CHICAGO (AP) — First lady Michelle Obama drew on her hometown connections and personal struggles from college and the White House Tuesday during a Chicago high school graduation speech to the classmates of an honor student gunned down in 2013 near the Obama family home.
A boisterous crowd of thousands attended the commencement ceremony for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School, a school that garnered headlines when teenager Hadiya Pendleton was fatally shot on the way home from class. Days earlier she had been in Washington, D.C., to perform with her drill team during President Barack Obama’s second term inauguration festivities.
Pendleton would have graduated Tuesday. A chair — draped in purple fabric, her favorite color; a feather boa; and a bouquet of flowers — was reserved in her honor among her cap-and-gown-clad classmates. Her family was presented with an engraved class ring.
“Hadiya’s memory is truly a blessing and an inspiration to me and my husband, and to people across this country and around the world,” Obama, dressed in a graduation gown, told the crowd. She went on to say, “I know that many of you are thinking about Hadiya right now and feeling the hole that she’s left in your hearts.”
The first lady, who attended Pendleton’s 2013 funeral, told students she understood the issues they faced because she experienced some firsthand growing up in Chicago.
“I was born and raised here on the South Side — in South Shore — and I am who I am today because of this community,” Obama said. “I know the struggles many of you face: how you walk the long way home to avoid the gangs; how you fight to concentrate on your homework when there’s too much noise at home; how you keep it together when your family’s having a hard time making ends meet.”
She said the South Side students were tasked with the responsibilities of changing “skewed” narratives about their communities, and would encounter people along the way who would doubt them. She said students could change things by what they say, do and how they carry themselves.
“That’s a burden that President Obama and I proudly carry every single day in the White House, because we know that everything we do and say can either confirm the myths about folks like us — or it can change those myths,” she said.
The commencement speech before roughly 2,500 people at Chicago State University was among three the first lady has recently given. She spoke last month at Tuskegee University in Alabama and Oberlin College in Ohio.
King was chosen from about 200 schools that submitted videos after a challenge issued by the first lady last fall. Schools had to show commitment to college mentoring and financial aid help. King’s video featured a spoof on the ABC program “Scandal.” The show’s cast members sent a surprise video back acknowledging the school’s win, which was played to the crowd and met with cheers.
The first lady also advised students to ask for help, something she learned while a Princeton University student in the 1980s when she felt “totally overwhelmed and out of place.”
“If Hadiya’s friends and family could survive the heartbreak and pain; if they could found organizations to honor her unfulfilled dreams; if they could inspire folks across this country to wear orange in protest to gun violence,” she said, “then I know you all can live your life with the same determination and joy that Hadiya lived her life. I know you all can dig deep and keep on fighting to fulfill your own dreams.”
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