In her final speech as the first lady, Michelle Obama spoke of the great value of diversity, American tradition, the country’s future and how grateful she was to have served as first lady.
“Being your first lady has been the greatest honor of my life, and I hope I’ve made you proud,” Obama said while speaking at an event to honor the 2017 School Counselor of the Year.
Addressing America’s young people, Obama said, “this country belongs to you — to all of you, from every background and walk of life.”
She recalled how she and her husband, President Barack Obama, started their lives without a lot of money. “But with a lot of hard work and a good education, anything is possible — even becoming President,” Obama said. “That’s what the American dream is all about.”
The outgoing first lady also discussed diversity and how America was founded on people seeking freedom of religion, pointing to America’s “glorious diversity” that still exists today.
“So I want our young people to continue to learn and practice those values with pride. You see, our glorious diversity — our diversities of faiths and colors and creeds — that is not a threat to who we are, it makes us who we are,” Obama said to applause.
Her thoughts on diversity seemed to be another instance in which the first lady challenged President-elect Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric — without mentioning Trump by name. She also urged America’s youth not to take their freedoms for granted and to contribute “to our national conversation,” which she said they can do by getting the best education possible.
“You need to prepare yourself to be informed and engaged as a citizen, to serve and to lead, to stand up for our proud American values and to honor them in your daily lives,” she said. “And that means getting the best education possible so you can think critically, so you can express yourself clearly, so you can get a good job and support yourself and your family, so you can be a positive force in your communities.”
Obama started the annual tradition of honoring a select school counselor each year as part of her Reach Higher initiative, a movement started by the first lady to encourage students across the country to further their education past high school. Obama has said she will continue with this effort even after she leaves the White House. In Friday’s speech, she told American students that an education is vital to making a change in the country: “Empower yourselves with a good education, then get out there and use that education to build a country worthy of your boundless promise.”
And Obama told young people that her final message to them is to not be afraid.
“So that’s my final message to young people as first lady. It is simple. I want our young people to know that they matter, that they belong,” she said, her voice breaking at times as she delivered her final message. “So don’t be afraid — you hear me, young people? Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered.”
Obama has previously commented on Trump’s rhetoric without naming him specifically. At a rally for former Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in October the first lady said of Trump’s disparaging comments on women, “This is not normal. This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful; it is intolerable. And it doesn’t matter what party you belong to. Democrat, Republican or Independent, no woman deserves to be treated this way. None of us deserves this kind of abuse.”
Obama has also focused largely on education during her eight-year tenure as first lady, and she has often found ways to directly link it to the importance of diversity. At The City College of New York’s commencement ceremony in June 2016 she talked about why differences only strengthen people and generate new ideas.
“[Diversity] is the power of our differences to make us smarter and more creative,” she said. “And that is how all those infusions of new cultures and ideas, generation after generation, created the matchless alchemy of our melting pot and helped us build the strongest, most vibrant, most prosperous nation on the planet, right here [in New York City].”
In May 2015 Obama spoke to graduates of the historically Black Tuskegee University in Alabama. She recalled the name-calling and hate that came along with being the first Black first lady.
“I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me,” she said.
Obama told the graduates not to let “the chatter, the name calling, the doubting” define them, either.
“[Tuskegee] Airmen who rose above brutal discrimination — they did it so the whole world could see just how high Black folks could soar,” she said. “That’s the spirit we’ve got to summon to take on the challenges we face today.”
She also told the graduates to ask themselves basic questions.
“Who do you want to be? What inspires you? How do you want to give back?” she said. “And then I want you to take a deep breath and trust yourselves to chart your own course and make your mark on the world.”