Amid George Floyd protests, the coronavirus pandemic and a recession, the Class of 2020 won’t be defined by what’s lost but by how you respond.

President Donald Trump, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York: “You have come from the farms and the cities, from states big and small, and from every race, religion, color and creed. But when you entered these grounds, you became part of one team and one family, proudly serving one great American nation. … To the 1,107 who today become the newest officers in the most exceptional Army ever to take the field of battle, I am here to offer America’s salute. Thank you for answering your nation’s call. … Congratulations.” 

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, National Defense University: “I am outraged by the senseless and brutal killing of George Floyd. … Racism and discrimination, structural preferences, patterns of mistreatment, unspoken and unconscious bias have no place in America. And they have no place in our armed forces. … As senior leaders, everything you do will be closely watched, and I am not immune. As many of you saw the result of the photograph of me at Lafayette Square …  that sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society. I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I’ve learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it. … We who wear the cloth of our nation come from the people of our nation. And we must hold dear the principle of an apolitical military that is so deeply rooted in the very essence of our republic.”

Former first lady Michelle Obama, YouTube: “Over these past couple of months, our foundation has been shaken — not just by a pandemic that stole too many of our loved ones, upended our daily lives and sent tens of millions into unemployment — but also by the rumbling of the age-old fault lines that our country was built on, the lines of race and power that are now once again so nakedly exposed for all of us to grapple with. … It’s up to you to couple every protest with plans and policies, with organizing and mobilizing and voting. … Graduates, anger is a powerful force. It can be a useful force, but left on its own it will only corrode and destroy and sow chaos on the inside and out.” 

Meghan, the Duchess of SussexImmaculate Heart High School, Los Angeles: “I was 11 or 12 years old when I was just about to start Immaculate Heart Middle School in the fall and it was the L.A. riots, which was also triggered by a senseless act of racism. I remember the curfew and I remember rushing back home, and on that drive home seeing ash fall from the sky, and smelling the smoke, and seeing the smoke billow out of buildings, and seeing people run out of buildings, carrying bags and looting. I remember seeing men in the back of a van just holding guns and rifles. I remember pulling up to the house and seeing the tree, that had always been there, completely charred. … I am sorry that, in a way, we have not gotten the world to the place that you deserve it to be. … The other thing though, that I do remember about that time, was how people came together and we are seeing that right now. … We are seeing people stand in solidarity. We are seeing communities come together and to uplift. You are going to be part of this movement.”

Beyoncé, YouTube: “We’re so proud of you, for using your collective voice and letting the world know that Black Lives Matter. The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many others have left us all broken. It has left the entire country searching for answers. We’ve seen that our collective hearts, when put to positive action, could start the wheels of change. Real change has started with you. … Maybe you did not follow the path that was expected of you, and you probably questioned everything about your decision. But know that stepping out is the best thing you can do for self-discovery. I know how hard it is to step out and bet on yourself. There was a pivotal turning point in my life when I chose to build my own company many years ago. I had to trust that I was ready. … But that was terrifying. The entertainment business is still very sexist. It’s still very male-dominated. And as a woman, I did not see enough female role models given the opportunity to do what I knew I had to do. To run my label and manage my company. To direct my films and produce my tours. … Not enough Black women had a seat at the table, so I had to go and chop down that wood and build my own table. Then I had to invite the best there was to have a seat. That meant hiring women, men, outsiders, underdogs, people that were overlooked and waiting to be seen.”

Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani native who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, YouTube: “Like all of you, I’m also missing my graduation ceremony this year. And we are not alone. Across the world, COVID-19 has forced more than 1 billion students out of school. For most of us this is temporary. We’ll continue our education and follow our dreams. But many girls, especially in developing countries, will never return to the classroom. Because of this crisis they will be forced into early marriages or low-paying jobs to support their families. When schools reopen their desks will be empty. They are our peers. They have the same right to education as we do. So, I ask you to remember them today as you go out and change the world. Don’t leave them behind. The Class of 2020 won’t be defined by what we lost to this virus but by how we responded to it.”

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, College of the Holy Cross: “I am profoundly aware that graduating during this time and in this virtual way, unable to celebrate in person this important milestone in your lives, with your friends, classmates and teachers, is extremely difficult. I encourage you to stay strong and unflinching. The country and the world need your talent, your energy, your resolve and your character.”

Andrew Yang, former Democratic presidential candidate, The Brian Lehrer Show: “People talk a lot about how when you graduate from school, you’re going to have to work hard. But I’m here to tell you that that’s actually the easy part. It’s not that difficult to work hard when you know what you’re supposed to do. The harder part is figuring out what to do in an environment of uncertainty. … The void is when no one tells you what to do, you’re not sure what the next move is, there’s a ton of space and uncertainty, and it’s up to you to actually make choices and fill your own time. … The grind is important, but I’m going to suggest that most of you are going to have a bigger challenge with the void than the grind. (But) if you can master the void there will be no stopping you. You will be able to do anything you want under the sun. … You may not be walking across a physical stage, but you all are walking across the biggest stage of them all.” 

Chief Justice John Roberts, Westminster School, Simsbury, Connecticut: “The pandemic is the world’s way of saying to mankind, ‘You’re not in charge.’ … Your class is probably one of a handful of the most challenged high school graduating classes since the Class of 1942, whose members went from graduation to war, or to harsh work in the factories. Today we call those graduates part of the Greatest Generation. What are they going to call you? Your challenge is not as great, but it’s big, and it’s yours.”

Labor Secretary Elaine ChaoDePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana: “You have a unique opportunity to make a real impact on our country and our world, and a chance to make your generation the new Greatest Generation. You will do that in thousands of ways, but I challenge you, as you think about how to make your impact, to change your community, your country and your world one heart at time. … The only way that freedom and opportunity can prosper is when citizens take responsibility not only for their own actions, but to care for their neighbors as well. A nation that depends solely on its government to establish order, enforce good behaviors, or to be the exclusive provider of services or benefits is a nation that has lost its moral grounding. Each of you has been blessed with freedom because generations before you sacrificed so much. Now it is your turn.” 

Bill and Melinda Gates, The Wall Street Journal: “The Covid-19 crisis we confront today is not a localized experience but a truly global one. The inextricable ties between the people of the world are something that your generation understands better than perhaps any that has come before it. Many of you have been logging onto the internet since you could read. You’ve grown up with access to pop culture, news and perspectives from societies thousands of miles from your home. And the major challenges looming over your future — disease outbreaks, climate change, gender inequality, poverty — are also being confronted by your peers in every part of the globe. … If this crisis has inspired you to pursue a career in public service, that’s fantastic — but it’s not the only way to contribute. You can always use your voice and your vote to advance change. You can insist on policies that create a healthier, better future for everyone, everywhere — whether they live down the street or on the other side of the planet.”

LeBron James, for all high schools: “We honor 12 years of your hard work, the studying, the tests, early mornings and late nights. … You should have had a real graduation. I know. You should have had an incredible senior year. I know that as well, but you made a sacrifice and you did that to keep your community safe and healthy. On behalf of all of us, thank you. There is no doubt in my mind that the Class of 2020 is going to be something really special. After all this, you guys are prepared for anything. … Every family in America is experiencing the critical role our schools and charities play in our lives and what happens when they shut down. In our poorest neighborhoods, schools are about much more than learning. … Class of 2020, the world has changed. You will determine how we rebuild, and I ask that you make your community your priority.”  

Tom HanksWright State University, Dayton, Ohio: “You started in the olden times and the world back before the great pandemic of 2020. You will talk of those earlier years in your lives just that way. … Part of your lives will forever be identified as ‘before.’ And the same way other generations tell time like, well that was before the war, or that was before the internet, or that was before Beyoncé. (Sometime) you will continue on into the after. As in, that was after the virus was tamed. After, we were safe to go out again. After we took up our probable lives once more. … Every class of every year, moves up into the rotation and proves their value by living their values. But this class, your class, isn’t just doing work that has to be done. … You chosen ones are going to form the new structures and define the new realities and make the new world — the world after all that we have been through.”

Jacqueline Woodson, National Book Award winner, Wesleyan University: “I’m thinking about the impact this virus is having on communities of color. My partner Juliette is down in the city, she’s a physician. She’s working with homeless patients who are COVID positive. … And I’m writing, trying to change the narrative of what it means to be a person of color at various points in time in history, through fiction. … Stay strong. Don’t be racist. That seems so like something one should not need to say. … But I’m saying it because it still needs to be said. Go break down that wall and all the walls. Make this place safer.”

Ravi S. Rajan, president, California Institute of the Arts: “Artists create models of the world. The lens through which you see the world, shapes that model. And you do this, because you are an artist. Today, as we mark your graduation from CalArts in our screen-filled existence, I have a request of you — Remember that epiphanal moment, when you first knew you were an artist. Remember the strength of that moment, the clarity of vision, the tingle of self-awareness, and the pride of self-definition. These are the things you must tap into today to navigate the road ahead. While this was always true for graduates, it has never been more important than for the Class of 2020.”

Lady Gaga, YouTube: “I think about a broad forest filled densely with tall trees. Trees as old as this country itself. Trees that were planted with racist seeds. Trees that grew prejudice branches and oppressive leaves and mangled roots that buried and entrenched themselves deep within the soil, forming a web so well developed and so entangled that push back when we try to look clearly at how it really works. This forest is where we live; it’s who we are. It’s the moral and value system that we as a society have upheld and emboldened for centuries. I make this analogy between racism and nature in this country because it’s as pervasive and real as nature. It is some part of everything the light touches. … It’s you who are the seeds of the future. You are the seeds that will grow into a new and different forest that is far more beautiful and loving than the one we live in today.”

Former President Barack Obamahistorically Black colleges/universities: “You’re being asked to find your way in a world in the middle of a devastating pandemic and a terrible recession. The timing is not ideal. And let’s be honest, a disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that Black communities have historically had to deal with in this country. We see it in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our communities. Just as we see it when a Black man goes for a jog and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him, if he doesn’t submit to their questioning. … More than anything, this pandemic has fully finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge. … Your participation in this democracy, your courage to stand up for what’s right, your willingness to forge coalitions, these actions will speak volumes. And, if you’re inactive, that will also speak volumes. … You’ve earned your degree, it’s now up to you to use it.”

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