PISCATAWAY, NJ – President Barack Obama delivered a 40-minute commencement address to more than 12,000 graduates of Rutgers University and an estimated 50,000 in attendance at Highpoint Solutions Stadium on Sunday, May 15. It was the first time in the school’s 250-year history that a sitting president was featured as a keynote speaker at a Rutgers commencement ceremony.
Obama led his speech by chanting “R-U Rah! Rah!” – the popular verse of the university’s renowned fights song that dates back to the 1930s – which was met by a loud roar of cheering students before acclimating himself with the culture of the university on the Raritan. The friendly banter ranged from daily transportation routes between campuses to the celebrated grease trucks on College Avenue and surviving a late night Olde Queens Tavern.
“The truth is, Rutgers, I came here because you asked,” suggested Obama. “It’s true that a lot of schools invite me to their commencements every year, but you are the first to launch a three-year campaign. Emails, letters, tweets, YouTube videos – I even got three notes from the grandmother of the student body president and I have to say that really sealed the deal.”
The POTUS had nothing but praise for the students on their educational accomplishments.
“Today you join a long line of Scarlet Knights whose energy and intellect have lifted this university to heights its founders could not have imagined,” the nation's 44th President said. “250 years ago, when America was still just an idea, a charter from the Royal government, Ben Franklin’s son established Queens College. A few years later, a handful of students gathered in a converted tavern for the first class. From that first class of the pub, Rutgers has evolved into one of the finest research institutions in America.”
Despite lower than usual temperatures for May and post-ceremony hail, one of the primary subjects Obama touched upon was climate change. He warned to the students that they would "feel the brunt of this catastrophe" and urged that this must be a priority moving forward.
President Obama’s address included several indirect, but subtle jabs at the presumptive GOP candidate Donald Trump – although he did not specifically name the billionaire businessman.
“Class of 2016, let me be as clear as I can be: In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue,” suggested Obama.
“The world is more interconnected than ever before and it’s becoming more connected every day; building walls won’t change that,” said Obama, hinting at Trump’s plan to build a wall along the nation's southern border. “As president, my first responsibility is always the security and prosperity of the United States and as citizens, we all rightfully put our country first, but if the past few decades have taught us anything, the biggest challenges cannot be solved in isolation.”
Prior to his inspirational speech to graduating students, Obama received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Rutgers University President Robert Barchi.
Barchi, who assumed his role as the school’s 20th president four years ago, challenged students to ‘make a difference’ and embrace the university milestone upon graduation.
“Don’t just go out and make a fortune,” Barchi said. “Be revolutionary, challenge the status quo. Change your communities and change lives.”
President Obama also told the graduates that they have the power to make a difference and it starts in the voting process for politicians. The change, he said, starts in the polls.
“If you want to change this country for the better, then you better start participating,” urged Obama, who claimed that less than one-in-five college students voted in the last election. “You have to be a citizen full-time all the time.”
His advice to the Class of 2016 was powerful.
“Don’t lose hope if sometimes you hit a roadblock and certainly don’t let resistance make you cynical,” advised Obama. “Don’t waste your time waiting, and if you doubt you can make a difference, look at the impact some of your fellow graduates are already making.”
Obama rattled off several names of Rutgers graduates including Yasmin Ramadan, a School of Arts and Sciences graduate who leads the Muslim Public Relations Council to promote inclusion and began assembling anti-bullying assemblies since she was 10 years old. He also described Madison Little, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences graduate who has devoted his time and resources to the international AIDS epidemic.
“Class of 2016, it is your turn now to shape our nation’s destiny as well as your own, so get to work,” Obama closed. “Make sure the next 250 years are better than the last!”