By ERRIN HAINES (Associated Press)
First lady Michelle Obama was welcomed with thunderous cheers and told the 550 students graduating from Spelman College, a historically Black women’s school, that no matter where they go, they need to bring the school’s ideals to the world.
The graduates welled with pride upon her arrival, even as she clapped enthusiastically for their achievements. In Obama, the young women see the essence of the successful, Black career woman many of them hope to become. But her message to the Class of 2011 of service to others and helping the underserved also reflected her roles as first lady and a major campaigner for her husband.
Obama delivered four commencement addresses this season, and her choices were politically strategic as the president gears up for the 2012 campaign for a second term. She was in Iowa last week, and in coming weeks she will speak to graduating seniors at Quantico Middle High School in Virginia, to graduates whose parents serve at the Quantico Marine Base.
”Find those folks who have so much potential but so little opportunity and do for them what Spelman has done for you,” Obama said. ”No matter where you go in the world, you will find folks who have been discounted or dismissed, but who have every bit as much promise as you have. They just haven’t had the chance to fulfill it. It is your obligation to bring Spelman to those folks. Be as ambitious for them as Spelman has been for you.”
Most of the crowd were predictably mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, or female cousins — all filling the 10,000-seat exhibit hall to see the first lady.
Her appearance at Spelman’s ceremony was a coup for the 130-year-old college, which competed with institutions across the country for her to appear as commencement speaker, lobbying her on YouTube, in petitions and letters. Spelman also conferred an honorary doctorate of laws degree on Obama, who earned her juris doctorate from Harvard Law School.
Her popularity, which rivals her husband’s in the Black community, was built on her image as a strong, supportive wife and mother accomplished in her own right as a lawyer and corporate professional. But on Sunday, Obama chose to highlight her work as a public servant, working to prepare young people for public service in Chicago after she left corporate America, as the footsteps she encouraged the graduates to follow.
Markieta Woods said Obama is more than just the president’s wife.
”This role has in no way made her less significant,” said Woods, 21, of Los Angeles. ”It’s one of the top positions in the world. The media has it wrong so much when it comes to who African-American women are. She does a good job of bringing a balance to those images. She really does break a lot of the stereotypes.”
Those in the audience shared similar sentiments.
”She definitely is a representation of what African-American women are about and what we are: believing in yourself and believing in your dreams, being proud of who you are,” said Terrolynn Perry-Ponder, who got a coveted graduation ticket from her sister-in-law. ”We believe in giving back, making the world a better place, providing an opportunity for other people to achieve their dreams. Her role has changed, but she can empower more people.”
As first lady, Obama has continued to stick to the issues that carried her professionally for years — including health care and families — but she does not force her way into the policy arena, unlike an equally accomplished Hillary Clinton during her years in the White House.
In many ways, her changing responsibilities still speak to Black women like Shandria Stanley. The 36-year-old Atlanta educator