Michelle Obama: Brave the Noise to Achieve Progress

May 25, 2015

Communications Staff

Michelle Obama at commencement exercise in 2015
First Lady Michelle Obama is introduced by President Marvin Krislov (left) and Oberlin Board of Trustees Chair Clyde McGregor before the start of her address to the class of 2015 on Monday, May 25, 2015, in Tappan Square.
Photo credit: Scott Shaw

Michelle Obama Commencement Speech

First Lady Michelle Obama addressed the graduating class in Oberlin’s Commencement exercises on May 25, 2015, during which she was presented with an Honorary Doctor of Humanities degree. The First Lady selected Oberlin in a Near-Peer Commencement Video Challenge as part of her Reach Higher Initiative. Oberlin submitted a winning video that showcases the college’s Ninde Scholars program.

Near-Peer Video Challenge Winners

Ninde Scholars provides support and college access services to a group of 7th-12th graders in the Oberlin City Schools. Since its inception in 2005, about 80 percent of the participants have attended college or graduated from a four-year college.

Produced by Patrick Gilfether ’15, the video features mentor and Oberlin College junior Amethyst Carey and Oberlin High School senior Morgan K. Smith.

Ninde Scholars at Oberlin

Speaking to a packed crowd on Oberlin's Tappan Square, Obama recognized Oberlin's legacy as being the first college to adopt a policy to admit African American students, and the first co-educational institution to grant bachelor's degrees to women.

"Oberlin is likely the only college in America that I could have attended nearly two centuries ago, and I am honored to be part of the extraordinary legacy of this great institution."

She highlighted Oberlin's commitment to service and social justice, particularly the Ninde Scholars program.

"My office did this wonderful competition to highlight colleges that are helping underserved young people graduate from high school and then go on to higher education. So by providing tutoring and ACT prep classes, financial aid workshops, and so much more, your Ninde Scholars Program stood out as a shining example of how schools like Oberlin can lift first-generation students into college."

She went on to express the importance of being engaged in social change upon leaving the halls of the institution.

"Just look at the story of Oberlin College. The founders of this school didn’t just decide to admit women and African American students and then pat themselves on the back and say 'job well done.' No, even in those early days, folks here at Oberlin were attending anti-slavery meetings, shivering on rough wooden benches in unheated, unfinished buildings. They were joining the Equal Suffrage League and speaking out for women’s right to vote.

"They were leading civil rights marches and sit-ins, organizing exchange programs with historically black colleges and universities, and so much more. Because they knew it wasn’t enough to welcome women and African American students to Oberlin if they would only graduate in four years to be second-class citizens in their own country. They knew that our policies matter. They knew that our laws matter. And I know, as President [Marvin] Krislov understands, that electing the right folks matters—it matters a lot.

"And in the face of all of that clamor, you might have an overwhelming instinct to just run the other way as fast as you can...But today, graduates, I want to urge you to do just the opposite. Today, I want to suggest that if you truly wish to carry on the Oberlin legacy of service and social justice, then you need to run to, and not away from, the noise. Today, I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens—the places where minds are changed, lives transformed, where our great American story unfolds."

Read a full transcript of the First Lady’s speech

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), delivered the 2015 Commencement address. Edelman has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans for her entire professional life. Under her leadership, CDF has become one of the nation’s strongest voices for children and families.

This year, Oberlin College celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Commencement address presented by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in June 1965. Rev. King gave a Commencement address entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” and was presented with the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

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