First lady encourages graduates to retain Iowa values

The soon-to-be graduates began streaming into the UNI-Dome around 8:30 a.m. Their family and friends soon followed, knowing early arrival was key to getting a good seat at this year’s commencement ceremony at the University of Northern Iowa.

While each commencement is noteworthy, this spring’s ceremony was even more so because first lady Michelle Obama gave the keynote address.

Graduates processing into the UNI-DomePrior to her arrival at the lectern, the nearly 1,700 students eagerly awaiting their walk across the stage were ushered in by processional music played by the Northern Iowa Symphony Orchestra. Some of the graduates wore corsages. Some sported messages on their mortarboard. All beamed as they waved to loved ones who had come to witness this seminal event. Shutters clicked, cheers erupted. The UNI class of 2011 was about to graduate!

The first students to be honored were the Lux Service Award recipients. This annual award is presented to undergraduates who best represent the ideal of service to the university community. “Lux” comes from the university’s official seal, which features a burning lamp of knowledge and is the Latin word for “light.”

Gloria Gibson, executive vice president and provost, presented the Lux Service Award to Darion Watson, an organization communication major from Gary, Indiana; Jacob Rudy, a political science and sociology major from Radcliffe; and Adam Haselhuhn, a political science and political communication major from Des Moines.

Kathryn (Katie) Berge, a double major in biology and the study of religions with a minor in chemistry, was this year’s student speaker. Berge said while college was a time for her to find who she was as a person, she encouraged fellow graduates to heed the words of her wise grandfather who said, “Remember who you are.”

“You are an Iowan and a UNI graduate,” Berge said. “Use this to better the world around us.”

First Lady Michelle ObamaThe time had finally come to hear one of the most recognized speakers ever to grace the commencement stage: first lady Michelle Obama. She started her remarks on a light note, assuring the graduates and audience members that if her remarks run long, “I promise to take a break and we’ll crank up the music for the Interlude Dance,” referencing a student-created dance that has taken UNI by storm. “I’ve been practicing to get that ninja robot part just right!” she quipped.

Obama reminded the audience that this was not her first time in Iowa. “While a campaign is what initially brought me to Iowa, what brings me back today is something so much bigger, so much deeper and so much more personal to me. That “something” are three values she shares with Iowans: the power of family, the commitment to service and the pursuit of a life passion.

“I can tell you from my own experience that nothing else in your life – not your job, not your hobbies, not the money in your bank account – will sustain you like family.” She encouraged graduates to “hug those folks up in the stands just a little harder” after the ceremony and continue to stay in touch, wherever the graduates find themselves in the future.

Obama also stressed the value of service to others. “Service is what connects us to one another, to our neighbors, our communities, our country,” she said. “It reminds us that we are not simply individuals living isolated lives, but that we’re all woven together.” 

She also encouraged graduates to find the passion within themselves and follow it wherever it takes them. “No matter what you do from nine to five, know that you should always try to find some way to pursue what you love. Maybe it’s a hobby that one day becomes your own business. Maybe it’s volunteer work that helps you develop new skills and passions. 

“You will have some false starts and setbacks along the way,” she continued. “But I promise you that if you keep listening to yourself and keep yourself open to new possibilities, new people, and new ways of thinking, you will find a place in this world that feels right for you.” 

As Obama brought her address to a close, she looked at the sea of eager faces before her and gave the graduates some final words of encouragement.

“The values you’ve learned here [at UNI] – commitment to family, openness to diversity, willingness to serve your community and your country, the courage to follow your passion – those are the keys to success in any field. 

“That’s what I saw when I first started coming to Iowa,” she said. “And graduates, that’s why I wanted to come back, to remind you what makes you special and unique.”

 First Lady Michelle Obama