Thank you, Charles, for those kind words – and for your outstanding leadership as Head of School. In a short time, you’ve helped to foster a culture of excellence – and established the SEED School of Washington, D.C. as a training ground for future leaders. It’s a pleasure to be on your campus today – and a privilege to join so many proud parents, grandparents, family members, friends, teachers, administrators – and, especially, the 40 graduates before me – in celebrating the remarkable achievements, and the many contributions, of the Class of 2012.
I’d particularly like to recognize the leaders of the SEED Foundation – including Rajiv Vinnakota and Eric Adler, co-founders and Trustees of this school; and Vasco Fernandes, Chairman of the Board of Trustees – and all of the SEED alumni who have returned to take part in this school’s ninth annual senior commencement. I’d also like to congratulate your Valedictorian, Anscia Brown; Salutatorian, Ayodele Akosile and all of today’s award winners. This is a special moment – and I’m honored to share it with the largest class ever to graduate from this extraordinary school. As our nation’s Attorney General, I have the opportunity to speak with thousands of college and law school students every year. But it’s a rare treat for me to visit an institution like this one, and to meet so many dedicated young scholars and aspiring leaders at a time when so many doors – to your education and your career; to the future you will build, and the men and women you will become – remain wide open.
Already, you and your classmates have demonstrated a strong commitment to success – both in and outside of the classroom. Many of you have risen above obstacles and overcome barriers to become a part of this community of learning. And all of you have put in long hours doing homework – and given up evenings, weekends, and some of your favorite TV shows – in order to fulfill the requirements that have led you to this day and to the diplomas you’re about to receive. But I also recognize that your education has been about much more than the time you’ve spent studying – and the 120 hours you’ve spent on this campus each week.
It’s about the friends you’ve made – some of whom will be with you for the rest of your lives – and the teachers you’ll never forget. It’s about the jokes you’ve shared; the fundraisers – and fashion shows – you’ve organized; the conversations you’ve had in the College Café; and the Falcon teams you’ve led to victory – on the football field, and the basketball and tennis courts. It’s about the unforgettable four-day trip that many of you took to Orlando just last week – not to mention the Henna tattoos you brought back, and the photos with NBA stars that some of you have already posted on Facebook – and which I’ve been assured are definitely not “Photoshopped”. Above all, it's about the skills and knowledge you've gained – and what this knowledge will empower you to achieve – as you begin to look toward the future.
Many of you first came to this school as uncertain – but driven – seventh graders. Since then, you’ve worked with Miss Cauley to understand the workings of government, and to expand your vocabulary. You’ve learned about photosynthesis from Miss Harris. You’ve studied math with Mr. Council – and have become some of the first SEED students ever to take Advanced Placement calculus. Outside the classroom, you’ve enriched your communities by completing thousands of hours of volunteer service. You’ve forged – and in many cases maintained – close relationships with mentors from Harvard. And you’ve dedicated your time and talents to improving countless lives – not only across the District of Columbia, but around the world.
This morning, as you look back on your time at the SEED School, there can be no question that the Class of 2012 has shared moments that always will bind you together – blazing a trail that is distinctly your own, and setting an outstanding example for all those who will follow. But – even more important than reflecting on where you’ve been and what you’ve already accomplished – I believe this ceremony presents an important opportunity to consider where you’re headed, and to start thinking about exactly how you plan to get there.
In a few short months, the majority of you will become the first in your families to attend college.
That’s a remarkable achievement in its own right – but it’s not the only thing that sets you apart.
Some of you already have become the first in your families to travel internationally, or to complete summer internships.
And earlier this year, you demonstrated a creative spirit – and impressive video editing skills – when you harnessed the power of YouTube to persuade a certain Cabinet member to deliver your commencement address today.
The truth is that I would not miss this moment – or the chance to celebrate all that the Class of 2012 has accomplished, and – no doubt – will achieve.
The experiences that have defined your time on this campus – and the tradition of community service you’ve inherited, and strengthened – will stay with you. They will continue to guide your actions, inform your choices, and shape your path forward. And in the years ahead – as you fan out across the country to continue your education, and to lay the foundation for your careers – you should know that we have faith in each and every one of you. We are counting on you all. And we will soon be relying on you to use the skills you've learned and the abilities you’ve demonstrated here at SEED to serve your communities, to better our nation, and to enrich the lives of others.
Now, that may seem like a tough assignment – and I know it can be a pretty intimidating thought. But the truth is that America has always relied on the contributions, the fresh ideas, the optimism, and the passion of its youngest citizens. And today – as we face a host of transnational threats and global challenges – the need for your energy, your innovations, and your leadership – has never been more clear, or more critical.
Fifty years ago this month, another Attorney General – Robert Kennedy – shared a similar message with a group of graduates at Manhattan College, in New York City. He knew that they – like all of you – would soon be taking charge of a future that was far from certain, in a world gripped by conflict and torn by violence. And he implored them not to be satisfied with things as they were – and to rise to the challenges of the moment.
“[I]n these extraordinary times,” he said, “The knowledge, the vigor and the versatility of educated men and women are in greater demand than ever before . . . [and] I do hope that you will participate in the process of government, whether at local, state or national level, [and] do your best to serve the nation’s interest as you see fit.”
As Robert Kennedy spoke these words, the Civil Rights movement was well underway. Just a year earlier, a group of Freedom Riders – many of whom were not much older than you – had braved bigotry, hatred, and violence to call attention to an unjust status quo. Sit-ins and marches were sweeping across the nation. A month after that speech, a young preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed in Georgia for attempting to desegregate government buildings. And almost exactly one year later, Attorney General Kennedy helped two brave African-American students – including a young woman who would later become my sister-in-law, Vivian Malone – to step past Governor George Wallace and integrate the University of Alabama.
Thanks to these famous leaders and fearless students – and the countless other advocates and activists who have spoken out, organized, and sacrificed in order to bring about transformative change – today, we live in an America that our forebears could only dream about. Yet – as so many of you have seen firsthand – despite the extraordinary progress that our nation has made since Robert Kennedy’s era, and even in your own lifetimes, the hard work is far from over.
Across this city – and all around the country – longstanding divisions and disparities remain. Too many neighborhoods are scarred by crime. Too many young people – especially young men of color – are at risk of falling victim to gun violence. Some are more likely to end up in prison than in college. Unprecedented systemic challenges – from terrorism, to climate change, to inadequate legal representation for those who come before our nation’s justice system – continue to threaten our ability to live up to America’s highest ideals. Our economy remains in the midst of a fragile – but ongoing – recovery. And it’s no exaggeration to say that, in many ways, the future of our Republic is on the line.
Yet – if, as they say, what’s past is prologue – and if this class’s record of achievement is any indication – then I believe there is good reason for confidence in the future that your generation will create, and the legacy of progress that each of you will carry forward – and build upon. After all, there was a time – not so long ago – when the thought of women and minorities voting was simply unimaginable. When the idea that we might walk on the Moon, or map the human genome, was more science fiction than science fact. And when the notion that this country might ever elect an African-American President of the United States – or appoint a black Attorney General – was practically inconceivable.
If any of this sounds like ancient history to you, keep in mind that it’s only because generations of determined young people joined together to make it ancient history. To confront cynicism and doubt. To promote equal justice under law. And to expand and extend the great promise that – as of today – becomes not only your sacred charge and solemn responsibility – but your breathtaking opportunity.
No matter how you choose to move forward from here – and to make your mark – each of you will soon be compelled to find your own way to help lead, and to fulfill your unique and extraordinary potential. Whether you aspire to a career in business, medicine, academia, science, journalism, the arts, or the law; whether you envision a future studying test results in a laboratory, bringing dangerous criminals to justice, designing sustainable buildings, pioneering the next wave of social media, or even running for political office – you will soon inherit the obligations that have always driven our pursuit of a more perfect Union. And you will be called upon to seek new strategies for improving your country, serving your fellow citizens – and even re-shaping the world in which we live.
Of course, there’s no way of predicting the obstacles that you may face, the challenges you will surely overcome – or the future that you will dream up, and then help create. But, no matter what comes next, you are ready. In thinking about what you’ve experienced and accomplished here, I’m reminded of something else that Robert Kennedy said to those young graduates half a century ago: “This school does not train bystanders.”
As the Class of 2012 has proven – time and again – the SEED School trains leaders. And, as you move on to the colleges, careers, and callings that will help you find your path and determine your life's work, I am certain that your knowledge, your vigor, and your versatility will lead you to conceive of a better world – and to dedicate your lives to making what had always seemed impossible, a reality.
Graduates – I am deeply grateful for the chance to join you today in celebrating this milestone. As I look out over this sea of bright young faces, I am not just hopeful – I am certain – that you will heed the lessons of history to answer the call of destiny. And I am extremely proud of each one of you.
Congratulations, Class of 2012 – and good luck to you all.