Senator Barack Obama’s Commencement Address at Wesleyan University
Wesleyan University Commencement Ceremonies
Middletown, CT, USA
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Thank you, President Roth, for that generous introduction, and
congratulations on your first year at the helm of Wesleyan.
Congratulations also to the class of 2008, and thank you for allowing
me to be a part of your graduation.
I have the distinct honor today of pinch-hitting for one of my
personal heroes and a hero to this country, Senator Edward Kennedy.
Teddy wanted to be here very much, but as you know, he’s had a very
long week and is taking some much-needed rest. He called me up a few
days ago and I said that I’d be happy to be his stand-in, even if
there was no way I could fill his shoes.
I did, however, get the chance to glance at the speech he planned on
delivering today, and I’d like to start by passing along a message
from him: “To all those praying for my return to good health, I offer
my heartfelt thanks. And to any who’d rather have a different result,
I say, don?t get your hopes up just yet!”
So we know that Ted Kennedy’s legendary sense of humor is as strong as
ever, and I have no doubt that his equally legendary fighting spirit
will carry him through this latest challenge. He is our friend, he is
our champion, and we hope and pray for his return to good health.
The topic of his speech today was common for a commencement, but one
that nobody could discuss with more authority or inspiration than Ted
Kennedy. And that is the topic of service to one’s country — a cause
that is synonymous with his family’s name and their legacy.
I was born the year that his brother John called a generation of
Americans to ask their country what they could do. And I came of age
at a time when they did it. They were the Peace Corps volunteers who
won a generation of goodwill toward America at a time when America’s
ideals were challenged. They were the teenagers and college students,
not much older than you, who watched the Civil Rights Movement unfold
on their television sets; who saw the dogs and the fire hoses and the
footage of marchers beaten within an inch of their lives; who knew it
was probably smarter and safer to stay at home, but still decided to
take those Freedom Rides down south; who still decided to march. And
because they did, they changed the world.
I bring this up because today, you are about to enter a world that
makes it easy to get caught up in the notion that there are actually
two different stories at work in our lives.
The first is the story of our everyday cares and concerns — the
responsibilities we have to our jobs and our families, the bustle and
busyness of what happens in our own life. And the second is the story
of what happens in the life of our country — of what happens in the
wider world. It’s the story you see when you catch a glimpse of the
day’s headlines or turn on the news at night — a story of big
challenges like war and recession; hunger and climate change;
injustice and inequality. It’s a story that can sometimes seem distant
and separate from our own — a destiny to be shaped by forces beyond
And yet, the history of this nation tells us this isn’t so. It tells
us that we are a people whose destiny has never been written for us,
but by us — by generations of men and women, young and old, who have
always believed that their story and the American story are not
separate, but shared. And for more than two centuries, they have
served this country in ways that have forever enriched both.
I say this to you as someone who couldn’t be standing here today if
not for the service of others, and wouldn’t be standing here today if
not for the purpose that service gave my own life.
You see, I spent much of my childhood adrift. My father left my mother
and I when I was two. When my mother remarried, I lived in Indonesia
for a time, but was mostly raised in Hawaii by her and my grandparents
from Kansas. My teenage years were filled with more than the usual
dose of adolescent rebellion, and I’ll admit that I didn’t always take
myself or my studies very seriously. I realize that none of you can
probably relate to this, but there were many times when I wasn’t sure
where I was going, or what I would do.
But during my first two years of college, perhaps because the values
my mother had taught me — hard work, honesty, empathy — had resurfaced
after a long hibernation; or perhaps because of the example of
wonderful teachers and lasting friends, I began to notice a world
beyond myself. I became active in the movement to oppose the apartheid
regime of South Africa. I began following the debates in this country
about poverty and health care. So that by the time I graduated from
college, I was possessed with a crazy idea — that I would work at a
grassroots level to bring about change.
I wrote letters to every organization in the country I could think of.
And one day, a small group of churches on the South Side of Chicago
offered me a job to come work as a community organizer in
neighborhoods that had been devastated by steel plant closings. My
mother and grandparents wanted me to go to law school. My friends were
applying to jobs on Wall Street. Meanwhile, this organization offered
me $12,000 a year plus $2,000 for an old, beat-up car.
And I said yes.
Now, I didn’t know a soul in Chicago, and I wasn’t sure what this
community organizing business was all about. I had always been
inspired by stories of the Civil Rights Movement and JFK’s call to
service, but when I got to the South Side, there were no marches, and
no soaring speeches. In the shadow of an empty steel plant, there were
just a lot of folks who were struggling. And we didn’t get very far at
I still remember one of the very first meetings we put together to
discuss gang violence with a group of community leaders. We waited and
waited for people to show up, and finally, a group of older people
walked into the hall. And they sat down. And a little old lady raised
her hand and asked, “Is this where the bingo game is?”
It wasn’t easy, but eventually, we made progress. Day by day, block by
block, we brought the community together, and registered new voters,
and set up after-school programs, and fought for new jobs, and helped
people live lives with some measure of dignity.
But I also began to realize that I wasn’t just helping other people.
Through service, I found a community that embraced me; citizenship
that was meaningful; the direction I’d been seeking. Through service,
I discovered how my own improbable story fit into the larger story of
Each of you will have the chance to make your own discovery in the
years to come. And I say “chance” because you won’t have to take it.
There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one
forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage,
and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the
other things that our money culture says you should buy. You can choose
to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep
your story separate from America’s.
But I hope you don’t. Not because you have an obligation to those who
are less fortunate, though you do have that obligation. Not because
you have a debt to all those who helped you get here, though you do
have that debt.
It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our
individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking
only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs,
betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it’s only when you hitch your
wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true
potential and discover the role you’ll play in writing the next great
chapter in America’s story.
There are so many ways to serve and so much need at this defining
moment in our history. You don’t have to be a community organizer or
do something crazy like run for President. Right here at Wesleyan,
many of you have already volunteered at local schools, contributed to
United Way, and even started a program that brings fresh produce to
needy families in the area. One hundred and sixty-four graduates of
this school have joined the Peace Corps since 2001, and I’m especially
proud that two of you are about to leave for my father’s homeland of
Kenya to bring alternative sources of energy to impoverished areas.
I ask you to seek these opportunities when you leave here, because the
future of this country — your future — depends on it. At a time when
our security and moral standing depend on winning hearts and minds in
the forgotten corners of this world, we need more of you to serve
abroad. As President, I intend to grow the Foreign Service, double the
Peace Corps over the next few years, and engage the young people of
other nations in similar programs, so that we could work side by side to
take on the common challenges that confront all humanity.
At a time when our ice caps are melting and our oceans are rising, we
need you to help lead a green revolution. We still have time to avoid
the catastrophic consequences of climate change if we get serious
about investing in renewable sources of energy, and if we get a
generation of volunteers to work on renewable energy projects, and
teach folks about conservation, and help clean up polluted areas, if
we send talented engineers and scientists abroad to help developing
countries promote clean energy.
At a time when a child in Boston must compete with children in Beijing
and Bangalore, we need an army of you to become teachers and
principals in schools that this nation cannot afford to give up on. I
will pay our educators what they deserve, and give them more support,
but I will also ask more of them to be mentors to other teachers, and
serve in high-need schools and high-need subject areas like math and
At a time when there are children in the city of New Orleans who still
spend each night in a lonely trailer, we need more of you to take a
weekend or a week off from work, and head down South, and help
rebuild. If you can’t get the time, volunteer at the local homeless
shelter or soup kitchen in your own community. Find an organization
that’s fighting poverty, or a candidate who promotes policies you
believe in, and find a way to help them.
At a time of war, we need you to work for peace. At a time of
inequality, we need you to work for opportunity. At a time of so much
cynicism and so much doubt, we need you to make us believe again.
Now understand this – believing that change is possible is not the
same as being naïve. Go into service with your eyes wide open, for
change will not come easily. On the big issues that our nation faces,
difficult choices await. We’ll have to face some hard truths, and some
sacrifice will be required — not only from you individually, but from
the nation as a whole.
There is no magic bullet to our energy problems, for example; no
perfect energy source – so all of us will have to use the energy
sources we have more wisely. Deep-rooted poverty will not be reversed
overnight, and will require both money and reform at a time when our
federal and state budgets are strapped and Washington is skeptical
that reform is possible. Transforming our education system will
require not only bold government action, but a change in attitudes
among parents and students. Bringing an end to the slaughter in Darfur
will involve navigating extremely difficult realities on the ground,
even for those with the best of intentions.
And so, should you take the path of service, should you choose to take
up one of these causes as your own, know that you’ll experience
frustrations and failures. Even your successes will be marked by
imperfections and unintended consequences. I guarantee you, there will
certainly be times when friends or family urge you to pursue more
sensible endeavors with more tangible rewards. And there will be times
when you are tempted to take their advice.
But I hope you’ll remember, during those times of doubt and
frustration, that there is nothing naïve about your impulse to change
this world. Because all it takes is one act of service — one blow
against injustice — to send forth that tiny ripple of hope that Robert
Kennedy spoke of.
You know, Ted Kennedy often tells a story about the fifth anniversary
celebration of the Peace Corps. He was there, and he asked one of the
young Americans why he had chosen to volunteer. And the man replied,
“Because it was the first time someone asked me to do something for my
I don’t know how many of you have been asked that question, but after
today, you have no excuses. I am asking you, and if I should have the
honor of serving this nation as President, I will be asking again in
the coming years. We may disagree on certain issues and positions, but
I believe we can be unified in service to a greater good. I intend to
make it a cause of my presidency, and I believe with all my heart that
this generation is ready, and eager, and up to the challenge.
We will face our share of cynics and doubters. But we always have. I
can still remember a conversation I had with an older man all those
years ago just before I left for Chicago. He said, “Barack, I’ll give
you a bit of advice. Forget this community organizing business and do
something that’s gonna make you some money. You can’t change the
world, and people won’t appreciate your trying. But you’ve got a nice
voice, so you should think about going into television broadcasting.
I’m telling you, you’ve got a future.”
Now, he may have been right about the TV thing, but he was wrong about
everything else. For that old man has not seen what I have seen. He
has not seen the faces of ordinary people the first time they clear a
vacant lot or build a new playground or force an unresponsive leader
to provide services to their community. He has not seen the face of a
child brighten because of an inspiring teacher or mentor. He has not
seen scores of young people educate their parents on issues like
Darfur, or mobilize the conscience of a nation around the challenge of
climate change. He has not seen lines of men and women that wrap
around schools and churches, that stretch block after block just so
they could make their voices heard, many for the very first time.
And that old man who didn’t believe the world could change — who
didn’t think one person could make a difference — well, he certainly
didn’t know much about the life of Joseph Kennedy’s youngest son.
It is rare in this country of ours that a person exists who has
touched the lives of nearly every single American without many of us
even realizing it. And yet, because of Ted Kennedy, millions of
children can see a doctor when they get sick. Mothers and fathers can
leave work to spend time with their newborns. Working Americans are
paid higher wages, and compensated for overtime, and can keep their
health insurance when they change jobs. They are protected from
discrimination in the workplace, and those who are born with
disabilities can still get an education, and health care, and fair
treatment on the job. Our schools are stronger and our colleges are
filled with more Americans who can afford it. And I have a feeling
that Ted Kennedy is not done just yet.
But surely, if one man can achieve so much and make such a difference
in the lives of so many, then each of us can do our part. Surely, if
his service and his story can forever shape America’s story, then our
collective service can shape the destiny of this generation. At the
very least, his living example calls each of us to try. That is all I
ask of you on this joyous day of new beginnings; that is what Senator
Kennedy asks of you as well, and that is how we will keep so much
needed work going, and the cause of justice everlasting, and the dream
alive for generations to come.
Thank you so much to the class of 2008, and congratulations on your graduation.