Remarks of First Lady Michelle Obama at Quantico Middle High School Commencement
As Prepared for Delivery—
It is such a pleasure and an honor to be here with all of you tonight. I want to thank your principal, Mr. Hollier, for that very kind introduction and for his leadership. I also want to recognize Brannon and Emily for their wonderful remarks and their outstanding achievements. And of course, graduates, let’s take a moment to celebrate all the folks sitting behind you today with the cameras and the big beaming smiles.
Now, even under the best of circumstances, it’s not easy to raise kids who turn out as well as all of you. But parents, you’ve managed to do this as Marines, carrying out missions across the globe while somehow still finding time for bedtime stories over the phone and advice via video chat. You’ve done it as spouses running your households and juggling your careers all alone through deployment after deployment, PCS after PCS. And I have to tell you that as a mother, as a First Lady, and as an American, I am blown away by your strength. I am inspired by your sacrifice. And I know that our graduates are so grateful for your unwavering love and support. So graduates, let’s give your families a round of applause.
Finally, to the class of 2011, congratulations, we are all so very proud of you! And I want everyone to know that today’s ceremony doesn’t just include the 27 outstanding members of the Quantico class of 2011. We also have nine graduates from two high schools in Japan who were evacuated after the earthquake and missed having commencement ceremonies of their own. I think it says a great deal about the generosity of spirit here at Quantico that you’ve welcomed these students to be part of your graduation. And I also think it says a great deal about these nine young men and women that they’ve handled this upheaval so well. Though frankly, I’m not surprised.
I’m not surprised by their strength and their grace or by your kindness and compassion. Because over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of visiting military families and communities across this country. And these are the qualities that I’ve seen in every military kid that I’ve met. That’s why preparing for this commencement was a little bit intimidating. Coming up with a thoughtful message for all of you was no small challenge.
You see, usually, when I give a commencement speech, I reassure the graduates that they’ll be just fine taking on new challenges, leaving their hometowns, being apart from their families, and starting over at a new school. Or I urge them to broaden their horizons and expose themselves to all kinds of people and cultures and experiences. Or I tell them that they have an obligation to give back, to volunteer in their communities and serve their country. But graduates, the truth is that none of you needs to hear this advice today, because as military kids, you’ve already lived it.
You all have moved an average of more than six times each, and one of you has moved 18 times. This is the fourth time Emily has lived at Quantico, and each time she’s been in school with an entirely new group of kids. So when it comes to leaving behind everything you know and starting over again, you’ve all been there and done that. Having lived all across the country and around the world, I think your horizons are already pretty broad. And many of you have watched your parents deploy halfway around the world for months on end, carrying out critical missions to keep us all safe.
So I think you already know a thing or two about serving your country. As military kids, you all have faced challenges, you’ve learned lessons, and you’ve had experiences that most people don’t have in their entire lifetimes, let alone in their first 18 years. And I know that most of you don’t fully understand just how rare and unique you really are, because most of you have never known any other way of life. So for you, how you live and what you deal with every day is just no big deal, it’s nothing special.
But I’m here today because I think it is a big deal. I’m here because I think that all of you are incredibly special. And that’s what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about what makes military kids like you so special. I want to talk about the skills, the character, and the unique perspective that you’ve all developed. And I want to talk about how all of that will serve you throughout your lives, no matter where your journeys take you, no matter what life throws in your path.
So let’s start with the strength, resilience and maturity that each of you has developed as a military kid. Now, unlike some other generations of military kids, all of you have come of age during a time of war. And you all watch the news. You all understand what your parents are fighting for – and what they’re fighting against. You’ve lived with the reality and the worry that at any moment, they could be deployed halfway around the world, and your lives turned upside down.
And when this happens, you have to adjust quickly, learning to say grace night after night with an empty seat at the table, keeping your spirits up through all the missed holidays, games and special moments when you would have given anything to have your mom or dad there by your side, stepping up to help with chores, even when you were juggling activities and homework of your own. Putting on a brave face for everyone, even when you were worried beyond measure, reassuring friends and family that you were OK, even when sometimes you weren’t. So unlike some of your civilian peers, I don’t think any of you are going to panic about having to do your own laundry or cook your own meals when it’s time to leave home.
And I don’t think any of you are going to sweat the small stuff. A bad grade on a test, a bad day at work, that’s not going to knock you off your game. Because from a very young age, you all have been dealing with the big stuff. And that’s given you perspective. You may not realize it now, but your experience has given you a resilience and a sturdiness of spirit that will prepare you for the setbacks and hardships that you will inevitably face in life. And that’s something that no one can ever take away from you.
And let’s be clear, your time as a military kid hasn’t just strengthened your heart. It hasn’t just shaped your character. It has also broadened your mind. And that’s the second point I want to make today.
Now, some of you aren’t even old enough to vote yet…but you’ve already lived all across this country and around the world. You’ve immersed yourselves in new communities and new cultures. You’ve learned new languages and eaten new foods, some of which you may wish you never did. Most important of all, you’ve learned how to make friends with people from all different backgrounds. You’ve learned to look beyond the surface – what someone looks like, what their accent sounds like, what they’re wearing. Instead, you’ve gotten to know people for who they really are. And you’ve formed friendships that have challenged your assumptions and exposed you to all kinds of new experiences: music you never would have listened to, places you never would have been, ideas you never would have thought of on your own. And all this doesn’t just make for an interesting Facebook page.
It’s also the key to an interesting and successful career, no matter what field you pursue, no matter where you choose to pursue it. Think about it for a minute. We have the privilege of living in one of the most diverse nations on earth. So chances are that the folks you’ll encounter in the coming years – your colleagues, your classmates, your clients, your patients – these folks will likely be from backgrounds that are very different from your own. And these days, with modern technology and the rise of a global economy, it’s possible to do business with just about anyone, just about anywhere in the world. So some of you might find yourselves working at a company here in Virginia or maybe in California or Minnesota that’s selling products to people in Asia or Latin America or even Africa.
And graduates, you’ll be ready for all of this on the very first day of your very first job…because you’ve already done it. You already know how to get along with different people. You already know how to navigate different cultures. So you already have a skill set that so many employers are seeking, one that will position you for success both in the career you choose and the life you build for yourself with your family. Because in the end, nothing else in your life – not your job, not your paycheck, not your achievements – nothing matters more than your family.
And that brings me to the third reason why your experience as military kids is so valuable. It’s taught you what it means – and what it takes – to sustain strong, healthy families. Now, as is the case for all of you, for the Obamas, our family is our rock. It’s the center of our universe. And I feel tremendously blessed that we’re all together right now in the White House, eating dinner together most nights, seeing the girls off to school most mornings. But this wasn’t always the case.
There were those years when my husband was in the Senate, and he was out in Washington during the week, and only home on weekends. Then he was out on the campaign trail, gone for days – sometimes weeks – on end. And this put a strain on our family. We missed each other. We had misunderstandings, which is easy to do when you’re only in touch through email or phone calls. Sometimes our frustration that we weren’t with each other would become frustration with each other. And our experience as a family is nothing – nothing – compared to what many of your families have dealt with.
It’s not even in the same universe. So I have to tell you, I am in awe of you. I’m in awe of how, for so many of you, dealing with the stresses of military life has actually strengthened your family bonds, rather than weakening them. I’m in awe of how spending time apart has actually brought you even closer together.
And I know this doesn’t just happen by accident. It happens because you all put in the effort, using every piece of technology known to man, staying up all hours of the day and night to make sure you connect. It happens because unlike many young people, you don’t take your families for granted. You actually say those things that folks too rarely say to the people they love – things like “I’m proud of you”, or “I don’t know what I’d do without you”, or “I love you more than I can put in words.”
And most of all, it happens because you all have the maturity to understand that your parents are part of something far bigger than themselves, or you, or your family. You understand that their service keeps every single American safe. They protect and defend the freedoms that every single one of us holds dear. So you all have stepped up to support their work. You’ve done those extra chores. You’ve made that extra effort to keep in touch. You’ve worked hard to stay strong and be brave even when you were worried or scared. In short, when your parents were called to serve, you all answered that call as well.
For all these years, you’ve been serving right alongside them. And that’s actually the final topic that I’d like to discuss – what you’ve learned about service, to your families, your community, and your country. I think it’s fair to say that for military kids, service is the air that you breathe. It’s how you were raised. It’s the example your parents set for you from the day you were born. And it’s the example that all of you are setting for others.
You guys have logged in hundreds of hours volunteering – serving as soccer coaches and referees, tutoring students and picking up trash, working with organizations like the Red Cross and Toys for Tots. And I’m told that several of you are planning to follow in your parents’ footsteps with military service of your own.
Brannon calls herself a “daddy’s girl” and used to try on her father’s flight suit when she was little. Now she’s headed to the Merchant Marine Academy, where she’ll carry on the family tradition of serving in uniform.And all that is on top of the daily service that you all perform just by being military kids.
I think that Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described it well when he said – and this is a quote: “Your mom, or your dad, is serving our country at an extraordinary time in our history and they couldn’t do it as well as they do without your support.” You make a difference. We know you’re sacrificing, and yet you’re part of the greater whole. You really are the greatest. I think that’s worth repeating: you really are the greatest. Your families know that. Our military leaders know that. I know that. My husband knows that. And we want every single American to know it as well. That’s why we all brag about America’s military kids every chance we get.
And tonight, as you prepare to leave Quantico and make your way in the world, I hope that all of you will take every opportunity to brag on yourselves as well. I hope you’ll never be shy about telling your classmates, your co-workers, your neighbors about the extraordinary lives you’ve lived. I hope you’ll tell them about the places you’ve been, and the lessons you’ve learned, and the challenges you’ve overcome. I want as many people as possible to know your stories.
Because graduates, you all are an inspiration. You all are role models, not just for other military kids, but for all kids, for all adults, for all Americans who want to see what patriotism and sacrifice and service to country really look like.
And I want to end tonight by quoting one of your classmates – Chase King. Chase recently said – and these are his words: “I feel like I’d like to get out there and be something important…something that could change lives.” Well graduates, make no mistake about it, you already are something important. You already have changed lives.
And with everything you’ve learned and everything you’ve experienced as military kids, I know you will continue to do that wherever your journeys may take you. So congratulations again on all your achievements, and Godspeed on the road ahead. Thank you, and God bless.