the second year in a row, GW sent the most graduates to the Peace Corps of any medium-sized university, with 53 undergraduate alumni serving this year. "You guys can't be stopped. You don't know the meaning of the word 'can't.' And every time someone's tried to say to tell you that, you've replied... 'Oh, Yes We Can,'" she said to a round of loud applause and laughter from the graduates.
Obama warned the graduates that their duty to serve communities at home and abroad is not over, but is in fact just beginning. "I have one more request to make of you, one more challenge, and that is: Keep going. Keep giving. Keep engaging...I'm asking your generation to be America's face to the world." She asked the graduates to focus abroad, by serving in struggling foreign communities, working in companies with global partnerships, or by simply staying aware of how other young people view different parts of world. By serving abroad, Obama says students are also serving their own country by making themselves "stronger, more competitive, [and] a more valuable asset for a career in the public or private sectors."
Taking Up the New Challenge
Bishara Addison, who graduated from GW with a B.A. in political science, said after the ceremony that she was planning to continue volunteering In her senior year, she volunteered more than 300 hours with the D.C. chapter of LIFT, a non-profit providing jobs, housing and workforce skills for low-income individuals. She is interviewing for a position in an Americorps-funded program that works with low-income communities in Boston. She appreciated the First Lady's new challenge to serve throughout the world. "I really felt she was taking her challenge and all the service we did, and giving it a global context. She was saying that you're actually going to be going out into the real world and taking all the skills that you've gained from doing your service and really be able to have a positive influence on the world."
Obama's encouragement to join international service organizations, including the Peace Corps, reaffirmed GW graduate MacKenzie Drutowski's decision to volunteer in Niger with the federally funded organization. "[Obama's] emphasis on the importance of international service and bringing outside experiences to the U.S. to enrich our own understanding and our own national identity was really inspiring," she says. Drutowski, who graduated with a B.A. in international affairs, logged 145 hours of service this year helping to teach reading and math in a D.C. elementary school. She says this volunteer work with the D.C. youth, most of whom were non-native English speakers, helped prepare her to teach youth with the Peace Corps in Niger.