During “Graduate Together” special, Barack Obama and others deliver commencement speech to Class of 2020

Shawn Nowlin | shawn.nowlin@ourvalley.org

President Obama

Because of COVID-19, high school seniors have been robbed of several moments that they and their families have looked forward to for years. The coronavirus has upended traditional graduation ceremonies that accompany such a significant milestone.

Few schools nationwide are holding in-person diploma hand-off celebrations. Most of the approximately 3.7 million seniors in the Class of 2020, which includes hundreds in Salem, will not get to enjoy the end of the year celebration they envisioned at the start of the year. Fully aware of this, celebrities from all spectrums recently assembled to celebrate the graduates in a creative and inclusive way.

“Graduate Together: America Honors the Class of 2020” occurred on May 16 with President Barack Obama delivering the commencement speech. The ceremony was put together by the LeBron James Family Foundation, the XQ Institute and the Entertainment Industry Foundation and was supported by the American Federation of Teachers.

POTUS 44 told students that they’ve already faced big challenges to get to this point. “Graduating is a big achievement under any circumstances. Some of you have had to overcome serious obstacles along the way,” he said. “No one does big things by themselves. If we’re going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, we’re going to have to do it together. So be alive to one another’s struggles. Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us.”

Grammy nominated musician H.E.R., actress Zendaya, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, writer Lena Waithe and activist Yara Shadidi were among the notable celebrities that made an appearance during the two hour special. The performances, messages and vignettes featured during the ceremony were all chosen by a group of high school teachers and students. The event, which aired at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific Time, was commercial free.

“Class of 2020, I know the last thing you want to hear right now is stay home. It’s not my message to you. My message is stay close to home. Maybe not physically, but in every other way possible,” LeBron James said. “The world has changed. You will determine how we rebuild.”

Mr. Obama also told the Class of 2020 the global health crisis would force them to grow up faster. “This pandemic has shaken up the status quo. When everything’s up for grabs, this is your generation’s world to shape,” he said.

Jada Robinson, 17, who plans on studying sociology in college, says when she thinks of President Obama, his perseverance comes to mind. She added, “He undoubtedly changed American history for the better.”

Like so many others, if Ahlea Cobbs, a Salem High senior, had her way, she would have experienced a normal graduation ceremony with her friends and family in attendance. Albeit not an ideal ending, Cobbs says she is thankful for the memories she made at Salem High.

To participate in the largest-ever high school yearbook, seniors were encouraged to submit portraits using SnapChat. Saturday’s ceremony was shown live on ABC, CNN, CBS, FOX, YouTube, TikTok, ESPN, Facebook and Twitter among numerous other platforms and outlets.

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