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In virtual commencement, Obama called on graduates to be 'warriors for justice'

“These aren’t normal times,” the former president said in addressing graduates facing the most unstable job market since the Great Depression.
Image: Barack Obama delivers a virtual commencement address on May 16, 2020.
Barack Obama delivers a virtual commencement address on May 16, 2020.Getty Images

For Tamyah Beck, listening to former President Barack Obama’s graduation message of hope and inspiration over the weekend was also a bit nerve-wracking.

“It’s scary because some of my friends who graduated with me aren’t sure what they are going to do about starting their career because of the coronavirus,” said Beck, who earned a degree in rehabilitation psychology from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

She got a job in her chosen profession at a private school in Maryland after interning there.

“I’m fortunate,” Beck told NBC News. “But because of the coronavirus I didn’t even pursue other opportunities.”

Beck isn’t alone.

Image: Tamyah Beck, who graduated from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore last week, said she cried over not having a traditional ceremony, but the virtual graduation featuring former President Obama was a sufficient substitute.
Tamyah Beck, who graduated from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore last week, said she cried over not having a traditional ceremony, but the virtual graduation featuring former President Obama was a sufficient substitute.Courtesy of Tamyah Beck

Obama delivered a virtual graduation speech for 27,000 students of historically black colleges on Saturday, a stirring message of optimism for graduates entering the most unstable workforce since the Great Depression.

He was the comforter-in-chief, delivering an address that served as a warm blanket and clarion call for the 2020 class of HBCUs to embrace the challenge of influencing a world that seems at the moment to not have a place for them.

"These aren’t normal times,” Obama said. “You’re being asked to find your way in a world in the middle of a devastating pandemic and a terrible recession. The timing is not ideal. And let’s be honest — a disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country.”

“What is new is that so much of your generation has woken up to the fact that the status quo needs fixing; that the old ways of doing things don’t work; and that it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick; that our society and democracy only works when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other,” Obama said.

The comedian/actor Kevin Hart hosted the two-hour graduation that aired on the YouTube and Twitter channels of JP Morgan Chase, a sponsor of the event. Leaders and celebrities from various industries — music, film, business, finance, politics, etc. — contributed video messages.

The movie producer Will Packer (“Ride Along,” “Girls Trip”), a Florida A&M graduate, told the viewers: “You have the relationships, the skill set and the network. Don’t let any situation hold you back.”

Some dreams may be deferred. More than 30 million workers have filed for unemployment since the pandemic began, and many of the jobs some students had hoped to land this summer no longer exist.

There are also fears among black educators, parents and students that some black colleges that are already struggling financially could close permanently as a result of the pandemic.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, more than 6,000 fewer students attended the 101 HBCUs during the 2018-19 school year than the previous year. The most recent total of 291,767 students was the lowest since 2001.

Schools like Bethune Cookman and Cheney University, among others, are in financial quagmires. Prairie View A&M University recently received a $110,000 emergency grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to provide relief for graduating seniors who have suffered economic hardships as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We know that students and their families will face enormous hurdles because of this global health crisis. We are grateful that the Mellon Foundation has stepped in to assist those students who are nearing graduation yet are desperately in need of assistance to complete their studies,” James M. Palmer, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said in a statement.

Despite those enrollment and financial concerns, speakers during the virtual graduation pointed out that HBCUs produce 70 percent of African American doctors and dentists, 50 percent of black lawyers and 80 percent of black judges. HBCU graduates in 2014 could be expected to earn $130 billion over their lifetimes — 56 percent more than they could expect to earn without their HBCU degrees or certificates, according to the United Negro College Fund.

Dr. Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, said that black colleges are being hit especially hard because of a lack of technical infrastructure and staff relocation.

“This is an unprecedented situation for all of us, but we are up to the challenge,” Lomax said in a statement on the fund’s website. “UNCF is working rapidly to help address the critical emergency needs of our students and HBCUs particularly because the needs of these institutions are especially acute.”

The UNCF funds scholarships for 37 private historically black colleges and universities.

“We at UNCF know that foundational HBCU legacies, dreams of a college education and brighter futures, and the important work of UNCF must not be washed away by such turbulent times,” he said.

And Obama’s message of HBCU support resounded in his speech.

“As young African Americans, you’ve been exposed, earlier than some, to the world as it is,” Obama said. “But as young HBCU grads, your education has also shown you the world as it ought to be. . . And I’m here to tell you, you made a great choice (going to an HBCU). Whether you realize it or not, you’ve got more road maps, more role models, more resources than the civil rights generation did. You’ve got more tools, technology, and talents than my generation did. No generation has been better positioned to be warriors for justice and remake the world.”

Meanwhile, Beck sees herself as one of Obama's graduating warriors.

“To hear President Obama say we can still make a difference, can still change the world,” Beck said, “that was uplifting for everyone.”