RICHMOND — First lady Michelle Obama chose to speak at Eastern Kentucky University's graduation Saturday because of its often-celebrated work with veterans, and in her speech she urged graduates to take the values they learned here out into the world.
"You have given back to our country by opening your arms and welcoming our nation's veterans into your community, and everyone — everyone — has been a part of that," she said. "Graduates, you can't stop serving once you leave here. Whether you've worn our country's uniform or not, we're all called to serve on behalf of those around us."
EKU graduated almost 2,500 students on Saturday in a series of three ceremonies. Obama appeared in the evening, at the last ceremony with retiring President Doug Whitlock presiding. He introduced Obama with a catch in his voice. The 6,200-seat Alumni Coliseum was full, and Obama received several standing ovations before she began speaking.
Obama recognized the many students at EKU who are the first in their family to go to college, a group to which she belongs.
"I know you faced all kinds of doubts and uncertainties when you showed up on campus, and I know a lot about it from my own experiences," said Obama, who with her brother was the first in her family to attend Princeton. "I didn't know how to pick out the right classes, how to find the right buildings. I began to think all those doubters might be right.
But she said, she learned from her parents' values how to persevere.
"Once I got to college, when I applied those values I was able to develop a whole new set of skills I would use for the rest of my life," she said. "I learned to turn stumbles and missteps into sources of inspiration."
Obama made only one reference to politics, when she told graduates to talk to people with different ideas, urging Democrats to talk to Republicans and vice versa.
"We know what happens when we only talk to people who think like we do — we get stuck in our ways," she said.
Obama asked the graduates three simple question:
"Who do you want to be? How will you serve others, and who will you include in your lives?"
Obama ended her speech with a story about the hundreds of young people she's worked with and hired throughout her adult life. She returned to the three questions.
"The answers to those questions are far more important than you can imagine," she said. "I never once asked someone I was interviewing to explain a test score or a grade in class. Never. I never once made a hire just because someone went to an Ivy League school instead of a state school, never.
"What I have looked for is what kind of person you are. Are you a hard worker? Are you reliable? Are you open to other viewpoints? Have you stepped outside of your own self-interest to help others? Have you found a way to serve our country whether in uniform or in your community? ... Those are the qualities I want on my team because those are the qualities that move our businesses and schools and our entire country forward. And just understand this: Those are the qualities that you all already embody."
The roughly 600 graduates and their families at the evening ceremony had a long wait to get through security protocols.
Brenda Revere came to honor two members of the EKU football team coached by her husband, John Revere. "Given her platform, this was one of the best places she could come," she said of Obama.
But the campus was glad to host her for any reason, Revere said: "As our first African American first lady, this was the hottest ticket in Richmond, Kentucky!"
Robert Bundy, a member of the Kentucky National Guard, came to the ceremony in uniform to watch his wife, Melissa, receive her master's degree in teaching. He was leaving immediately afterward to go to a two-week stint on duty in Clay City.
"It's not every day you get to see the first lady," he said. "For her to honor us, it makes us look good."
Ken and Deborah Slone met at EKU and returned to see their daughter Beth Ann graduate.
"She's here for a very worthwhile purpose," Ken Slone said. "The military has always been a big part of EKU."
Not everyone praised Obama. A student group called Young Americans for Liberty, handed out pamphlets that criticized several of Barack Obama's policies on debt and taxation and accused the first lady of hypocrisy for having Beyoncè play at her birthday.
"We're trying to raise student awareness of what's really going on in our government," explained Darryl Hearn, president of the EKU chapter of YAL. "Students don't understand what is waiting for them after college."
But graduate Annie Flaherty was thrilled to have Obama speak at her graduation.
"I loved it," she said of the speech. "It was very down to earth, and it appealed to all different kinds of people and their respective beliefs."