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Obama spoke on service to Wesleyan grads

John Tierney | Sunday, May 10, 2009

President Barack Obama won’t be delivering his first commencement address when he speaks at Notre Dame on May 17.

Obama gave the principal address at Wesleyan University’s commencement ceremony last year, filling in for Sen. Edward Kennedy.

In the 2008 speech, then-presidential candidate Obama called on the graduates to “shape the destiny of this generation” through service.

This service is “how we will keep so much needed work going, and the cause of justice everlasting, and the dream alive for generations to come,” Obama said.

Obama called on the graduates to make America’s future their future and to take on the country’s problems as their own. He said that it is easy for an individual to separate his or her personal life from “big challenges like war and recession; hunger and climate change; injustice and inequality.”

However, “the history of our nation tells us” that people don’t see the big challenges as part of a “destiny to be shaped by forces beyond our control,” Obama said.

“We are a people whose destiny has never been written for us, but by us,” Obama said.

Obama told the graduates to pursue a life of service because “you have an obligation to yourself.”

He related the call to service to the Christian idea of salvation.

“Our individual salvation depends on collective salvation,” Obama said.

Obama spoke to the graduates as someone whose life had been shaped by an experience of service during his time as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago.

“Through service, I found a community that embraced me, citizenship that was meaningful, the direction that I’d been seeking,” Obama said.

However, Obama’s speech was decidedly a product of the campaign trail. He twice mentioned what he would do as president, and referenced his campaign three times.

Obama spoke specifically about service at the grassroots level. He cited working to better education and to end poverty as examples of how people could serve America.

“At a time of war, we need you to work for peace,” Obama said. “At a time of inequality, we need you to work for opportunity. At a time of so much cynicism and so much doubt, we need you to make us believe again.”

Obama said that his life of service began during his first two years of college, when he said that he “began to notice a world beyond” himself.

Obama said that service helped him to find his own identity.

“Through service, I discovered how my own improbable story fit into the larger story of America,” he said.

Obama stressed the different paths of service that graduates could pursue.

“There are so many ways to serve and so much that needs to be done at this defining moment in our history,” he said. “You don’t need to be a community organizer or do something crazy like run for president.”

Service is important not only for the individual, but also for the collective well being of the nation, according to Obama.

“The future of this country – your future, my future, my children’s future – depends on it,” he said.

He cited the Foreign Service, the Peace Corps, the energy crisis, education and the lingering effects of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans as areas in which graduates could put their skills to use for the betterment of America.

“We need you,” Obama said.

Obama stressed that the change will not happen overnight and that it will not be easy.

“You’ll experience the occasional frustrations and the occasional failures,” he said. “Even your successes will be marked by imperfections and unintended consequences.”

However, Obama claimed that hoping and working for change will not prove fruitless.

“There is nothing na’ve about your impulse to change the world,” he said. “Because all it takes is one act of service – one blow against injustice – to send forth what Robert Kennedy called that tiny ripple of hope.”