Why Obama’s 2020 Commencement Speech Means So Much to High School Seniors



By Keya Vakil

May 11, 2020

The former president will address graduating high school seniors on Saturday, May 16.

Megan Mathers remembers how she was first introduced to the idea of democracy. She was a fifth grader at Common Lanes Elementary school in Ferguson, Missouri, and her school was holding a mock election during the 2012 presidential campaign between incumbent President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and his challenger, Republican Mitt Romney.

Obama won the mock election in a “landslide,” and of course, defeated Romney in real life to earn a second term in the White House. Mathers, now an 18-year-old high school senior at Fort Zunwalt North High School in O’Fallon, Missouri, recalls the mock election and Obama’s historic presidency fondly. “His presidency was kind of our first introduction to democracy and the electoral system,” Mathers said.

“Even as fifth graders, a lot of us were pretty passionate about his campaign,” she said. “I remember being excited about his campaign because he was the first Black president! Seeing all my friends excited to have a leader that represented them and looked like them, made me just as excited.” 


For Mathers and millions of other high school students around the United States, Obama was their entry point into civic engagement. His presidency was what they grew up with, which is why the news that he plans to deliver a commencement speech this weekend was a huge deal. 

Last week, Obama announced that he would deliver a series of three commencement speeches, one to high school graduates, one to graduates of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and a third one for all graduates. 

How to Watch the High School Commencement Speech

Obama’s speech to high school seniors will take place at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday, May 16. “Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020” will be a one-hour multimedia special featuring several guests, and it will air on ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and several social media and streaming platforms, including Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok.

What Else You Need to Know

Obama won’t be the only famous figure speaking on Saturday. Other special guests will include LeBron James, Malala Yousafzai, the Jonas Brothers, Yara Shahidi, Bad Bunny, Lena Waithe, Pharrell Williams, Megan Rapinoe, H.E.R. and Ben Platt.

Why Is Obama Addressing the Graduating Class of 2020?

The former president’s announcement came just a few short weeks after Lincoln Debenham, a high school senior from Los Angeles, tweeted at the former president, asking him to give a virtual commencement address to the class of 2020. “In an unprecedented time, it would give us great comfort to hear your voice. We ask you to consider giving a national commencement speech to the class of 2020,” Debenham wrote.

Obama’s office acknowledged that requests for him to speak played a role in his decision.

“Over the past month, President and Mrs. Obama have received dozens of requests from around the globe to address graduating classes whose in-person commencement events have been cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” Obama’s office said in a statement last week. “Today, the Obamas are pleased to announce that they will participate in multiple virtual commencement celebrations for students, families and educators.”

What This Means for High School Seniors

Debenham was thrilled by the announcement.

“This means a whole lot to me. The class of 2020 as well as anybody who wants to tune in are going to hear inspiration and uplifting words from these two amazing people who my generation grew up following,” he told ABC News in a statement. “It’s what [we] need right now and I’m glad Mr. and Mrs. Obama were so kind to agree to do it.”

Mathers also said she is excited to hear from the former president. “As a high school senior, it’s just really meaningful to know that such a prominent former leader was listening to us and cared about the fact that a lot of us may not get to have the meaningful ceremony that we expected to have for the past four years, so it meant a lot.” 

Mathers, Debenham, and millions of other high school and college students across the country have had their senior years completely upended by the coronavirus, which has shut down brick and mortar schools and forced classes online. That their senior year is ending this way has been difficult to process, Mathers said. 

“All of our hard work, we might not get to be recognized for it,” she said. “While we do understand the gravity of the situation and that it’s not the end of our world that we don’t get our ceremonies and stuff, it still is hard because it’s a really important stage of life for us.”

Why Obama’s 2020 Commencement Speech Means So Much to High School Seniors
Megan Mathers (courtesy of subject)

Fort Zunwalt North has set a tentative date of Aug. 1 for an official in-person ceremony to honor the graduating class, but like everything else during this pandemic, that date is mired in uncertainty.

“No one really knows if that’s going to happen or not. I’m actually scheduled to speak at the commencement, so I really hope it happens,” Mathers said.

Mathers is set to attend the University of Missouri-Kansas City in the fall, where she plans to pursue a degree in psychology. It’s unclear, however, whether classes will begin in person or online. This uncertainty has hovered like something of a cloud over Mathers and her peers.

RELATED: How the Coronavirus Crisis Has Upended the Lives of Teachers, Parents, and Students

“The hardest part is that literally no one knows what’s going on. No one has any specific answers and so we’re all just doing the best we can, students and teachers alike,” she said.

But on Saturday, for at least one night, they will get some comfort in the form of a familiar face: the former president of the United States. 

“I think having a figure that was meaningful to us as elementary schoolers—it’s really cool that he cares enough to be with us on this journey too,” Mathers said.



  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.



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