Delivering the commencement address at Rutgers University, President Obama told graduates "Your generation has everything it takes to lead this country toward a brighter future," then joked that his generation had better penmanship and spelling. USA TODAY
PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Evoking fat sandwiches, college football and even Bruce Springsteen, President Barack Obama went Jersey on Sunday, motivating and mesmerizing more than 10,000 Rutgers University graduates and their more than 40,000 guests at High Point Solutions Stadium.
“I am here — off (New Jersey Turnpike) Exit 9, on the banks of the old Raritan,” Obama said. “At the site of one of the original nine Colonial colleges. Winners of the first ever college football game, one of the newest members of the Big Ten, home of what I understand to be a grease truck for a fat sandwich — mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers on your cheesesteaks. I’m sure Michelle (Obama) would approve. But somehow you have survived such death-defying acts.”
“I suspect that a few of you are trying to survive today after a late night at Olde Queens,” he added to knowing laughter.
Decked out in robes of scarlet and black, caps perched smartly on their heads, the graduates found themselves on the cusp of adult life. And kicking it off in once-in-a-lifetime style was the keynote speaker for the Rutgers University-New Brunswick commencement of the Class of 2016.
Not only did Sunday’s ceremony celebrate the university’s 250th anniversary — it was also the first in Rutgers history to receive face-to-face words of wisdom from a sitting president.
With more than 50,000 watching and listening, Obama gave the keynote address under a flag at half-staff for Peace Officers Memorial Day, resonating with the young and their parents.
“I come here for a single reason — to finally settle this pork roll versus Taylor ham question,” said the 44th president, who also spoke at
Howard University on May 7 and is expected to give the address at the Air Force Academy on June 2. “I know better than to get in the middle of that debate. The truth is I came here because you asked. It’s true that a lot of schools invite me to their commencement 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 because I have a soft spot for grandmas.”
From his first words, Obama had the crowd hooked. For more than 40 minutes, he spoke of the slow march of progress, the acceleration of the pace of change, of political games and upheaval, of intellect versus common sense, economic disparity and climate change.
Making note of the importance of the 250th anniversary graduation ceremony, Obama recounted the start of Rutgers — a converted tavern known as Queen's College.
“From that first pub, Rutgers has evolved into one of the finest research institutions in America,” he said. “Every day, tens of thousands come to this intellectual melting pot in what just might be America’s most diverse student body. America converges here and the history of Rutgers mirrors the evolution of America — stronger, richer and a more dynamic and more inclusive nation.”
Obama said the Class of 2016 is a generation that has "everything it takes to make brighter choices."
"Choices toward cooperation, innovation and hope," he said. "You are confident, smarter and better educated than my generation, though we had better penmanship and we are certainly better spellers. They did not have spell check in my day. You are more exposed to the world. … You have the tools to lead us. You'll figure it out and look at things with fresh eyes."
After a few digs directed at an unnamed presidential candidate and certain members of Congress, Obama gave five “suggestions” for the graduates to take to heart as they make their way in the world, including: "Those longing for the good old days — take them with a grain of salt," the need to "Be more interconnected — building walls won't do that," "In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue," "Have faith in democracy" and "Gear yourself for the long haul."
Obama advised the newly graduated to not "be afraid of the future" and “to get to work.”
“It is your turn now,” he said near the end of his address. "Make sure the next 250 years are better than the last. God bless you.”
Obama arrived at Newark Airport on Air Force One at 11:25 a.m. and made his way to High Points Solutions Stadium by helicopter at noon, to the cheers of the crowd. He left the stadium after his speech and departed for Washington, D.C. at 2:40 p.m. While Obama was the first president in office to speak at a Rutgers commencement, several presidents have visited the university either while campaigning or delivering news of major policy initiatives.
Proud of their son, Ryan Hollingsworth, M.G. and Patricia Hollingsworth said having the president speak was "quite an honor."
"Rutgers has been in existence for 250 years," Patricia Hollingsworth said. "That's a pretty good deal. It is definitely worthy of a visit from the POTUS (president of the United States). Our son will always remember this very special day. Not every graduate can have this experience!"
M.G. Hollingsworth said he was impressed with the president's address.
"Regardless of your political views," he said, "I was impressed with his communication skills. I think it was also pretty cool that he mentioned Olde Queens."
Scholastica Okoye, 20, an accounting and applied environmental science major, got a video selfie of her and the president as he walked by the stage to leave. A member of the Voorhees Choir, Okoye said she was only about 30 feet away from him when her choral group sang on the stage. The four official Rutgers University choirs sang at the commencement.
"This experience was really awesome," said Okoye, who lives in Jersey City. "Even for a moment, it was amazing. I thought his speech was really very good. Especially his mention of climate change. That is what I am studying every day and to actually be present when the president is speaking of it was inspiring. It made it very real. I will cherish this and my video forever."
Chair of the Board of Governors Greg Brown told the graduates that everyone was there to “celebrate you” in opening the ceremony and introducing the president. In telling the graduates that they have been shaped by the choices they have made, he likened those to the choices Obama had to make in his eight years in the Oval Office.
“But, today, he chose you,” said Brown to the joyous cheers of the graduates.
Robert Barchi spoke to the attendees after he and Obama made their way to the stadium stage, calling the commencement a “fantastic, historic day” and a “milestone for the university.” His pride in the Class of 2016 was evident, as this group is his first that he has seen grow from insecure freshmen to graduates who are “confident and capable individuals.”
“They have earned the right to call themselves graduates of one of the oldest universities in America,” Barchi said. “Graduates, I could not be prouder of what you have achieved.”
In speaking to his “first class,” Barchi noted that they are the largest the university has ever graduated as well as the most accomplished and most diverse.
“My last request,” Barchi added. “Don’t forget your unique place as the 250th anniversary class. Remember our touchstone phrase of this year. Rutgers Revolutionary for 250 years. Take it to heart. Be revolutionary. Challenge the status quo. Change communities. Change lives. Don’t just go out and make a fortune, make a difference.”
The student speaker, Matthew R. Panconi, president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly, represented all of the graduating students as Barchi gave him his diploma.
Panconi, a finance major from the Rutgers Business School, spoke about the many lessons learned at Rutgers and the growth he and fellow classmates have achieved.
“Integrity, inclusion, leadership, how to achieve excellence and how to be revolutionary,” said Panconi. “We are ready.”
“Matthew, good job,” said Obama at the start of his keynote. “If you are interested, we can talk afterwards.”
At the ceremony, Obama received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, making him the seventh president — and the second sitting president — to receive such an award. Obama said that while he often bestows similar honors on others as a "perk of his job," his own awards are not treated with the respect he feels they deserve.
“It impresses nobody in my house," said Obama, who referred to himself and fellow honorees as "honorary Scarlet Knights." "Malia and Sasha just say, OK, Dr. Dad, we will see you later. Can we have some money?”
Last week, the Rutgers Board of Governors voted to approve the award of the honorary degree during the commencement ceremony.
“We are delighted that
President Obama has chosen to address Rutgers graduates at this year’s historic commencement and we are pleased to present him with this honorary degree,” said Barchi, the 20th president of Rutgers.
“It is an extraordinary honor and privilege for any university president and that is conferring an honorary degree on the president of the United States," he said Sunday. "With great pride and a feeling of deep humility that I have the opportunity to present President Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States, with this."
At Rutgers, formal board action is required to bestow an honorary degree. Others who received honorary degrees at the ceremony included broadcast journalist and author
Bill Moyers, who was given a Doctor of Laws. Moyers was the keynote speaker at the Rutgers-New Brunswick College of Arts and Sciences convocation that followed the commencement, and S. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who was given a Doctor of Science. Visiting professor, Department of Physics, University of Oxford, and pro-chancellor, Trinity College, Dublin, Bell Burnell played a central role in the development of radio astronomy through her discovery of the first pulsars.
Sunday marked Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s sixth commencement at High Point Solutions Stadium and third since the integration with UMDNJ in July 2013. It is the fourth presided over by Barchi, whose tenure began in September 2012.
The main difference — besides the honor of a president in attendance — was the traffic and lines that preceded the ceremony. Many arrived as early as 8 a.m., but the bulk came later and found they had a wait on their hands. Despite the inconveniences, guests and graduates were in high spirits. Even with a brief bit of hail after the president's departure.
“Everything was super organized,” said Tyler Letson of East Brunswick, who came to see his brother, Maxwell Letson, receive his degree from the School of Arts and Sciences. “Traffic was the worst part but we got around it. The line for the bus was long but quick. And getting in, the lines also went quickly. It got crazy when we got in the stadium, though.”
Sunday’s events were part of Rutgers 250, a yearlong celebration that peaks on Nov. 10 — the 250th anniversary of the birth of Queen’s College. In 1825, the colonial institution became Rutgers College, and in 1924, Rutgers College assumed university status. By 1956, acts by the New Jersey State Legislature designated all of Rutgers’ divisions as The State University of New Jersey.