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Obama to Rutgers Graduates: Pursue Positive Change in the World

  • VOA News

President Barack Obama waves as he arrives to deliver a commencement address at Rutgers graduation ceremonies, May 15, 2016, in Piscataway, New Jersey.

President Barack Obama waves as he arrives to deliver a commencement address at Rutgers graduation ceremonies, May 15, 2016, in Piscataway, New Jersey.

President Barack Obama has urged graduates at Rutgers University to pursue positive change in the world, despite enormous challenges.

Leaders at the New Jersey university had lobbied Obama for years to deliver the address at the school's 250th commencement. It is considered a high honor for a school or academy to have a president, current or former, speak at its graduation ceremony.

Rutgers is a public university that the White House has praised as a "remarkable institution of higher learning."

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said earlier Obama's speech would have some observations about the world that the Class of 2016 is prepared to enter. And Earnest said Obama believes the Rutgers students are as well-prepared as any to confront those challenges and use this changing environment to create a better world.

Howard University speech

On May 7, Obama delivered the commencement speech at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He told graduates of the historically black college that race relations have improved over the past three decades but that more work needs to be done.

"America is by almost every measure better than it was when I graduated from college," Obama told the Class of 2016, in looking back to 1983.

FILE - Ciearra Jefferson celebrates her graduation with her class after President Barack Obama spoke at Howard University's commencement exercises in Washington, May 7, 2016.

FILE - Ciearra Jefferson celebrates her graduation with her class after President Barack Obama spoke at Howard University's commencement exercises in Washington, May 7, 2016.

However, the nation's first African-American president admitted racism and inequality persist as he noted disparities in unemployment, pay and the criminal justice system.

He also told the graduates in Washington that if they want to see change, they cannot "sleepwalk through life" but must actively participate in the democratic system.

Obama is also scheduled to speak June 2 at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It will be his last commencement address as a sitting president.

The news website DCInno collected video from 16 of Obama's 22 previous speeches to graduation classes. You can view them here.

Previous presidents

What advice have other presidents passed along to graduating seniors? Similar to Obama, many have spoken of the graduates' role in society and of public service.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in addressing the Pennsylvania State University class of 1955, focused on the role of education in America, according to the U.S. National Archives.

"The peoples of this earth share today a great aspiration. They all have a common dream of lasting peace with freedom and justice. But the realization of the dream calls for many types of cooperation based upon sympathetic and thorough mutual understanding. In turn, such understanding is dependent on education that produces disciplined thinking," Eisenhower said, according to the archives.

President Richard Nixon, in addressing the Air Force Academy on June 4, 1969, focused on space exploration.

"Our current exploration of space makes the point vividly; here is testimony to man's vision and to man's courage. The journey of the astronauts is more than a technical achievement; it is a reaching out of the human spirit. It lifts our sights; it demonstrates that magnificent conceptions can be made real … when the first man stands on the moon next month every American will stand taller because of what he has done, and we should be proud of this magnificent achievement," Nixon was quoted as saying.

And President Harry S. Truman, speaking to the Princeton University class of 1947, focused on the importance of the civil service.

"In our free society, knowledge and learning are endowed with a public purpose -- a noble purpose, close to the heart of democracy. That purpose is to help men and women develop their talents for the benefit of their fellow citizens," Truman said, according to the archives.

Aline Barros contributed to this report. Some material for this report came from AP and the U.S. National Archives.

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